The boys and I headed to Florida at the end of February, Keith held down the fort. Our vacation was too short, as all vacations are. We visited with my parents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. We ate, enjoyed the sunshine, played on the beach, ate more, swam, laughed, played tourist, ate even more, and finished our vacation at Universal Studios. Because we were driving (I love driving trips), we had to watch the weather very carefully. Keith, my dad, and the Weather Channel kept us posted on an ice storm consuming the midwest.
On our way through Georgia we stopped at a rest area to view the live weather radar. Standing in front of the screen was a very tan gentleman. He was shaking his head, despondent.
“Headed back north?” I asked.
“Look at all the pink and white on this weather map! It’s sad, isn’t it?” I commented.
“On the bright side, spring is just around the corner.” I tried to sound enthusiastic, I really wanted to head back south.
Giving me a sideways glance he said, “I spent a month in Florida. Everyday I went fishing. Each morning I got up, grabbed my pole, put on flip flops, packed a cooler, and tackle box. From the beach I’d cast my line and sit in my chair. I fished nearly naked. Now I am headed back to northern Minnesota. Do you see all the white on the radar? That’s where I’m headed. Back to the white.” Tears welled in his eyes. “Do you know how I’ll fish when I get back home?”
I shook my head from side to side.
“I’ll get up, put on long johns, two pairs of socks, pants, two shirts, down jacket, coveralls, gloves, hat, boots. I’ll grab a bucket, auger, tip-ups, and get into my truck, which I’ll have warmed up for ten minutes. I’ll drive onto the ice. I’ll drill a hole, sit on a bucket, skim ice from the hole. I’ll blow warm breath onto my frozen hands. Then I'll wait for a damned fish!” He was becoming animated so the boys and I slowly inched our way towards the door. With every syllable he pointed to Minnesota on the map. “I - am - going - back - there!” He shouted, “I am going home... to that massive front of white! Why? Why am I going back?”
As we got to the door I turned and said, “Your going back home to be with family and friends. I started running and then I called out, “You know, misery loves company!” For all I know he’s still staring at that map, waiting for all traces of white to disappear.
Without moonlight to guide us, our path was lit by the illumination of farm lights. We walked through the hills of St Olaf the night before Thanksgiving. It was a surprisingly pleasant evening for a walk, temperatures near 30 degrees, very little wind, the drizzle was nearly over. We had to watch our footing carefully, a layer of ice covered all surfaces. A mild night for late November. But still, I thought of our comfortable family room where we had read The Children’s Blizzard, by David Laskin. Because we homeschool most of the books we read are biographies, history, historic novels, and of course, National Geographic. We read in the warmth of our wood stove during the winter months. As we walked, I recounted the the Blizzard of 1888. January 12, 1888.
They buried themselves in haystacks, huddled together in darkened classrooms, or froze to death on the prairie while searching for shelter. These were the fates of the children caught in the blizzard.
After weeks of bitter cold temperatures, moderate warming was a welcome relief. Farmers ventured out to replenish supplies of hay and visit town to conduct business. Children, lightly dressed, walked to school. They were eager to see friends, play outdoors, and enjoy the comparatively balmy weather. Temperatures approached near 40 degrees Fahrenheit on January 12, 1888.
There were twenty-two weather stations, overseen by the Signal Corp, scattered throughout the country in 1888. Weather was recorded and sent by Western Union to data stations; it was analyzed, graphed, and translated. This information was relayed to sixty “Flag Stations”. On this day, though, the message to fly the “cold wave” and “blizzard” flags never reached the volunteer flagmen. Warnings never came, or it arrived too late for the pioneers and settlers of the Dakotas and Nebraska. They were caught off guard. Iowa fared better, the storm didn’t rage here until dusk, when chores and errands were done for the day.
In the Dakota Territory, the lunch hour had just passed. Children were returning to their desks when the wind began to howl in an eerie wail. A dark cloud descended rapidly from the northwest. Within minutes the sun disappeared; by all accounts nightfall had arrived. Ice crystals and snow blasted the clapboard and sod buildings. Snow swirled in through every crevice. The wailing wind was deafening. Gale force winds of fifty miles per hour gusted to nearly eighty.
Many pioneers who had lived through the blizzard of 1873, and the “snow winter” of 1880, where thousands of cattle froze to death on the prairie, had never seen a storm arrive with such speed or violence. Visibility was so poor you couldn’t see the hand in front of your face.
Many teachers, not much older than their students, released school. These children became disoriented and couldn’t find their way home. In other schoolhouses, teachers kept their students inside. Praying for rescue they clung together for warmth, surrounding cold stoves that had exhausted their supply of coal, school books, and desks.
