There are vivid memories of Thanksgiving Day, 1956 in my head as I approach tomorrow, which is Thanksgiving Day 2000.
The day started out normal enough, there were clear skies, for that time of year in Erie, Pa., and the temperature was still in the high thirties. I was 15 at the time, Eisenhower had just been elected to a second term, and things were pretty much right with the world in general.
It promised to be a exciting day as my grandparents would spend the day with us. It would also be a noisy day, because there were four of us children ranging in age from nine to my 15 years of age. Shortly after 9:00 in the morning it began the first snowfall of the year. By that same time the next day 48 inches of that blessed white powder had accumulated in our front yard and in everyone elses front yard in the entire city. That's two inches in every hour for a full day. By the time Thanksgiving dinner was eaten, there was already too much snow to make it "fun" anymore.
My grandparents were invited to stay the night and sleep in my brother's and my beds. while we would camp out on the floor. Well, you don't know my grandparents in general, and my grandmother in particular. She seemed to have this affinity for sleeping in her "own bed". So the onus was placed on my father, ably assisted by me, the eldest, to see them safely home. The distance was not great, about eight or nine city blocks, but we're not talking about a afternoon stroll in the sunshine here. It had begun to get dark about three in the afternoon, and it was now approaching 7:30. In Erie, one of the most popular east-west thoroughfares was West 29th Street. We lived on Moorhead St., which ran at an angle from 29th and Peach St. to 30th and Glenwood Park Avenue. My grandparents lived on Hazel St. a long half block off of 29th St. The distance from Peach to Hazel was eight blocks, less than a mile. Oh, did I tell you that Moorhead St. is a hill? Will it is, and one the worst hills in the entire city to negotiate in winter weather. We used to sit by the front windows and watch to see just how many dumbells would chance to "take the short way" home, just to spend three times the necessary time to get there spinning the treads off their tires on the ice. Invariably they would give up, back down or slide down to the bottom, turn around and go the "long way" anyway. Those lucky few, who thought to put their chains on, usually had no problems. At least, not in ordinary winter weather, but this storm was by no means ordinary. Even those with tire chains were slipping and sliding their way from one side of the street to the other. Having seen this, we got my grandparents bundled up and into my father's turquoise and white 1954 Oldsmobile Rocket 98. When it was clear, my father backed out of the driveway and went down the hill, which is the direction opposite that of my grandparent's home. Going this way only adds about a half mile to the journey, which is the reason that it seems so foolhardy for so many drivers to attempt the "HILL". Even so, it took nearly 45 minutes to get to Hazel St. And once we got there it was impossible to drive up Hazel to my grandparent's house as the street had been plowed in.. That stretch of Maple St. actually runs three blocks from 29th to 32d St. without a break. So the half block to their house was more than a city block. My grandmother was not strong enough to walk that distance in what was now about 18 or 20 inches of snow, so my father had to carry her the whole distance. I walked with my grandfather, holding his arm to help him keep his balance. It was slow going, one unsure step after another, but eventually we arrived at their door. Getting home was no easier.
This was our storm of the century, and things only got worse. By the Sunday after Thanksgiving the entire city was closed off to the rest of the world as far as car, truck, or train travel was concerned. And back then there wasn't much business at the airport anyway. So, even though we could get around town, nothing could get in or out. Food and provisions were flown in by helicopter to the grocery stores by the National Guard. The entire city operated nearly 30 inches off the ground. The snow was packed so hard, it could not be removed, so we just went along on top of it. Several. but not all schools were closed. We did the best we could under the circumstances and most of us survived. And those of us who did, will never forget Thanksgiving Day 1956.
Our winters in Erie equate with the hurricane season in Florida in that there is a period of the year when major storms are most likely to occur. But the very worst of them take place at the very beginning or the very end of the "season". Thanksgiving is still a month from the official beginning of Winter, but every once in a while like 1956 and this year, we are treated to the freak of nature, like a November hurricane. We've had our Decembers and Januaries with their 100+ inches of snowfall, but 48 inches in 24 hours is still the record in my book.