The following story is by Carl Morrison, Class of '60, HHS English Instructor: Mitchell Dunker

Snowed In

Carl Morrison

The large snow flakes began to accumulate on the 2-lane Highway 50 in front of the small farm house, making the traffic noise quieter and quieter by the minute on the busy transcontinental highway. The snow was a ‘wet snow,’ by local standards, because it was unusually late in the season, March, for such weather. It accumulated quickly even though the ground was not frozen, as is the case for most snow storms.

My roommate, John, and I had made the 65-mile drive south from Indianapolis after our Friday college classes were over. Brother Don would arrive later for the weekend, from his first-year-teaching and coaching job in a small town farther west of Seymour. We were planning a weekend of Indiana’s favorite past time - watching high school basketball. It was the first week of the state championships - the sectionals.

Indiana is basketball crazy, as a local story in French Lick, IN, home of Larry Bird, attests. It seems, as the story goes, that a family with a young boy moved into French Lick. After two months, the family was visited by the county officials carrying charges of child abuse. In their own defense, they cited how they’d cared for the child. The officials responded with, “Yes, but you are guilty of child abuse because you have lived here for 2 months with this child and, as yet, have not put up a basketball goal for him!”

Our small farm was situated eight miles west of North Vernon, where my Mom worked as a secretary in an insurance office and eight miles east of Seymour, where my Dad had gone for the afternoon game of the first day of the sectional.

John and I pulled in, off the highway, onto our gravel driveway. Went onto the back porch, found the house key in the flower pot where it had been kept for years, and placed our few things in the bedroom where my brother and I had been born and raised until college age. I thought how small the house seemed, after being away to college a couple of years. We found the green crock cookie jar brim full. “Thanks, Mom,” I thought, “She always fed her boys good and knew what they liked.” As we filled tall glasses with cold milk, Don arrived, remarking how bad the roads were getting.

Roommate John was from Springfield, Illinois. He was a city boy, grandson of Illinois coal miners. His dad had left his mom when he was young, leaving 3 kids to be raised by his mom and there never was much food in his house, much less fresh milk and a full cookie jar! He told us about one menu he remembered from his youth, mustard sandwiches, as he eyed home made jellies and jams of Mom’s that Don and I took for granted. I suppose a boy raised hungry never gets his fill.

Snows this long and hard were unusual, even in the dead of winter, much less in March, in Southern Indiana. We walked outside and marveled at the depth of the snow as it began to get dark. The semi-trucks could hardly be heard, as they traveled east and west in front of the house on Mother Natures White Insulation. Car lights began to be a necessity. We went back in the house, stamping the snow off our feet as we crossed the screened in porch. We called Mom at her office to tell her how bad the roads were getting, she was about to leave at her 5 pm quitting time…too honest to take off a few minutes early. We called Dad at his sister’s house in Seymour. He was resting there between the afternoon and evening games. He planned to walk to the evening game, since her house was close by, and to stay over night with her, since the streets were becoming impassible. The towns did not have the advantage of snow plows that we hadn’t appreciated enough out along the state highway. We concluded that we would not try to make the night basketball game. I quietly wondered if I’d be able to entertain John for the evening…little did I know!

Another look outside revealed that traffic was going very slow. We bundled up again and went outside. Semi-trucks were moving the best, because of their weight I supposed. Everything was white and very quiet. Oncoming cars were distinguishable by two headlights with halos of falling snowflakes.. As the cars passed, windshield wipers were hard at work. Occupants looked stressed. I was happy we had already made it home. As we watched the slow motion scene of traffic, one eastbound semi driver stopped by traffic, shut down his rig, and climbed down from the cab. He left the truck parked directly on the white pavement, where traffic had been speeding by earlier in the day. No one would be going east the rest of the night, he concluded, so why put the semi in jeopardy on a soft berm. How quickly it happened.

I had never before seen this strange sight…cars stopped right in the road, heading both directions, snow hubcap deep. People sitting in their cars. Cars idling to keep the heaters going. No place to go. Everything stopped. Getting darker. Still snowing.

The trucker met the driver from the truck stopped behind his rig. They both checked their rigs…a habit of truckers who stop for any extended time. They locked their cabs and came wading through the snow across the yard to us. “Howdy, guess we’re here for the night.” “Come on in,” we responded, as I’d seen Dad and Mom say to stranded motorists in prior winters. They’d all only needed to use the phone…this, however, was going to be for a while!

The truckers seemed to realize the finality of the situation sooner than the passenger car occupants, who kept their heaters running, hoping for something that wasn’t going to happen. A Pepsi truck driver, left his liquid treasure in glass bottles to the elements and trudged through the knee deep snow with us to the house. We ‘regrouped’ in the kitchen, out of the falling wet snow and wind, which had both increased after sundown. The two convoy truck drivers introduced themselves as being from Ashland, NC.

A major decision was made around the kitchen table command post - not unlike most major decisions (greater or lesser than this one) made daily around the world at other kitchen tables. We six men concluded that “Those people out in their cars have to be brought inside. If their cars run out of gas, they would likely freeze to death, if they didn’t die from carbon monoxide first.”

Contingency plans were made to ‘keep the home fires burning’, literally. John and I went to the shed for two five-gallon buckets of coal for the furnace we had in the cellar (too small to be called a basement). This act of self-preservation was a hated task when I still lived at home. I’d helped Dad do this for as long as I could remember. I’d hold the flash light as he’d shovel the buckets full. We’d each carry one up the path to the house, across the screened-in porch, stomping off the snow, lifting the floor level cellar door, down the steep stone steps, and put the coal in the stocker. Take the poker, open the furnace door, pull out the clinkers and stoke the fire. Use the metal tongs to put the hot clinkers in the large metal cans in the cellar (for eventual crushing and use on the driveway), up the steps, close the door - it was all a learned behavior, even though I hadn’t done it for a couple of years, since I’d left for college.

