You may have heard me refer to my roommate, John, as “Last Husband,” and sometimes just “L.H.” The sobriquet has a double meaning: he was and is my last husband. Conversely, I was and (probably) am his last wife. We have been together and apart for the past 47 years. We kind of became accustomed to each other. Now, we live together, but we’re not living together, if you get my meaning. Just thought I’d clear that up.
John was born way up near the Canadian border in Watertown, New York. The first time I visited his Yankee homeland to meet his family, it was summertime. I was a new bride (for the third time). The homestead was a beautiful 100+ year-old house on about three acres on the Black River. His grandparents lived downstairs, and his parents lived upstairs. John’s mother was born there as was John, himself, some 26 years later. It was the only home either had ever known.
When John was 10 years old, his parents built a cottage on Lake Ontario, the most contrary body of water on the planet, as I was to find out in the distant future. I loved the old homestead on the river, but his parents took us to the cottage for the weekend. It was located on Pillar Point, a sliver of land jutting out into the lake. Lake Ontario beat on the point’s rocky shore, and the wind blew the water with such force, the spray constantly spat on the cottage windows, a good 100 feet from the water line.
It was bitterly cold, no matter what the season. Before long I called it “Polar Point,” a nickname not altogether appreciated by Last Husband’s mother, Marge. As I was also to find out in the future she did not altogether appreciate me either. The feeling was mutual, which is another story.
I was introduced to a bazillion family friends, all of whom told me about the deep, deep snow, and the ferocity of the winters. I was shown pictures of children walking dangerously close to power lines as they skipped atop snow piles. I saw photos of cars freshly dug out of six-foot snowdrifts. “We have to put the antenna up when we park the car so we can find it the next morning.”
Like so many programmed robots they all said it. To that, Marge invariably added, “You have to be tough to live up here. We’re Survivors!” Interestingly enough she seldom left the indoors, and then only to get into the car to be driven to and/or from the homestead and the cottage.
To further illustrate the locals’ endurance skills, they included their little forest friends in the endless recitation of anecdotal evidence. They pointed out a narrow barkless circle about four feet up the trunks of most trees. “That’s where the rabbits chew the bark off as they stand on top of the snow.” Snow was the beginning, the middle, and the ending of every story.
One tale I loved was about the spectacular snows of Tug Hill, the topographical anomaly near Watertown that causes the horrendous snow depths. In the old days, the postman drove a two-mule wagon to deliver mail in Tug Hill on an erratic schedule because of the snowstorms.
On the morning in question, there were a few flakes in the air, but the mailman thought he could finish his run before the storm started blowing in earnest. He alighted from the wagon to take the mail to a house located at the end of a lane. The homeowners were glad to see him and invited him in for coffee.
By the time he left, the stuff was falling thick and fast. When he reached the spot where he left the wagon, it and the mules were gone. Search as he might, he couldn’t find them. He decided to wait out the storm in the house. When the storm subsided or as they say Upstate when it “stopped storming,” he looked again for the team to no avail.
Finally, he went back to his own home, figuring the mules pulled the wagon away and someone would contact him soon and tell him where he could find them. No such call ever came. The wagon and the team were found during the spring thaw, just where the mailman had left them. The mules were frozen solid in the same position they were in the last time he saw them. Is that a terrifying snow story or what?
In the fullness of time, it came to be that John and I and my two daughters moved from sunny Southern California to the frigid snowbelt cinched around Upstate New York. I can’t remember now why we did such a thing, but I seldom know why we do anything.
After I spent my first winter there, I had no trouble believing the mule story or any other tale of snow-caused atrocities.
We moved up there in November. Our first house was in Oswego. By this time, there was usually at least one measurable snowfall. It hadn’t happened yet. We took the girls to school on the next Monday morning. All was going well. John went to work at the Niagara Mohawk Power Station. He had secured a good job as a nuclear reactor operator, one of the same positions he served in the U.S. Navy on a nuclear fast attack submarine.
