Our Blizzard


Photo from the Chicago Tribune. The caption on the Trib site doesn’t give the location, but I’m pretty sure this is looking north up the southbound lanes of Lake Shore Drive near McCormick Place, which burned the morning the storm started. Note the railroad on the left–the Illinois Central.

A nice touch on the Chicago Tribune’s website: a 24-frame slideshow of the big snow of 1967. (See it here: Worst snowstorm in Chicago history). That was our generation’s blizzard, a snowfall so enormous that it defied imagination even as you watched it happen. The official total for January 26-27 was 23 inches. We got a couple feet where we lived, just outside Park Forest. The storm started on a Thursday morning; we went to school despite the heavy snow that was already falling and were hustled back home at midday as the district realized its buses might not be able to get all the kids back home as the snow piled up. As it was, some students were stranded in schools and some had to seek shelter along the road as buses were marooned. The domed roof of the high school gym, a local oddity or marvel depending on your point of view, collapsed. My dad was stuck at work in the city for two days and had to hoof it back home from the Illinois Central train station in Richton Park along three miles or so of unplowed roads. We were out of school for about 10 days, at first because the roads were impassable in our mostly rural school district (Crete-Monee District 201-U) and then because the heating plant at the high school failed. The experience was so total, so completely diverting, that the major news that swept the nation at the same time–the deaths of the first three Apollo astronauts in a launch-pad fire in Florida–made only a brief impression. And it kept snowing after the blizzard, too, and for a while the winter of ’66-’67 stood as the snowiest in the city’s history. The Park Forest Plaza, our local proto-mall, had piles of plowed up snow that didn’t melt completely until–well, I want to say May.

Other links:

Caught on film: How Chicago dealt with the big snow 44 years ago (WBEZ)

The Chicago Blizzard of 1967 (Chicago Tribune)

The Blizzard of ’67 (Unknown Chicago)

The Great 1967 Chicago Blizzard (WTTW, via YouTube)

The Great Chicago Blizzard of 1967, 44th Anniversary (Chuck’s Adventures)

Another Country

I’m reading “No Ordinary Time,” Doris Kearns Goodwin’s account of how the Roosevelt administration managed the home front during World War II. It’s a good-enough read and well researched, but there’s sort of a rushed feeling to it that makes me wonder how long she had to work on the thing. In any case, I was struck by a brief passage on the nation’s economic situation in the spring of 1940, when Germany’s attack on Western Europe prompted FDR to push for a rapid mobilization of industry and resources in the United States. Goodwin’s point is one often made: how on the eve of war, the American economy was still in the throes of the Depression. What strikes me is the stark difference between the country she describes and the one I grew up in — having been born less than a decade after the end of the war.

“…The economy had not yet recovered; business was still not producing well enough on its own to silence the growing doubts about capitalism and democracy. Almost ten million Americans, 17 percent of the work force, were without jobs; about two and a half million found their only source of income in government programs. Of those who worked, one-half of the men and two-thirds of the women earned less than $1,000 a year. Only forty-eight thousand taxpayers in a population of 132 million earned more than $2,500 a year.

“In his second inaugural [in January 1937], Roosevelt had proclaimed that he saw “one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished. On this spring day three years later, he could still see abundant evidence of serious deprivation. Thirty-one percent of thirty-five million dwelling units did not have running water; 32 percent had no indoor toilet; 39 percent lacked a bathtub or shower; 58 percent had no central heating. Of seventy-four million Americans twenty-five years old or older, only two of five had gone beyond eighth grade; one of four had graduated from high school; one of twenty had completed college.”

The Moon When Chokecherries Are Ripe

June 25, 1876:

“The time was early in the Moon When the Chokecherries Are Ripe, with days hot enough for boys to swim in the melted snow water of the Greasy Grass. Hunting parties were coming and going in the direction of the Bighorns, where they had found a few buffalo as well as antelope. The women were digging wild turnips out in the prairies. Every night one or more of the tribal circles held dances, and some nights the chiefs met in councils. ‘The chiefs of the different tribes met together as equals,’ Wooden Leg said. ‘There was only one who was considered as being above all the others. This was Sitting Bull. He was recognized as the one old man chief of all the camps combined.’

