"You'll never get ahead if you don't take care of what you have." - Doris Waddell, RIP

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn
The multi-ethnic building was the original home of the music department at UMM. (B.W. photo)

Monday, November 21, 2011

Our winter begins mildly, unlike in 1940

(This post is part 1 of 2.)
I awoke yesterday (Sunday) knowing the world outside would be white as a signal of the season. The snow had a glistening quality as the morning progressed. The atmosphere was enhanced by no wind.
This was positively the best way to usher in winter. The snowfall didn't seem as heavy as weather forecasts had suggested.
Those rumbling plows could stay in the garage, it seemed. They'll get plenty of use later unless we're supremely lucky and can avoid the staggering snowfall. Wishful thinking, no doubt.
In Minnesota we adjust to the new season in a seamless sort of way, not making much of a production about it. As Scandinavians (predominantly) we have a reserved nature. We sometimes do arduous things without acknowledging much.
The trait is represented in the phrase "it's no big deal."
We approach winter with resignation, saying "it's no big deal."
Thanks to the mere dusting of snow we got Saturday, the arrival of winter 2011 really does seem like no big deal.
We make sure our winter wardrobe is assembled. The shovels or snowblower are to the ready. Then we go to the diner and ask "how much snow are they predicting for (whenever)?"
The word "they" in this context has a curious meaning in our daily parlance. It belongs in an urban dictionary - an Upper Midwest Scandinavian urban dictionary. We'll be ready for the weather regardless of what "they" say. We always land on our feet, us Minnesotans.
We accept the travails imposed by winter and then peel off our outerwear in spring as if nothing happened. After all, "it's no big deal."
In journalism there's a saying: A dog biting a man is no story, but man-bites-dog equals story. We don't cover all the successful landings at the airport. In my lengthy print media career I never placed much significance in the first snowfall. Others around me always felt it was something that had to be photographed, somehow.
For me, only a harsh blizzard would have spelled "man bites dog." Saturday's snowfall was quite the routine matter, so I'm not sure how I could come up with some sort of distinctive photo.
I have become longer of tooth since those print media days. Getting older makes one wish winter would just stay bottled up somehow. It's a wish we hold in vain.

Going back in time
The classic man-bites-dog year for first snowfall was 1940. It's in the history books as hugely significant. Heavens, there was no Weather Channel then.
In our household (and I suspect others) the Weather Channel is a default one to have on. When nothing else seems acceptable and even the ESPN channels have such topics as child rape - not very palatable - we turn to the Weather Channel and its "forecasts on the 8's."
The evening tornado specials are neat. What an asset this would have been in Minnesota in 1940. Winter arrived with a sledgehammer-like force. We've seen nothing quite like it before or since.
It was given a name: the Armistice Day Blizzard. I'll use capital letters out of respect and deference to God's awesome force with nature.
There seemed enough adversity in the world then. The Second World War was raging in Europe. We were still largely spectators but I'm sure there was an uneasy anticipation about our slide into that conflagration.
The America Firsters led our drive to stay out. Charles Lindbergh had a controversial involvement with that. Lindbergh stuck his neck out in several ways that stigmatized him in later years.
The Axis and Allies were squaring off. Congress voted a huge naval building program in 1938. We pledged neutrality in 1939. But there was a concerning "cash and carry" policy that got assets into the hands of our preferred side in the conflict - the "good guys." The Lend-Lease act in 1941 accelerated that trend - a slippery slope to war.
War arises when politics breaks down. It has been called "the congress of adolescents."
The late 1930s were a time of seeing the civilized means of conflict resolution dissipate. 1940 was marked by a flurry of events. A series of spring invasions made some sort of U.S. response seem unavoidable. FDR pledged to help "the opponents of (conquering) force."
In fact we'd have to wield a mighty big hammer ourselves. Our military grew in its resources. No one remembers that "the draft" began as the Burke-Wadsworth bill. We surely got the draft - in retrospect an inevitable and necessary development, but to my generation in the 1970s a hellish abomination.
FDR won a third term as president - considered controversial - by beating Wendell Willkie in 1940. In that November, the U.S. seemed on the threshold of war and although it's never related in Memorial Day speeches, Americans desperately wanted nothing to do with it. The "Firsters" had huge gatherings.
Minnesotans in 1940 had been through a mild autumn. The suggestion of snow got deer hunters excited. A dusting of snow would be in their interests for tracking. Even duck hunters saw advantages with the white.
We arrived at Armistice Day, a term that has since been retired. It had been a dry year. But the sheer force of God was about to release itself in the elements. First there was misty rain. Sleet began cascading down - no big alarm felt.
Minnesotans did expect snow but in the "no big deal" category.
The day was Monday, November 11, 1940.
Some more historical context: When people talked about "the big war" then, it was World War One. I had the privilege of writing about some WWI veterans in my print media career. Examples were Thore Mathison and Earl Eames. I photographed at least one reunion. I remember vets like Rosie Garberick and Roy Woolridge and others whose names have faded in my aging mind.
(I also remember Roy in a skit to re-create, in mock fashion, the wedding of Mr. and Mrs. Perry Juergensen for an anniversary at the Eagles Club. I believe Roy was the minister. The bride was a man dressed in drag. You can't forget stuff like this.)
There comes a time when veterans of a war fade away. It's important to encapsulate those memories.
The late Del Holdgrafer made sure a proper grave marker for a WWI veteran was restored in Donnelly. Holdgrafer was the salt of the earth, embracing humanity and treating money almost as an inconvenience. The likes of him will ultimately guide humanity past the icebergs of Wall Street greed and the false idols of profits/wealth foisted by the Republican Party. I digress.
The day of weather infamy, about a year before the real "day of infamy" as proclaimed by FDR, wore on with wind becoming a nuisance and then a hazard. Gusts stretched into the 60s (MPH). That's the kind of wind into which you walk backwards.
If only that had been the biggest inconvenience on the day. Drifts appeared with suddenness. At 3:30 p.m. the visibility was down to nothing.
Our normal Minnesota resilience with such things was not going to be good enough. People found shelter wherever. Stalled cars blocked roads. Offices became bedrooms. (I've experienced that.)
People knew it was bad but they couldn't be certain yet just how bad.
Obviously our communications resources then couldn't hold a candle to today.
The snowfall over a 24-hour period ended up an all-time record in Minneapolis. The temperature plunged to six degrees by Tuesday morning. All of Minnesota and in fact a big swath of the country felt God's weather sledgehammer.
The death toll in the Midwest ended up at 52. It was an onslaught of winter that inaugurated the season like in no other year, so we ought to feel blessed by the gentle nature in which snow arrived in 2011. Plus there's no world war brewing.
Let's count our blessings.
- Brian Williams - morris mn Minnesota - bwilly73@yahoo.com

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