By the first day in March in 1960, we had already had a bunch of snow and ice that winter and the forecast was not remarkable, rain with temperatures in the mid-40s but just be careful for ice that might form overnight. I was five weeks away from my 11th birthday, the second of four boys not yet teenagers, and my sister Susan was less than a year old.
No one ever predicted we were about to get hit by “The Perfect Storm.” Later it was learned we had a meteorological oddity – where the upper atmosphere was warmer than the lower – so when the rain from above descended through the freezing temperatures below, the legendary “Ice Storm of 1960” hit Chattanooga and our home on Lookout Mountain with such a spectacular fury there has been nothing to equal it since.
In our big yard alone, we lost 60 huge trees, mostly pines. The power got knocked out early so by midnight we were up, stoking the three fireplaces in the house in what turned out to be one of my life’s greatest adventures. All night long those trees would snap – really loud – and you could hear other trees all over the neighborhood giving in to the heavy ice.
While almost all the neighbors went to hotels downtown, my Dad decided we should stay put. Yesterday, as temperatures began to dip below 30 degrees and the radar showed we might get snow last night, I couldn’t help but remember living for an entire week – or was it ten days? – without any electricity in bitter cold.
At the time, my family was in the grocery business – we owned the Home Stores – so we would drag our sleds through the ice and snow to get provisions every day and then Mother would cook in the fireplace. It was a real hoot for us boys and we’d keep logs on the fire, read books, Daddy would tell stories, and there was a huge abundance of things to do.
What I remember most was how much fun it was living like pioneers. We would drape extra blankets over the doorway to help contain the heat. If you needed the bathroom you’d bundle up, go outside, and get behind some bushes. Keeping Cokes and ice cream was no problem and we would melt snow, boiling it, to keep the dishes clean when the pipes would freeze. They do that when it is zero degrees.
And when I tell my kids that I would bathe using a washcloth and a basin of water, they still swear I am lying. This was 56 years ago but I still remember yelling at my brother Jonathan to “bring some hot water … I’ve got soap in my eyes!”
The phone lines were down but we had a Philco radio that was battery-powered so listening to “Luther” on WDEF was our only window to the world. Every so often the police would come by, I suspect more interested in a fried-egg sandwich and hot coffee, than our welfare. Some of the other families that stayed would hike through the snow and ice to come by and visit almost every day and it was glorious fun.
Soon the house was full of people. We would play cards, sing, and soon we were delivering groceries by sled to those who couldn’t get out. I’m telling you, we had a time, and I remember every dog within a mile bunked in with us too.
It took two or three weeks to dig out, this after the power came back, and only now have the trees had the years to finally get big again. Over 50 years ago we had to learn poetry in school and I remember when the elementary school reopened after two or three weeks, I knew Rudyard Kipling’s sensational poem “If – “ by heart.
I stood and recited it for extra credit … and still got a ‘C’ in English. But the words have been dear friends to me ever since.
* * *
“IF” by Rudyard Kipling
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:
If you can dream – and not make dreams your master;
If you can think – and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings – nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son!
* * *
I wish everybody could spend a week without telephones, computers, running water yet surrounded by the laughter of those you love. Trust me, “you’ll be a man, my son.”