“… The news of Custer’s approach came to the Indians in various ways: ” ‘I and four women were a short distance from the camp digging wild turnips,’ said Red Horse, one of the Sioux Council chiefs. ‘Suddenly one of the women attracted my attention to a cloud of dust rising a short distance from camp. I soon saw the soldiers were charging the camp.’ …

“… Meanwhile Pte-San-Waste-Win and the other women had been anxiously watching the Long Hair’s soldiers across the river. ‘I could hear the music of the bugle and could see the column of soldiers turn to the left to march down to the river where the attack was to be made. … Soon I saw a number of Cheyennes ride into the river, then some young men of my band, then others, until there were hundreds of warriors in the river and running up into the ravine. When some hundreds had passed the river and gone into the ravine, the others who were left, still a very great number, moved back from the river and waited for the attack. And I knew that the fighting men of the Sioux, many hundreds in number, were hidden in the ravine behind the hill upon which Long Hair was marching, and he would be attacked from both sides.’

“Kill Eagle, a Blackfoot Sioux chief, later said that the movement of Indians toward Custer’s column was “like a hurricane … like bees swarming out of a hive.’ “

–Dee Brown, “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee”

Worst Ever

I note stories this morning calling the state’s 11.5 unemployment rate for May 2009 “a record.” It’s not really true. It can be said for sure it *is* the highest since 1976, when the state’s current record-keeping system began. But the rate was higher–much higher–during the Great Depression right up to the eve of World War II

Only guesses are available for the worst years of the Depression, in the early and mid-1930s, when 25 percent or more of the labor force is believed to have been jobless. That situation improved but only slowly during the late ’30s. State records cited in an April story from the Chronicle’s Tom Abate showed a 14.7 unemployment rate in October 1940. With the nation gearing up for war, the rate fell quickly thereafter. Last month’s figure of 11.5 percent appears to be the highest since January 1941, when the rate stood at 11.7 percent.

None of this is to minimize the enormity of the statistics reported today. The rate now is at the highest point in nearly 70 years and is a sign of an epochal economic failure.

Forced to Drink Beer

From my continued researches in The New York Times archives, this little snippet from October 23, 1900 (to put the item in context just a little, the country’s male voters were getting ready to re-elect William McKinley; who was running against … William Jennings Bryan, a son of Salem, Illinois, I believe; how many elections have pitted major candidates with the same first name?).


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Faulkner’s Take

Here’s an oft-quoted passage from William Faulkner (from “Intruder in the Dust,” which no, I have not read) that grabs a lot of people:

For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it’s still not yet two oclock on that July afternoon in 1863, the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns are laid and ready in the woods and the furled flags are already loosened to break out and Pickett himself with his long oiled ringlets and his hat in one hand probably and his sword in the other looking up the hill waiting for Longstreet to give the word and it’s all in the balance, it hasn’t happened yet, it hasn’t even begun yet, it not only hasn’t begun yet but there is stll time for it not to begin against that position and those circumstances which made more men than Garnett and Kemper and Armstead and Wilcox look grave yet it’s going to begin, we all know that, we have come too far with too much at stake and that moment doesn’t need even a fourteen-year-old boy to think This time. Maybe this time with all this much to lose and all this much to gain: Pennsylvania, Maryland, the world, the golden dome of Washington itself to crown with desperate and unbelievable victory the desperate gamble, the cast made two years ago….

As a northerner and as someone who grew up believing (and who still believes) that the Civil War was fought in the most just of causes — ultimately, to end slavery — it’s probably impossible to fully appreciate the feelings Faulkner’s evoking there. Yes, history’s full of moments of barely missed opportunity, of heroes thwarted, of big “what if” moments. What if Lincoln hadn’t been at Ford’s Theatre? What if Bobby Kennedy had lived? But what Faulkner is talking about is where history blends into myth. In some important way, it doesn’t take into account a moral dimension of the event it interprets. What if Lee had prevailed at Gettysburg (that’s the premise for a series of historical novels being written by Newt Gingrich, by the way)? Yeah — and what if the Soviets hadn’t stopped Hitler at Stalingrad? Sure, we have a wish that true valor had some reward beyond a glorified version of “nice try” and a bullet in the chest. But part of the reason we can look back and daydream about these episodes is because they came out the way they did. The Faulkner quote reminds me of another that kicks around in my head, from Grant’s account of Lee’s surrender at Appamattox:

“I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse. I do not question, however, the
sincerity of the great mass of those who were opposed to us.”