I had been working ever since First Husband took off to build his love nest in another tree (fodder for another story some day). That had been six years earlier, and I felt very housewifely as I returned from taking the girls to the bus stop. As I went about my homey duties, humming a merry tune, I noticed the wind had picked up. Inside of ten minutes, the most horrendous snowstorm I ever saw was blowing ferociously. The snow was horizontal as it rushed past the front window. I peered out to see if some of the snow happened to land on the ground, and I couldn’t see it. I mean I couldn’t see the ground. Astounded, I looked up, and to my complete surprise I couldn’t see the house across the street. Nor could I see our own mailbox at the end of the short driveway.
What in the name of all that is holy was going on? Was it the end of the world? Could we next expect The Rapture? Fer Gawd!
I turned the radio on, and the announcer was telling us not to be concerned. “It’s just lake effect,” he said to reassure us.
Just lake effect? I don’t remember exactly what he said next, but he intimated it was not a real live snowstorm, because it was “just lake effect.”
In no time at all, the snow stopped. The sun didn’t come out, but at least the snow quit its horizontal zipping past the front window. I peered through the glass to see the ground. Much to my surprise, some of the snow had managed to drop out of its frantic sideways rush. To what did my wondering eyes appear but probably three of four inches on the ground. I was shocked.
Just as I breathed a sigh of relief, the race was on again. This time from the other direction. Whereas the snow had come from the left (I have no idea about norths and souths, etc. I have all I can do to recognize left and right) only a few minutes earlier it now ran pell mell in front of my window from the right. I was beginning to feel like Alice. You know Alice. She found herself in Wonderland before slipping through the looking glass.
To cut to the (snow) chase, the same phenomenon kept happening for the next two hours. Every time it stopped before changing directions, I ran to the window to check the depth of the snow. There was no doubt. It was growing by several inches after each outburst.
Now, I had real worries. The children were scheduled to be let off the school bus at the corner, a good 50 yards from the house. The last time I saw them, they were wearing sweaters and light jackets. The guy on the radio kept announcing, too gleefully I thought, a precipitous drop in the ambient temperature. I could only hope the snow was in the stop phase of its insane rush first from the right and then from the left at the time the school bus stopped.
I gathered up coats, scarves, hats and gloves and slogged through 18 inches of snow to the corner. Thank goodness, the storm, or lake effect or whatever it was called, had stopped. Just as I reached the bus stop, both the big yellow bus and the big white snow arrived at the corner. I was terrified. The children would be scared to death. I had to put a calm, ain’t-we-got-fun face on it.
Much to my surprise, they alighted from the bus laughing and talking nonstop about the wonderful snow. I gave them their winter duds and instructed them to put them on immediately. They couldn’t stop laughing. After I helped them get coated and hated, I realized we were in what I came to know as a “white-out.” I had not the slightest idea how to find the house. All I could see was white as the icy snow stung my face when I turned in a circle trying to find the house.
Fortunately, Mandy (the oldest at 12) was born with an unerring sense of direction.
“It’s this way, Mom,” she said. “Follow me.” We followed as the three of us pushed through the deepening snow, to our nice, warm house. The girls were still overjoyed to see all that snow. It was the most they had ever seen. That was to change. Both the depth of the show and their overjoyed reaction to it. But that came later.
When John came home from work, he explained the lake effect phenomenon to us. It was due to the proximity of Lake Ontario and the crazy wind coming on land in waves, first this direction, then another direction. He said a lot more about it, but as John’s explanations are wont to be, it was long and involved, and unless one was a true weather lover, it was profoundly boring.
We stayed in the Oswego house for a year before we built and moved to our cabin in the woods. It was a totally different experience, but the lake effect snowstorms were pretty much the same. We stayed there long enough for me to gain a proficient and accurate assessment of snowstorms. I could tell in a matter of seconds whether it was a “real” storm or merely lake effect.
The radio announcer always outdid himself explaining to us which snowstorm was pelting us. Sometimes he would say he had to run outside before he could tell us, and he would do so during the next commercial break. He always came back, breathing heavily and triumphant as he announced whether it was real or lake effect.
It ceased to matter to me after the first few storms. The end result was always the same. A foot of snow that piled on top of the foot of snow from the last storm that piled on top of the foot of snow from. . . . . you get the idea.
Suffice it to say by the time we moved out of the snowbelt, we wished never to see another snowdrop as long as we lived.