Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Snows of Yesteryear

One Saturday in early February of 1969, a group of us went to the beach.

No, we weren't trying to become members of the Polar Bear Club; our goal was to take a picture for the Elmont High School yearbook. For our opening photo essay, we wanted a shot of students looking (metaphorically) towards the future, the vast ocean stretching out before us. And, like many who had done it before and many who have done it since, we thought we were being totally original.

It was a beautiful sunny day. The temperature was in the low 40s, the air was crisply fresh, and the sky was that bright winter blue. And, while there was a breeze, it was warm enough for us to doff our coats and pose as if it were a summer afternoon.

When we were finished and getting ready to leave, one of my compatriots mentioned that he heard it was supposed to snow the next day. We all scoffed. Look at this weather; there wasn't a cloud in the sky.

Now you have to keep in mind that this was in the days before Doppler radar, satellite imagery, TV stations devoted solely to the weather, and the panic-generating overkill coverage by the media that we have today. Even when it started to snow, the weather forecasters could only guess about how much we would get and how long it would last. The U.S. Weather Bureau had, in fact, predicted that it was going to turn to rain by afternoon.

Well, it started to snow. And snow. And snow. It never turned to rain. And when it finally ended, the snow was 18 to 20 inches deep. Partially due to budget concerns and, presumably, because they were expecting it to change to rain, New York City and surrounding county officials were not quick to get plows on the roads. When they finally were dispatched, there was no way they would get ahead of the storm.

The metropolitan area was paralyzed for three days. It was not until Wednesday that NYC schools, trains, and airports were back to operating normally. It took longer in the borough of Queens, which seemed like the forgotten stepchild of the city. It was a week before some of the streets were finally cleared.

Just across the city line in Elmont, the schools were closed all week. They would have been able to open on Friday, but that was Lincoln's Birthday, which was a holiday. And though our roads were cleared, you can't get out of Nassau County without going through Queens, so no one was getting very far.

Faced with this unexpected week-long vacation, what did we do? Well, I know I made some good money by shoveling the walks and driveways of some of my neighbors. And I walked a lot to visit my friends, the closest of whom lived about a mile away.

On the first two nights we went sledding on the Cross Island Parkway. (For those non-New Yorkers reading, the Cross Island is a major highway that runs north and south on the Queens-Nassau border.) Sometime during the storm, a plow had made a single-lane path on the northbound side, skirting around cars that had been stuck and abandoned all along the way. The snow that remained in that path was great for sledding, but the best part of all was the hill overlooking the merge of the Cross Island with the Southern State Parkway. We had a great time zipping down and across an area that normally would have been filled with four lanes of traffic!

Eventually, the snow melted and our senior year at Elmont continued towards graduation. But the Blizzard of '69 had one more effect on us. The schools had been closed for four days, but they had only allotted three snow days to the schedule. In order to fulfill the state-mandated number of school days, we all had to go to school one last Monday in late June... the day after we graduated.

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