A New England Tale: Blizzard Conditions and Traditions

A New England Tale: Blizzard Conditions and Traditions

A New England Tale: Blizzard Conditions and Traditions banner

As a native New Englander originally from The Bay State, also known as Massachusetts, I am immune (well, nearly) to the dreaded words, “Winter Storm Watch/Warning” — an all-too-common phrase uttered by weather forecasters between the months of December through March. A much younger version of myself would relish the possibility of such snow day rituals as a break from the routine of school – sledding, hot chocolate, staying up late/sleeping in, and a brief respite from the daily grind of homework. (As a side note, The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Washington Post, and numerous other periodicals have published recent articles lamenting the potential loss of this tradition and its subsequent impact on students, faculty, and parents. Ah, yes, yet another cold, harsh reality – snow days, the latest victim of COVID.)

Later in life, as I matured and became responsible for shoveling sidewalks, driveways, digging out and cleaning off cars, and traveling to work despite the weather conditions, the exhilaration of a sudden foot or two of snow began to wear a bit thin. It was still beautiful to view the outside scenery while safely snuggled inside under a cozy blanket or two near the comfort of a warm crackling fireplace, perhaps with an “adult winter beverage” in hand. And, on weekends, once properly attired in the requisite snow gear – visualize something resembling the Michelin tire character complete with Yaktrax, the indispensable snow tire for boots – it was pleasurable to participate in cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, tubing, or other outdoor activities.

Of course, being familiar with New England winters, it was unthinkable that anyone wouldn’t enjoy them – at least occasionally. My dad, a former altar boy, and my Mom, a former girl scout, had other thoughts. After purchasing my first automobile, my dad created a winter CARE package for me (named after the original unit of aid created in 1946 and distributed by the humanitarian organization of the same name). This treasure trove of winter essentials was unfailingly delivered directly to the trunk or hatchback of my car each November and removed at the end of April. I can hear his words, “Can’t be too careful, honey. After all, this is New England, we could still get a storm later in the season.”

My dad presented his winter CARE package in a cardboard box neatly disguised under the cover of his U.S. Navy blanket (also one of the fundamentals of the parcel’s contents) It included:

  • A half-gallon container of sand
  • Jumper cables (which to this day I still have no idea how to use)
  • STP dry gas
  • An ice scraper and a separate snow brush (never a combo unit)
  • A small multipurpose portable folding shovel (yes, truly!)
  • A thermos bottle of water (nothing plastic that might freeze)
  • A $20 bill to be used to fill my tank as soon as the word “snow” was mentioned in any local forecast

Once married, my husband was somewhat overwhelmed by this tradition, however, he soon recognized its value and began to covet one of his very own CARE packages.

Certainly, I never expected any of these items to be remotely useful on a regular basis – even during winter. Then, the infamous Blizzard of ’78 hit New England – leaving two feet of snow and cars stranded for miles. They were abandoned for hours – even days along major highways – up and down the city streets of the Ocean State, Rhode Island, my new address. Everyone fortunate enough to be safe at home enjoying heat and electricity received hourly television updates concerning these blizzard-like conditions from Rhode Island’s then-Governor Garrahy, always attired in the same comforting plaid wool shirt as he monitored the storm (beginning February 6th) through its entirety from Civil Defense headquarters. The National Guard was summoned, a state of emergency was declared, parking bans were in effect, only emergency vehicles were allowed to travel – it is the “stuff of legends.” Check out the Providence Journal’s complete gallery of storm photos for visuals, including Governor Garrahy’s plaid shirt.

My husband’s family, along with much of RI, learned other lessons from this ’78 event and a new tradition was established – the bread and milk phenomenon. To this day, once the word snowfall is uttered – be it a predicted dusting or a blizzard – Rhode Islanders flock to the nearest market to scour and empty the bread aisle and the refrigerated milk section. Upon seeing the snow forecast, my father-in-law would call my husband and ask, “Did you get your bread and milk yet? Stores are already crowded, you’d better hurry.” Moreover, to this day, grocery stores are crowded still – lines are long, even longer due to COVID shortages – bread and milk are in each cart and the universal topic of conversation is snow. Even with internet access, social media outlets, phone prompts, TV coverage, and instant updates, the conversation throughout the store still revolves around such questions as, “How much do you think we’ll get? Did you hear when it would arrive? When is it supposed to stop? Remember ’78?”

Of course, residents of the Midwest, Alaska, the mountain states, and northern New England (Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont) merely snicker – after all, it’s ONLY a few inches/feet of snow – this is commonplace and predictable during winter. Not so for citizens of Rhode Island. A friend from Buffalo, NY, once observed that Rhode Islanders, seem to forget and need reminding that they do live in one of the six New England states and should expect, not be surprised by, any category of winter conditions. This year, many southern states usually exempt from snow emergencies were not spared by the devastating effect of Mother Nature’s wintry wrath, such as Georgia, Tennessee, the Carolinas, Kentucky, Arkansas, Virginia, among others. Let us hope that this condition is NOT a new tradition!

As snowstorms are predicted and weather forecasters announce those dreaded words, “Winter Storm Watch/Warning,” I will join the projected throngs at the store to replenish the contents of my dad’s CARE package and purchase bread and milk. Stay safe!

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