April 2016 Archives

The Blizzard of 1966

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I was 13 years old when the Blizzard of 1966 unleashed its fury on the Northern Plains. It was the worse blizzard in decades, certainly the worse in my young memory. It brought all human (and animal) activity to a standstill. Well, not all activity. We were living in a one-room log cabin with a wood stove to heat the house. As the oldest son home it was my responsibility to see there was enough wood sawed every day to keep the house warm. I had to saw the wood, haul, and stack it in the house every evening before I could go play with my siblings and cousins who lived over the hill from us. I usually hauled in and stack enough sawed logs in the house to last until the following afternoon when I would get off the bus and do it all over again.

It was my younger brother Mark's job to pump water at the pump located about 30 yards from the house. There was a water pipe running underground from the water pump to a tank in the log cabin. I don't recall him every filling up that tank due to the pump handle being extremely hard to operate.  Every now and then the water pipe froze and we would have to haul water from Fort Totten in the trunk of mom's old Chevy. We supplemented that drinking water with melted snow water to wash dishes, wash our hands and face, and other stuff that needed to be washed.

Anyway, on the eve before the Big Blizzard hit I was home alone with my younger siblings because my Mom, her sister Loretta and Loretta's boyfriend, Mike, went to watch my older cousin, (Big) Dave Longie, play in the district basketball tournament. Big Dave was the star basketball player for Oberon Bulldogs' high school basketball team. My aunt Loretta (and Mike), who lived just over the hill from us often went places with mom during the winter due to the trouble of keeping cars running during the winters. Back then, the cars were old and unreliable, winter were harsh, temperatures remained well below zero for days at a time, therefore, it was difficult keeping a car running during the coldest months of the winter. I also recalled the winds were stronger and it snowed a lot more.

As the babysitter I was able to sleep in mom's bed until she came back. It was a real treat to sleep in mom's bed because it was soft and had warm blankets. Most of us kids slept up in the loft on mattresses on the loft's hard floor with heavy quilts to keep us warm. We often had to fight each other for a piece of the quilt during the winter when the nights became cold. One benefit of sleeping in the loft was it was the warmest place to be in the winter. And, when the fire in the stove went out during the night, it quickly warmed up when the fire was started again in the morning.  Before falling asleep in mom's bed I remember hearing the wind blowing hard and the house becoming really cold. I also wondered why mom wasn't home.

I woke up some time during the night because the fire in the wood stove had gone out, the house was really cold and mom still wasn't home. By then I could hear the storm raging outside and realized there probably wasn't going to be any school which was okay with me so I went back to sleep. School wasn't my favorite place, I usually missed around 20 days per year, so I looked forward to another day of staying home. The next time I woke up my brother Cory was making a fire. Cory was a really early riser and often would get up to help mom start the fire, or he would start it under her supervision.

Once the house warmed up one of us made breakfast of either rolled oats, or cornmeal, which were commodities we received every month. I wasn't worried, or surprised that mom wasn't home. People often became stranded in bad weather, or stayed the night visiting at some relative, or friend's home. And, sometimes mom would go work at the valley picking potato, so it wasn't the first time we kids were home alone for more than day. We knew how to take care of ourselves.

Anyway, the strong wind blowing was straight through the cracks in the log cabin which meant we had to burn more wood than usual to keep warm. We soon ran out of wood and had to venture outside for more. However, the wind was so strong, there was too much blowing snow, and the temperature to cold, that there was no way we could saw wood outside. I decided to move the sawhorse in the porch out of the wind and cold. I think it was my younger brother Cory who suggested, why don't we just move the sawhorse inside the house? There were no adults around to tell us. "No you can't do that", so that is what we did. With sawhorse inside the house where it was warm, I had no trouble getting my younger brothers Mark and Cory to help me saw wood. We had plenty of sawed logs to keep us warm. My two other younger brothers, Marshall (Pete) and Chris were too young to help. And, my other younger sibling, April was also too young to saw wood. Plus, she was a girl and girls didn't saw wood back then, at least not while I was able to.

