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Gilbert: Blizzard

(Host) With the return of wintry weather, parents once again have to plan ahead for days when their children may be released from school early due to impending weather, out of concern for their safety. It's a necessity that's reminded commentator and Vermont Humanities Council executive director Peter Gilbert of how a tremendously powerful winter storm once swept across the northern plains - with the most dire of consequences.

(Gilbert) On January 12, 1888, one hundred and twenty-five years ago this Saturday,a blizzard swept down on Montana, the Dakotas, and Nebraska with temperatures that plummeted eighteen degrees in three minutes, tremendous winds, and blowing ice crystals as fine as flour and so thick it was hard to breath.

It had been the first day of nice weather in weeks, and so many kids had gone to school without coats or gloves. The storm came without notice, not even cirrus clouds. David Laskin tells us in his book The Children's Blizzard that One minute it was mild, the sun was shining... the next moment frozen hell had broken loose.

When the storm first hit, some farmers, not appreciating the danger, understandably went looking for a missing cow, got disoriented, and perished. With no visibility, farmers had to walk blind in what they hoped was the proper direction just to get from the barn to the house. Only when they bumped into the house did they know where they were. Survivors remembered the indescribable roar of the wind, a roar that one not only heard but also felt vibrating in one's gut.

It was called the Schoolchildren's Blizzard because many of the estimated deaths, perhaps as many as 500, were children caught by the storm on their way home from school. When students tried to make their way from school to a nearby house, sometimes with teachers or with a father who'd come to rescue them, they often became separated, and that was usually that. No one could survive long in those conditions. Some teachers kept their students safe inside their one-room schoolhouses, but other students died when the roofs of their schools blew off.

Laskin tells us that there were a few cases of people being rescued, but mostly people saved themselves [and their companions] or they weren't saved. The families were mostly poor European immigrants, Germans and Scandinavians - taciturn, uncomplaining, certainly not inclined to hyperbole. But hyperbole was hardly possible in this case.

At the end of his book Laskin includes several emails from descendants of people he'd written about. One woman was six or seven when her great uncle told her and others about the storm. She remembered how he looked when he talked about letting go of his brother's hand to wipe the ice from his face, and, she added, ...when he [told] us how he couldn't find his brother's hand again, he rapped his cane against the floor boards. Hard...

Any of us who have ever worried about a family member on the roads during a storm or a teenager late home on a Saturday night, or now even a young child at school can imagine the heartbreak these families suffered. We are humbled by our blessings, and we hold our loved ones close.

Peter Gilbert is executive director of the Vermont Humanities Council.
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