The Groundhog Day Blizzard

February 5, 2011

“…make the narrative a combined Diary and Autobiography.  In this way you have the vivid things of the present to make a contrast with memories of like things in the past, and these contrasts have a charm which is all their own.  No talent is required to make a combined Diary and Autobiography interesting.”

Autobiography of Mark Twain – University of California Press – Volume 1


Now you know why people (including myself) blog.  It is the no talent requirement that speaks to me particularly.

I could stop, probably should stop, right there and have the quote (above) be the take-away.  Essentially re-tweet Twain without Twitter – and that would be enough.

But what the heck… the prospect of using Mark Twain and a Groundhog as subjects in the same essay was too good an opportunity to pass up.

And that opportunity presented itself because of the blizzard. It turned out to be a great storm… one that let me sink my teeth into the huge volume, quoted from above and recently published,  the Autobiography of Mark Twain – Volume 1. I may finish it before volume two is published, provided that occurs sometime mid-decade.

Man – that guy could really sell a sentence.

And ya gotta love his sense of marketing.  Insisting that the entirety not be released until 100 years after his death… so he could be free to write what was on his mind about anyone.

But I digress, again.

This is really about the storm. The giant blizzard.

The media needs to give it a name.  Brand it.  Make it easier to embed the meme in your psyche. Tease it. Promo it. Promise coverage of it. Refer to it. And invest it with the feelings and memories of the event.

The Groundhog Day Blizzard.

Here is, in my humble estimation, the iconic image of the storm, taken by one of the great photojournalists at the Chicago Tribune.

Why call it Groundhog Day Blizzard?

Fear of the storm’s magnitude prompted Brookfield Zoo to coerce their rodent to perform his civic duty a day early, probably because staff and the media wouldn’t be able find the joint in the snow on the real Groundhog Day… and we all know, if the media doesn’t get there to report on it… it really doesn’t happen.

The other idea name idea is the Blizzard of 2011, which I am afraid I must veto, though the mainstream media seems to have adopted it, because I have lived here long enough to know that there may unfortunately be another great blizzard left in 2011 yet.

Let’s be honest.  A storm of biblical proportions it was not.  Hell, having lived in Fairbanks for 4 or 5 winters (or maybe it was one continuous winter… I forget) – growing up in New York City, and attending college in Maine and Vermont, I got to know a thing or two about winters and weather extremes.

This was just a giant storm that hit a lot of big metro areas… and screwed up Chicago for a few days. Nothing that hadn’t happened to NYC or Boston several times this winter.

What was rather rare, though, was that the weathermen got the prediction of this one one amazingly right.

One week out we knew what date and approximately what time it would hit.  The weather service (I really like ) said our blizzard would hit at 3PM – and at 2:45 the hammer fell.

Pretty amazing, really. Predictions are often problematic in the natural sciences prediction bureau.

At least the weathermen can see clouds and check barometric pressures and thermometers.

And they have groundhogs to help in their predictions.

Those really wonderfully nice and available and studious scientists at CalTech who study earthquakes and try to predict them – what have they got?

Not one of those earthquake scientists can actually tell whether what caused that freeway to pancake, or those buildings collapse, was a fore shock to the big one or an aftershock that would slowly diminish after a month or a year or a geologic lifetime.  That doesn’t stop them from issuing predictions though.

Many years ago (here’s the memories of like things part) when my son was making the big move from the bassinet by our bed to his own freshly painted room in our little house in that lovely corner of that quaint megalopolis known as the San Fernando Valley I called lovingly, Encino -adjacent, the unpredicted Northridge Quake struck in the middle of the night along a previously unknown fault-line essentially right under our house with one of the highest ground acceleration rates (doesn’t sound good, does it) ever recorded and reminded my wife and me, at that instant, that as good as the special effects guys are in tinsel town – they don’t hold a candle to Mother Nature.

Amidst the wild tremors – think of a giant pounding on and shaking a timpani with you and the rest of LA inside – and during that serenade my wife and I are roused from a deep sleep – sit up – at the same time, the picture mounted above us on the wall behind our bed slams down the wall like a guillotine – and the dressers start falling over – and more pictures falling and dishes falling – and the power failing – and the car alarms going off – and electric transformers popping – and gas mains exploding… and before your mind even registers all of this… your wife has your firstborn son safely back in her arms and we are trying to stand, under a doorway, as the house bends in ways that would make the contortionists from cirque du soleil look like they had arthritis.