There was ten of us in our family. I was the fifth oldest, I had one older brother and three older sisters and four younger brother and one younger sister. My oldest brother, Phillip John, had hitchhiked to California a couple of years earlier, Martina and Marcy were in a boarding school at Maddock, ND. They came home on weekends. My other older sister Becky usually stayed in Fort Totten with her friends, or at my aunt Alvina's home. That left me as oldest child at home and the chief babysitter. Our step-dad had also hitched to California  with his nephews the previous summer. (Three of my older sibling, Phillip, Martina, and Marcy as well as a younger brother, Mark, have since taken the journey over the star road home and now reside in the Spirit World.)

Here is where my memory is blurred. I don't if we were home alone the entire first day of the storm, or not. I do remember sometime either during the first day, or the second of the storm, or I decided to go see how our cousins, Aunt Loretta's children were doing. As mentioned earlier, my aunt Loretta lived right over the hill from us. Anyway, Cory and I dressed up warm and we decided to go see how there were doing.

Once outside, I was shocked at how terrible the conditions were. I was used to winter storms, but none came nowhere near as bad as this one. The storm was ferocious! I recall the the wind blowing hard, and lots of blowing snow, but the trail we took to our aunt's home was fairly clear and we had been over it hundreds of times, so we made the half a mile to our cousin's home without any problems. Our cousins were doing okay, but their house was kind of cold due to them running low on wood. I asked them if they wanted to come and stay at house and they agreed. If my memory serves me correct it was the five younger ones, three older ones were at boarding school at Wahpeton, North Dakota and the oldest, Big Dave stayed in Fort Totten. They put on their winter coats and we all braved the wind and cold back to our house.

As children, we and our cousins often got "caught" outside in a blizzard, but we knew Crow Hill like the back of my hands, so we always made it home when caught in a storm. And, we never played very far from home during the winter.  Once, when I tried to walked to Fort Totten, a distance of five miles, a storm came up when I was about half way there. I was faced with a choice of walking across an open field, or turning around and making my way through the woods back to our log cabin. I choose to turn around because I was concerned if the storm got any worse there was a good chance I wouldn't make it across the two miles of open fields. Whereas, the trail back home went through the woods coming out right above our cabin. I knew I wouldn't lose my way no matter how hard it stormed. But, it was tough going, I was so cold when I did make in home my older sister Marcy had to put me to bed with a bunch of blankets and she gave me either hot tea, or soup to drink.

Anyway, back my story. The house was warm, we didn't have any adult supervision and we were enjoying ourselves visiting and playing games. It was getting dark when we cooked some popcorn and decided to play some game. which I can't recall now. We had dozens of games back then to help us pass the time during the long winter days, none of which I can remember now. We had just started to play when we heard a noise coming from the porch, which scared the heck out of us. We knew no one should be outside in this weather. As we stood still listening the blanket over the door begin to move. In alarm we watched as the door swung open and a person completely wrapped in a blanket and covered in snow came in. The person shook off the blanket and we could see it was - mom!

We were so happy to see her. She sat down asked us how we doing. We were more concerned on how she was doing she was tired and looked almost frozen. She said, they became stranded in Fort Totten after the game. On the second day of the storm they became concerned about us and decided to walk home. Against the advice of her host, she and Aunt Loretta wrapped a blanket around themselves and with Mike leading the way, started walking. The walked five miles in the worse storm in the decades because they were worried about us. Absolutely amazing and oh so courageous!

It wasn't long before Mike came after our cousins and they when home.

After the storm cleared, the snow banks were a sight to behold. Many of them were taller than our house. We tried to walk up up as many as we could. It took a couple of days before the roads were cleared and we could return to school. Many stretches of the road were like going through a canyon, the show was piled up on each side. The snow melted very quickly and all the melt water presented us kids with another opportunity to play, but that's another story. And that is my recollection of the storm of the century.





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