Cambridge Book Review

[Issue #3, Spring & Summer 1999]


Blizzard

Esther Clibon


Never again do I want to experience the powerful winds that swept across the hundreds of miles of prairies in Eastern Colorado in the 1920s when I was a little girl. With nothing to obstruct their velocity the powerful winds reached speeds of eighty to one hundred miles per hour blasting the biting snows before them.

Visibility was only a few feet, or sometimes there was no visibility at all, only the swirling snow freezing on face and eyelashes. Frostbite was a constant danger. Anyone who went out in the storm wore protection over their mouths, noses and ears in the form of a bandana tied around the face. The temperature might be less than forty degrees below zero, considering the wind chill factor. My parents checked the weather barometer several times a day.

My father strung strong ropes for guidelines from the house to the chicken house, and then to the coal shed and the outhouse, both about a block away. He made a triangular loop to the barn about two blocks away, and back to the house via the windmill. We children did not stray from the guidelines, even a few feet. People who failed to take this precaution sometimes became hopelessly disoriented in the swirling snows. Grown men had lost their lives within a few feet of their front doors.

Horses and cattle stood in tight groups with their backs to the wind. They crowded together so closely that the smaller or weaker animals would be knocked to the ground and trampled to death. Wearing heavy leather gloves, my father rubbed the snow off the faces of all the animals he could reach so that ice would not freeze on their nostrils and suffocate them. Pigs, cattle, sheep, and horses sometimes froze to death. If the storm came in the early spring during the lambing and calving season, many of the newly borns died. My father, older brother, and the hired man tried to herd the expectant mothers into the barns for their deliveries, but sometimes the storms just came up too quickly to make any preparations, or the animals became traumatized by the storm and gave birth prematurely, especially the first-time mothers. Every animal that was lost was an economic blow to the owner.

The blizzard took a toll of the wild animals too. I once saw an antelope impaled on a barbwire fence. It had tried to cross the snow-covered fence which did not hold its weight. There was not much protection for the birds. When the snow melted I saw dead hawks, quail, pheasant, and lark bunting on the prairies. Pigeons and sparrows flocked to the farm buildings for protection. The small animals-prairie dogs, ground squirrels, and gophers that lived in dens -- fared best. They instinctively stored stashes of seeds for food and grass for nests. The dens had multiple entries. On summer days the playful young rodents chased each other in and out of these entry ways. But during storms the additional entry came in very handy in case one became blocked with snow.

Coyotes were survivors. They loved the storms and roamed tirelessly, or curled up under any yucca plant, using their bushy tails for warmth and protection. Sometimes, though, they froze in their sleep, leaving carcasses as evidence.


* * *


During a storm was not a time for curling up with a book or writing memoirs as I am doing now during this great blizzard of October 24-25, 1997, while three feet of snow is falling. Chores went on day and night. There were about thirty-five cattle, a couple hundred sheep, a dozen or so horses, the same number of pigs, some sows with piglets, and twenty or thirty chickens to be tended. Some blizzards continued for several days. I do not know when my parents slept, or if they did. One of the men would stay in the barn most of the time caring for the animals.

If there were newborn calves or lambs, chilled and nearly dead after their strenuous entry into a cold, snowy world, the men would bring them to the kitchen and put them by the kitchen range. My brother and I rubbed the small animals dry with gunny sacks and then we kneaded them with our bare hands to stimulate their circulation until they were warm. Usually the lambs easily swallowed the cow's milk we fed them from baby bottles. The calves were slower to take to the milk. We would first coax them to suck milk off of our fingers, trying to simulate the cow's udder, and then push their noses into a small bucket of milk so that they had to drink or drown. Finally, if all went well, they struggled to their feet and were returned to the barn: the calves to the bawling cow, and the lambs to the bleating ewe, their udders swollen and hurting with retained milk. If a ewe died during the birthing, another ewe who had milk might become a surrogate mother even if she already had her own lamb. If not, we continued to bottle-feed them as long as necessary.