In Keokuk, Iowa the temperature plummeted 50 degrees in eight hours. Company B, Second Regiment from Davenport, Iowa was headed to Des Moines to escort William Larabee in his inauguration parade. Larabee was beginning his second term as Iowa’s governor. Company B, trapped by the storm, did not arrive.
Parents anxiously awaited the arrival of their children. Groups of men braved the elements in rescue parties to search schools and bare prairies. Hope of finding loved ones faded. Mothers stood in doorways calling out for their children. When their voices were exhausted they rang cow bells or beat pots with spoons hoping the sound would act as a beacon bringing their children home. The wind chill was now 30 degrees below.
Farmers, walking their cattle to water or out gathering hay from their stacks were caught by the storm. They knew from experience to get “under the storm”; visibility was better close to the ground. They crawled to find shelter.
The weather term for such a storm is anticyclone. Winds spiral inward toward the center of low pressure in a counter-clockwise pattern. The lowest air pressure was over Iowa and Nebraska. Higher pressure over North Dakota and Montana caused a vacuum effect over the mid-section of the country. Cold rushing air caused great friction and static build-up. Snow thunderstorms raged across the plains. A phenomenon known as St. Elmo’s fire created static build-up. The air was electrified. Sparks emitted from people when they approached their stoves and caused hair to stand on end. The shocks were so fierce and the pioneers were so afraid they refused to add fuel to fires.
…People who pray for courage, for strength to bear the unbearable, for the grace to remember what they have left instead of what they have lost, very often find their prayers answered. –Harold Kushner
On Friday, January 13, 1888 the air was bitter cold but the skies were clear. Relieved students and teachers were grateful to be found alive. One teacher, who had ventured outdoors with her seven students found safety inside a haystack. They huddled together, prayed and sang songs; most of them suffered frostbite. They were alive, barely. Another teacher acted swiftly when the storm tore the door of their schoolhouse from its leather hinges; she nailed the door shut. Moment’s later part of their roof blew away. Tying a makeshift rope out of torn cloth, she tied her students together. Walking in a line, eyes frozen shut, they hit the side of a building. Other unfortunate children caught in the storm were found frozen to death.
Between 250 and 500 fatalities littered the prairies, most of them children. Countless survivors of the initial storm succumbed to infection when frostbitten limbs were later amputated. Still others perished from pneumonia.
Today we seem prepared for any malady Mother Nature may affront us with. We have cell phones, GPS, four wheel drive, medical and rescue assistance, and accurate weather forecasts. A false sense of security blankets our instinct to avoid dangerous situations. On Saturday night, when our truck came to rest at the side of the road (no longer able to compete with the ice), we packed our gear, commenced on our night hike. We discussed survival skills and common sense ideas…like staying home.
Toby Grimes* was legendary as the dumbest kid to ever walk the halls of Ogden Avenue Elementary School. Older students would bait him into situations highlighting his lack of common sense. Toby was the older students' favorite muse. He never seemed to mind being pointed out as an idiot. He would smile and nod as the older boys would offer him a choice of either fifty cents in coins or a dollar bill. Toby appeared to weigh his options carefully, but in the end, he always chose the coins. “Two coins is better than one bill, I’ll take the coins!” He’d announce. The older boys would always roar with laughter and point out Toby’s mental short-comings. Laughing they'd handed him the change.
When we, Toby’s classmates, pointed out that he was becoming a laughingstock, he’d just smile. “I may be a laughingstock, but the day I take the dollar over the coins, the game will be over. If those boys want to offer me money to prove that I am more idiotic then they are, so be it. My dad says if I keep this up, by the time I reach eighth grade I’ll have enough money saved to pay for college.”
The easiest way to live within your income is to have a big one. -unknown
The other boy who stands out in my memory, Harold Tinkler* was the most enterprising boy in our junior and senior high school, although I didn’t realize it at the time. He had nerdiness down pat. Pocket protector, slide rule, thick glasses; he was the epitome of a nerd. He worked hard in school, always earned top honors, and was born to succeed. He lacked social graces; most of the girls thought he was creepy. Despite his social failings he was an entrepreneurial success.
Harold is a real estate investor and owns a few very lucrative properties. I hand’t seen, or heard from Harold in years. At our last High school reunion he shared the secrets to his success. His financial acuity started when he was young, Harold explained, “When we were in junior high and high school everyone played Spin the Bottle at parties.” He continued, “I showed up at all the parties, ready to play. The girls would cringe when I’d walk in, but they never refused to let me play. If a girl’s spin would point to me, I’d offer her the choice of either kissing me, or paying me a dollar. They always chose to pay the dollar. By the time I was sixteen I bought my first rental property. My portfolio grew from there.”