Fortunately, we were relatively prepared.  Being a TV news producer… I had put together my share of earthquake preparedness stories during earthquake preparedness week, or month, or whatever the heck it was over the years. I probably would never do it for myself.  But it seemed like the right thing to do, given I now had a blob of a boy that depended on me and my wife for everything.

I knew what needed to go in the garbage can in the garage… Fresh water, canned goods, a transistor radio that got the AM band and batteries, blankets, silverware and your rubber ducky. Thank goodness our water heater was fixed to the wall… many, many of them broke off their stands and rolled around the San Fernando Valley.

Radio, the original wireless app, was still the only one reliable enough to be depended on when the shit hit the proverbial fan.

I mention all this, and could a million other details…. like the role of the National Guard – the same guys and gals who helped in the Groundhog Day Blizzard out here  – The National Guard feeding thousands in the aftermath of the Northridge quake in our local parks… the ongoing search and rescue… repair efforts to the infra structure… like toppled freeways and busted water and gas mains…. and of course the CalTech interviews.

At the interviews deep in the Caltech Labs, I would ask the predictor/scientists – “Was that as big as this quake is going to be? And are these pesky after-shocks going to diminish over time, or was that a fore-shock to the bigger – THE BIG ONE?”  And after thanking me for asking that question, and professing to be thankful for the opportunity to answer it, and looking at me as though they would rather be anywhere else than on stage in front of a million cameras being put on the spot like that – they essential said …  something along the lines of … “we really, honestly, don’t know.  We don’t think this is a sign the big one is on its way, but we’re are not 100% on that.”

Anyway, that quake was one of the reasons I went looking for a job out of LA and found myself in the Midwest.

Growing up in New York, I used to pass a street musician frequently in the Village where I sublet one of those prime apartments you have to be born into. He used to “play” a busted up ole guitar across from Village Cigars on Christopher Street.  Drunk on his ass most days, he sang his only song’s chorus all night long… under my window… and to this day it still reverberates in my mind… ” If you don’t like New York City, you can go away. Take a boat, take a train, You can even take a plane… If you don’t like New York City you don’t have to stay… ” I always remembered that advice.  None of us, at least in America, is forced to live where we do.

And after we moved from LA, that same little boy, now 2 years old… had his little umbrella out and his rain slicker on and was thoroughly reveling in the fury of his first Midwestern thunderstorm and downpour. The skies had opened up, and water was sheeting down amidst explosions of thunder and incredible flashes of light.  And I couldn’t drag him out of the weather. He loved it.

Fast forward more years than I care to remember and it is the middle of the blizzard just the other day.  60 MPH winds – snowing and blowing snow so much you know this is a big deal and you are deep in the middle of it, and you think you should begin to shovel out the driveway in some ridiculous effort to “keep ahead of it.” So you do and invite, implore, beg your kid to help you out. And he does and we did… we shoveled in the middle of the power of it all – clearing it just in time to watch it all blow in again.

And I couldn’t resist my genetic predisposition to dispensing fatherly wisdom that is totally ill-timed, inappropriate and just plain wrong.

“You know,” I told him, “you can always live someplace where you don’t have to deal with this.”

And he looked in my direction… but mostly at the intense, live power of the blizzard swirling around us, through the sound of the wind and the trees, through the stinging snow. And I could see he loved it, as I did.  He loved being out in the fury of the storm. Blizzards were not an issue for him.

By the way, the Northridge quake was predicted not by the earthquake prediction scientists and all their scientificly scientistic science and technology, but by a veteran TV news photographer – Bill Wilde – I worked with on rare occasion.  He viewed me as he would any second person on his crew, let alone a producer or reporter, as so much worthless dead wood. He was the consummate news photographer, crusty and self sufficient in the best sense of the word.

I was joking with Bill as he was about to risk his life again, hanging out of a helicopter when we worked in the middle of torrential rains during mud slide season, after the fires of autumn nearly burned down Malibu, after a summer of record heat.  We were on STORM WATCH in Southern California, and we were going to whip the populace up into some kind of frenzy so they would tune in to our wall-to-wall coverage.

So as he boarded the chopper, I asked Bill, rhetorically, what was it that we hadn’t experienced yet… and he said EARTHQUAKES. I laughed until Northridge.

Well, if in LA you can expect earthquakes, you can be sure that in the Midwest we can and should expect blizzards. And frigid cold.

It really makes the lone songbird who is chirping today outside my window in the midst of another 3 inch “dusting” seem like more of a miracle.


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