Lambs and calves in the kitchen caused a lot of confusion and dirt. Housekeeping was extremely difficult. The blowing snow made its way through every tiny crevice around the doors and windows. The small three-bedroom house was heated with the kitchen range and a pot-bellied stove in the living room. We were only really warm when within a few feet of one of them. There was no heat in the bedrooms. We dressed and undressed around the stove. Stones were warmed in the oven to put in bed at night to warm our feet. Bringing in wood and coal to stoke the fires was no small job. Everyone helped with the extra chores. There was always the possibility that the iron stoves, or the flues, would overheat and cause fire. So, caution had to be exercised at all times.

Somehow my mother found time to bake wonderful crumbly corn bread to be eaten with home-churned butter, or maybe molasses gingerbread. My father and the hired man, Sanchez, ate huge amounts of the nourishing food. There was a big pot of vegetable soup with chunks of meat for supper. Perhaps sticky popcorn balls before bed, too. We always expected a treat during a storm.


* * *


At last the howling winds quieted, the snow stopped. The whole world appeared pristine and clean. The sun shining on the sparkling white snowdrifts covering bushes, farm implements, and objects unidentifiable under their white blanket revealed curious shapes of all kinds: lovely castles, fairy-tale characters, exotic flowers. Snow covered the winter wheat fields and the grasslands where it was welcome for the moisture it contained. Far away, snow-covered Pikes Peak was silhouetted against the cloudless blue, blue sky.

All the animals were counted and we checked our losses. Any dead animals were skinned and their hides saved for tanning. Body parts were used for chicken, pig, or dog food. A rendering service driving a flat-bed truck would come by several days after a bad storm to pick up the dead animals. That was a sad time.

Chickens were safe in their straw-lined nests in the chicken house. Egg production might be down a little. Pigs were fed warm mash, and were usually safe in their pig sties. The cats and dogs stayed warm in the barns. They lived on big pans of milk set out for them at milking time. The mother cat might have a nest full of new kittens if the storm was in March.

A neighbor lost many cattle when they drowned after breaking through the ice of a pond where they'd been accustomed to drinking. Neighbor men brought their horses and helped pull the cattle from the pond. Ropes trussed around the dead bodies were tied to the double tree of the harness and the nervous horses pulled the carcasses to be loaded on the truck. The truck was equipped with a sling on to which the dead animals were rolled and then lifted with a hand-operated pulley attached to the truck bed for that purpose. This event was devastating for the owners.

Once a two-month old lamb that had been born early, and we'd made a pet of, was missing. My brother and I called and called "Petey!" and he responded "Baa." Searching for him in an area from which I thought I heard his bleat, I walked atop a snowdrift on the north side of the barn. After falling through the thin crust of the drift I found myself in a snow cave with the lamb. The cave had been formed from his own breath and the warmer air coming through cracks in the barn. He had gotten nourishment from some loosely stacked hay, water from melted snow, and was no worse for the experience. With the help of my brother, the lamb and I scrambled out of the cave. Happy to be out of confinement, he ran and played on the crusted snow.

After the storm my brothers, sister, and I went back to the one-room school. During recess we used our pent-up energy making three-foot high, quarter-circle snow forts to be protected in snowball fights. Back home, we'd slide down a hill east of the house on a homemade sled. Speeding down was more fun than trudging back up, slipping and sliding all the way.

During this blizzard of October, 1997, life is very different than in the 1920s. Cellular phones are used to notify authorities of stranded motorists. TV and radio coverage keep everyone advised of weather conditions. The National Guard assists in dropping emergency supplies from helicopters to farms and ranches, Army Humvees rescue people stuck in the snow. Four-wheel vehicles with snow tires plus chains transport personnel and patients to and from hospitals. Huge snowplows working 'round the clock will have the roads opened in a few days.

The farm and ranch houses now have central heating, modern plumbing, and electrical conveniences. During this October, 1997 storm in Colorado, during which Governor Roemer declared a State of Emergency, eight human lives were lost and thirty thousand cattle perished in addition to pigs, sheep, horses, and wildlife. The mighty blizzard still takes its toll.

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Esther Clibon lives in Colorado Springs, CO. Unable to tolerate inactivity after retirement from her real estate sales and property management career, she has started a book chronicling the lives of her parents on their eastern Colorado prairie homestead in the early 1900s. "Blizzard" is a chapter in that book.

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