Local Writer Reflects on Chicago's 1967 Snowstorm
I met a snowstorm once, on its own terms. I was 13 years old and a snow storm was closing down schools…and the rest of the city.
The flakes were gigantic. Beautiful. My brother Russ and I built snow forts with our friends. The freezing temperatures turned the fluffy snowflakes into dangerous spitballs aimed at our faces. Before long, Russ and I escaped to the warmth of our apartment and joined my mom and three other young siblings.
Dad was on the road, working as a short-haul trucker. He called Mom about one in the afternoon to say he and his truck were stranded. When Mom hung up, it was the first time I noticed that she seemed worried. She turned on the kitchen radio. The lead announcement was clear. Snowfall was expected to pass 20 inches. And, my mom realized, there was no milk in the house. Dad was supposed to have brought a gallon home with him after work. So, now Mom needed me to go out and get some.
We didn't know the streets would be desolate. We didn't know that the Police, Fire, and snow crews could barely travel on Chicago streets. I stepped out of our building into a city that no longer resembled anything I had ever seen before.
The late afternoon twilight had turned the snow a bluish-white. Snow-covered cars, streets, sidewalks, bushes and fences looked like gigantic misshapen lumps of light blue clay. And there was none of the normal city cacophony. No people talking. No car or bus motors. No dogs barking. Nothing. I was alone in a silent universe. Even the gusts of wind were quiet, as if bowing to a force greater than itself. The silence creeped me out.
I decided the best way to move through the snow was to push my way along our apartment building's wall where the snow was only shin-deep. This got me to Chicago Avenue. I walked onto the street and headed in the direction of the grocery store. All the businesses I passed on the first block were closed, so I realized I was risking my comfort and safety, maybe for nothing. But the grocery store's lights were shining. And all that stood between me and milk for my family was an 8-foot wide mound of plowed snow that almost reached my shoulders. Thinking of them, I bullied my way into that drift. Pushing hard. Determined. I made good headway for a few feet. Then, my feet slipped, pitched me forward, and I sunk like a stone thrown into a pond. At first it was neat to feel the sinking sensation. Like the cushioned descent of a barber's hydraulic chair. Within seconds I was stretched out on the icy asphalt of Chicago Avenue, underneath the mound of snow. I remember laughing out loud at my "ride." I didn't even panic when I tried to stand up and couldn't. It was after the fourth try that I couldn't move any more. Body heat or the friction from struggling cemented the snow on my body, weighing me down in a cage. Snow went up my nostrils. In my mouth. I never realized I was suffocating. I was comfortable. It felt warm and I felt like I wanted to sleep. Just rest a few minutes.
For whatever reason, during that snowstorm of 1967 instead of drifting off to ‘sleep', I began instead to wiggle my arms and make angel wings into the bottom of that mound. After a while, both arms were straight out ahead of me. They created a tunnel and with my boots, I pushed forward. It took some effort, but, like a butterfly-stroking Olympian swimmerâ€”I swam out of the bottom of the mound and got one of the last gallons of milk in the store's cooler.
Years after that snow of '67, I read a short story called "To Build A Fire" by Jack London. He captured the main character's thoughts before he died of exposure in a snowy wilderness.
When he tried to rise, he failed. He must sit and rest, he thought he noted that he was feeling quite warm and comfortable.
And then, I was grateful.