Misers aren’t fun to live with, but they make wonderful ancestors. –David Brenner
This year our greatest asset is grass, lots and lots of grass. We’re thankful for a plentiful hay crop, we’ll continuing to dodge the rain and make hay when we can. We’ll capitalize on the benefits of a successful growing season and store extra hay for dryer days ahead.
Enjoy the sunshine and the rain!
It's April First, Again. A few years ago we had experienced a very mild winter and exceptionally early spring. Around St. Patrick’s Day we tilled and planted our garden with cool season seeds. I should probably qualify this story and explain that Keith had never been involved in the early stages of garden preparation and planting but embraced the task with enthusiasm. The variety of peas we selected boasted claims of, “fast germination, earliest to produce, and large yield”.
Every afternoon, when he would get home from work, Keith would run down to the garden to look for new growth and see if any seedlings had sprouted. Watching his exuberance inspired an idea for an April Fools trick.
My dad loves Keith and loves playing tricks on him. He helped me paint bunches of plastic plants in bright green; we had a variety of leaves and plastic stems of all shapes and sizes. We planted our painted beauties in the same rows as our seedlings and laughed all the while thinking of Keith’s reaction.
As usual, Keith visited the garden when he got home. Watching him from the window we saw him turn toward the house. Keith was clapping his hands and running. Flinging open the door, he cried, “Holy Cow (or something to that effect)! You won’t believe how much everything has grown.” We followed him back outside, pinching ourselves to keep from laughing, We were grinning from ear to ear as we watched his reaction. Bending forward Keith rubbed a leaf, shook his head and began to laugh. There’s great joy in a good natured joke that plays out well. Over the past twenty-one plus years I’ve played several April Fools jokes on Keith, he’s always a good sport.
This weekend as I plant the garden I’ll be snickering to myself as I recall that April Fools prank. My parents will be home from Florida within the next few days and when they come to visit I’ll show them this year’s garden and we’ll all laugh as we remember our painted garden.
Originally my article for this week had been about how our family could have moved anywhere in the country and we chose St Olaf, Iowa. We chose this area because we found the greatest asset here; the people. I don’t know of any greater community
I have previously written about how we are all surrounded by the most gracious, caring and compassionate neighbors. That fact was so evident on Saturday night when we experienced a barn fire at our farm. We lost a building, some equipment, our sows and their babies. But we gained an overwhelming respect for the compassion offered by our community. That compassion has left our family awestruck at how truly fortunate we are.
My wise and wonderful grandmother, Marion Fisher used to say; if something can be replaced with money it isn’t that important. We have always tried to view our glass as half full, we’re optimists, but after the concern that you’ve all shown to us we know that our cups aren’t half full, they’re overflowing! We so humbly thank all of you for your kind words and encouragement; they’ve meant the world to us.
Four fire departments responded to our call for help and I can’t begin to express how grateful we are for the action and organization of these community heroes. They contained the fire to two buildings and prevented it from spreading to the next. We interrupted the Elkader Fire Departments Christmas party (which was delayed due to battling a fire on the previously scheduled date), and others from enjoying the movie in town. These volunteers put the needs of their community and neighbors above their own. There are countless places that they could have been but they put our needs first, how commendable.
You don’t raise heroes, you raise sons. And if you treat them like sons, they’ll turn out to be heroes, even if it’s just in your own eyes. – Walter Schirra, Sr.
I try not to waste my prayers on earthly desires; material wants or a fatter bank account. I’ll reserve my prayers for humanity and heavenly intervention for those in need. I’ve prayed for three things in my life 1) someone to love 2) someone to love me back 3) the health of our family, friends and neighbors. Those three prayers have been answered and so I have nothing to complain about in life. I try not to let unkind words or gossip escape from my mouth. If I remove them from my heart they usually don’t get caught in my throat. The more often I clean my heart the easier I find the joy in loving my neighbors.
All of you must subscribe to this same philosophy because we have experienced countless examples of love here in northeast Iowa.
Our sows were just starting to farrow on Saturday. The first piglet born we named Glenda because she and I shared the same birthday and she was whining about the cold, just like me. We truly love all of our animals; they are such a huge part of our lives. I hope that there is a hog heaven, and if there is, I hope that Dolly, Molly, Lizzy and all of their babies are cared for by someone who will love them as much as we did. I hope their care givers know how much they love having their backs scratched with the rake and that when they get tucked in at night an Oreo cookie helps them have sweeter dreams. So, sweet dreams girls. I hope hog heaven is lush and full of sunshine and Oreos.
Our family thanks you for all of your kindness.
It is well to remember that the entire population of the universe, with one trifling exception, is composed of others. – John Andrew Holmes