Thirty-five years ago today, February 6, 1978 began like any other Monday at my childhood home in Weymouth, Massachusetts. The fact that nothing stands out about that morning suggests that it was ordinary – I probably got up about 6:45, had breakfast, and walked down the street to catch the bus to Weymouth North High School.
The street was lined with snow banks left from a record-breaking storm on January 20 which had dropped 21 inches of snow. My father had already left for work in nearby Rockland. My brother must have taken the school bus, because he was just a few weeks shy of a driver’s license. My younger sister walked the 1.5 miles to Bicknell Junior High. My mother drove off to the Quincy subway station to take the T into her job at Mass Eye and Ear.
We knew about a pending storm. The National Weather Service had issued storm warnings on Sunday for heavy snowfall on Monday. But we had just weathered the January blizzard, so more snow was no big deal.
I’m pretty sure we were dismissed from school that morning around 11. Eventually we all arrived home — my father, my sister, my brother and finally my mother, whose usual 15-minute ride from Quincy took an hour. The snow kept falling, sometimes in bursts of three inches per hour, and falling, and falling.
Almost everyone who lived in the Boston area at that time remembers what was to follow. Hundreds of cars stopped on Routes 128 and 95. Their drivers either sat shivering, waiting for rescue, or if they could, they walked to the nearest house or other shelter, like the movie theater in Dedham. Thousands of people lost power, although not us. A state of emergency closed all roads for days.
After the storm, kids experienced the joy of leaping into huge drifts of snow and the thrill of a week-long unplanned vacation from school. After being snowbound for a couple of days, we relished the novelty of walking along foot-stomped paths in the middle of the road to get to Angelo’s grocery store, about a mile-and-a-half away in Hingham.
But even though we didn’t lose electricity and could watch the news and Governor Dukakis in his black turtleneck reassuring the residents of Massachusetts, we experienced only a small slice of the Blizzard of 1978. We didn’t know that just to the south, in the coastal town of Scituate, a five-year-old girl, Amy Lanzikos, had been swept out of her mother’s arms after a wave knocked four people out of the boat that had just rescued them their ocean-battered homes. Or that in the central Massachusetts town of Uxbridge, while we
jumped off snow banks, searchers were desperately looking for ten-year-old Peter Gosselin, who had gone out to play on February 7 as the storm was dying, and never came home. Or that to the north, in Salem, the pilot boat had been lost with five experienced men after the boat had set out from Gloucester to aid a floundering Coast Guard boat that had been on its own mission to aid an oil tanker threatening to break apart.
We didn’t know how that on Cape Cod, the sea and the wind had surged onto the dunes at Coast Guard Beach and had crumpled a vast parking lot like a sheet of shredded paper. Or that entire neighborhoods of homes just down the road in Hull, and in other coastal towns, had been wiped clean by the storm, with homes swept from their foundations and tossed about like a set of children’s blocks. We didn’t know the feeling of being stuck in dark cold houses without heat or electricity.
We didn’t know then, and we don’t know now. Today the world is supposed to our oyster in terms of information. We are surrounded by news and bombarded with information, but we haven’t changed all that much in our ability to grasp the sum of disparate events. We still need a narrative to understand the world, a person to tell the story.
Last fall, Hurricane Sandy was the “storm of the century” in the some parts of the Northeast. Here in Kittery, we celebrated an early dismissal and spent a night in the dark, lighting candles and hunkering down with the cats. The temperature was too warm to light the wood stove. The storm was noisy and exciting, an awesome event but not a hardship.
To the south, in Rhode Island, New Jersey and New York, a terrifying ordeal was unfolding for millions of people. The next day, on the morning news, we could see the picture of the New Jersey roller coaster in the Atlantic Ocean, but we couldn’t really see. I could only began to understand the immensity of Sandy after the storm was shaped into a narrative, in this case, the excellent Nova documentary, Inside the Megastorm.
I’m not exactly sure where I’m going with this thread, but maybe I’m trying to say something about how narrative and story will never go out of fashion. That narrative – the shaping of experience into meaning– will always be more important in understanding the world than mere information. You can have all the data in the world, but if you don’t tell a story with the data, it’s just numbers.
Snow’s in the forecast for Friday – 18 to 24 inches, with cold temperatures and howling winds. A good day to hunker down with the cats, fire up the wood stove, and read a story — or write one of my own.
Further reading and viewing:
There are many websites with materials relating to the Blizzard of 78, as well as books and print articles, so I’m not going to attempt to list them here. However, for an interesting 35-year retrospective view of the blizzard, and links to further sources, see the February 5, 2012 episode of WCVB’s Chronicle.
Also, I currently reading Ten Hours Until Dawn: The True Story of Heroism and Tragedy Aboard the Can Do, by Michael J. Tougias (St. Martin’s Press, 2005). So far, I’m impressed with how Tougias recreates, in incredible detail, the events of the night of February 6 off the coast of Salem, Massachusetts.