Gaston & Catawba

I remember winters when snow really fell

Most of the leaves have fallen here in the Catawba Valley, at least most of the pretty, colorful ones. The wind and cold of late October hurried along what had been the languid pace of the green to gold to ground process.

The sun sinks behind the southern ranges of the Blue Ridge well before 5:30 p.m. Twilight is short. Night falls like a black curtain as the days dwindle toward the winter solstice next month.

The Friday night lights of the high school football stadiums have mostly gone out, save for the favored few teams who are advancing in the playoffs. The local sports focus now shifts to the gymnasium, to hoops and to wrestling.

The Pleiades come peeking over the pine trees at the edge of the yard not long after sunset. Capella, which historian William Manchester dubbed “Jack Kennedy's star,” flares yellow and blue in the northeast as twilight deepens.

Yes, the signs are all pointing toward winter.

But the question must be asked, what kind of winter will it be?

The students I teach each day at Draughn High School have never experienced a real winter. Winter for them means a few weeks of cool weather, punctuated by warm spells, starting late and ending early.

Snow is something they drive into the high country near Boone and Blowing Rock to see. It has become nearly as foreign to the Carolina foothills as it is to the Florida Everglades.

Winter storm warnings here bring little but ice – no matter how much the TV weather forecasters yell, scream and turn red in the face – if they bring any frozen precipitation at all.

But I remember a different time. A time before global warming or the geothermal cycle or the bomb or whatever turned our foothill winters into a tiny period of transition between lingering autumn and early spring.

I remember watching the ever-sedate Clyde McLean on WBTV's evening news at 6 as he talked about a “classic situation” setting up, involving Gulf moisture to the south and cold high pressure to the north.

I remember going to bed hoping and praying and dreaming and wishing that the promise of snow would indeed be fulfilled in the night.

And I remember awakening to look out the window of the bedroom I shared with my brothers and seeing the magical, mystical, wonderful sight of huge, wispy flakes of snow floating down to join the blanket of white that had already formed.

What would pass as a great snow today – 2 or 3 inches – would have been sneered at as a mere piddling annoyance in those days. No, the snows of my youth fell deep, froze hard, and lingered long.

A 6-inch snowfall was passable. Eight to 10 inches was good. But the best snowfalls were those that could not be measured with a foot-long ruler, those that drifted and blew, and that effectively shut down the world for days at a time.

I remember, too, the dry cold snaps, days when powerful Arctic cold fronts would race over the mountains and across the foothills with winds that would shake the house, rattle the windows and literally chill the bones.

Such cold was not a day or two of aggravation. At times, the chill, raw, sub-freezing temperatures could linger for weeks, testing not only the oil furnaces and the wood stoves but the human spirit as well.

The winter of 1960-61 stands out in memory as one that was especially cold and snowy – a year when the cold lingered into what should have been spring and when heavy snowfalls were recorded on three consecutive Wednesdays in March.

The winter of 1967-68 was another that was long and exceptionally snowy, and the winter of my senior year at Chapel Hill, 1976-77, stretched cold and gray and frigid from mid-October until early March.

Short, mild winters have been the rule rather than the exception for the past couple of decades, and fuel bills and heating costs are certainly a lot easier to handle when the snow and the cold stay far to our north.

But a part of me, perhaps the child in me, longs for at least a taste of the past this coming winter. Once, just once, I'd like to awaken again to the sight of the snow falling heavily and the drifts in the yard growing deep.