Cold Memories

TALKING TO MYSELF 6 January 2014   It's 2 degrees F outside in Lexington, today, heading towards minus 7. That's cold in Kentucky. Like all curmudgeons, however, I can remember when it was worse. Those of us who survived the unrelenting Artiic temperatures of 1976-77 followed by the blizzards that came in the winter of 1977-78 enjoy boasting about how awful it was way back then, when folks walked from Kentucky to Ohio across a frozen solid Ohio River. Indulge me? This is an excerpt from my essay, "Bill and Me," from Butter in the Morning. 


           . . . In the winter of 1976-77, we were living in Ashland in a cold house that sat about two miles from the Ohio River.  I had a four year old, a two year old, and was expecting our third child in March.  Cynics may say that my personal circumstances have exaggerated my memory of that winter, but I beg to differ.   According to the people who keep track of these things, the snowfall that December, January, and February was twice the annual average.  The snow came to a crescendo near the end of January when the Ohio River Valley was hit with the tail end of a blizzard straight out of Buffalo. 

            But it wasn’t the snow that stopped us in ’76-’77 – it was the cold that wouldn’t let any of it melt.  December’s first snowflake was still with us when the spring thaw came. The thermometer bottomed out in mid-January at minus 25 degrees Fahrenheit, and the Ohio River froze solid.  The bold walked from one shore to the other.  The timid stayed inside wrapped in quilts and coached their husbands on how to deliver a baby “just in case.” 

            We didn’t think the next winter could get any worse here, but it did.  In January, 1978, nearby Cincinnati was hit with a jaw-dropping 46 inches of snow, and upriver in Ashland we had about the same amount.  Every part of Kentucky got at least 23 inches of snow that month according to records kept by the state climatologist, Glenn Conner.  Early February dumped 11 more inches on the region. 

            Hemmed in for weeks at a time with an infant and two small children, I decided one desperate day to bundle up the kids and walk to my next door neighbor’s house for coffee and human companionship.  The Donner Pass would not have looked more treacherous to me as I ventured out into the tunnel, high as my head, that Ernie had carved out with a shovel to connect our front door to what might be left of civilization. 

            We’d made it to what vaguely looked like the street, when one of the girls took a step off course and vanished from sight.  Somehow, juggling an infant in one arm and frantically pulling and digging with the other, I rescued the child before frostbite set in.   We hurried back into our cave and didn’t venture out again until the bears told us the flowers were blooming.  . . .