With that job done, we began our more important work of rescuing lives. It was beginning to be exciting now. We wrapped up again - pulling on four-buckle Arctics of Dads. Boots found behind all farmhouse kitchen doors, just below the four-peg coat rack holding denim coats and baseball-type hats advertising tractors or cattle feed.

Out toward the road again. It was as dark as it could be, made pitch black by the blowing snow. Our flashlights seeming to only illuminate three or four feet ahead of us through the swirling snow. Cars, by now, were covered on the windward side, up to the door handles. We systematically went to the lee side and occupants had lowered their windows a crack, seeing our flashlights coming, welcoming whatever we had to offer. “Come on in the house,” was all we had to say. Doors opened and people piled out of the first car. From out of a snow drift, we had just rescued a family of five! We each scooped up a kid in our arms and headed our little rescue team toward the warm looking porch light. I couldn’t help but notice, however, that the father in this family unit did not carry a child as we trudged toward the house. We deposited the family back on their own two feet, inside the screened-in porch, told them to go on in and get warm - we’d head out for more people.

The Pepsi truck driver was arriving with his second run to his truck. We had convinced him, in our earlier strategy meeting, that his cargo would freeze and burst by morning, and that we should all enjoy his temporary cargo while it lasted. John was somewhat of a ‘Pepsiaholic’ and offered the suggestion. Don and I, having experienced a wide variety of snow storms and had worked our childhood outside on the farm, knew it wasn’t nearly cold enough to freeze the Pepsi’s to the point of bursting the bottles, but the driver seemed convinced and we kept those facts to ourselves…free Pepsi’s sounded like a once-in-a-lifetime treat and, after all, we needed foodstuffs for this crowd. The kids we’d brought in from the cold thought that was ‘cool,’ the parents wondered where Mom kept the coffee.

We passed, on the way, another family walking up the driveway, that the two truckers had rescued.

We rescued snowbound travelers until we started finding empty cars, as we wiped snow from the lee side of the cars windows. Concluding that we had reached the midpoint between our house and the gas station-restaurant about a half-mile down the highway to the east, and those people had gone to the restaurant for shelter.

Running through my mind was the hope that someone was likewise helping my Mom now, since she had not made it home before all travel stopped. I even considered heading east the eight miles, looking for her car, knowing there were four-mile stretches where there were no homes for her to take shelter in. John would have gone with me, but we decided to get back to the house and rethink this part of the plan. Convinced that all the stranded vehicles within our reach were no longer occupied, John and I made it back to the house, past the family-of-five’s car, the Pepsi truck, and the two semis.

Arriving back at the house, we pulled off the boots and coats, deposited the flashlights with them in a pile, and made it into the kitchen. There were more people in our house than I’d ever seen there. I was pointed out to a father of a family who the truckers had rescued, as the son of the owner of the house. The father asked if he could use the phone. After the obvious ‘yes’, he confided that his son was in the middle of the prescribed series of rabies shots from a recent dog bite, and he had to call a doctor! He started turning the rotary dial on our party line phone as I thought, “What good is calling a doctor eight miles away in the middle of the worst snow storm in local history going to do - he’ll never get here until the roads clear tomorrow,” but the Dad was doing all he knew how. I began to wonder if the tractor in the barn would start and how we could get me, the dad, and the boy on it and eight miles through the snow to a doctor! The phone was dead.

On and off, during the evening, I tried calling Mom’s office, hoping she had decided to stay there over the night. The phone was always dead. One time, as I tried to call, I lifted the phone and there was no dial tone, as usual, but it sounded like someone was on the other end. I said, “Hello!” From the other end came, “Carl?” We had somehow gotten connected! She had tried to drive home, but the city streets were so bad, she had returned to the office. I thanked the Lord she wasn’t on the road, and she convinced me that spending the night in an office chair wouldn’t be so bad, considering the only other option.

A card game had broken out at the kitchen table, after kids had been put to bed in all the bedrooms and various exhausted adults had dozed off on the front room couch, chairs, and floor. It was during the card game that I learned why the father hadn’t carried one of his own children to the house in the storm. When he handed me the deck of cards, he said, “You shuffle. I’ll deal.” I obliged, shuffled the deck, and placed it on the table in front of him. Leaving the deck on the table, he proceeded to awkwardly deal with his left hand, leaving his withered right hand on his lap, under the table. I felt badly that I’d had those earlier thoughts about him out in the snow. I began to admire him for the courage it takes every day when you are handicapped. That brought thoughts of my Aunt Cassie, who wore two leg braces from childhood polio. She was my favorite aunt, as I used to sit on her lap and feel those braces on my bottom. She didn’t seem to mind if I played with the crutch and cane she used to walk with. The card game continued…two truckers from North Carolina, a one armed father of three, and a pretty amazed college sophomore.

As it passed midnight, everyone but the two truckers had found a place to sleep, using some of the many quilts and blankets that Mom had stored away. I, after finding every available bed, chair, piece of carpet, filled with slumbering people, except the pacing father of the dog-bitten-boy who was staring out the kitchen door into the darkness to the east, I found the only place for my six foot frame to be the bathtub. I, with blanket and pillow, slid into the big white bed and quickly dozed off…smiling about the ‘entertainment’ I’d provided John.

After what seemed like one minute of sleep, I was awakened by headlight reflections flashing across the bathroom wall. I climbed out of my porcelain bed and walked toward the moving lights, visible over the hill to the east. They were the only lights I’d seen on the road all night, where, in better weather, headlights regularly painted the house with lights from from cars on the highway. There was an unusual, regular pattern of movement to these headlights - first aimed toward us, then turning to the north, then toward us, then toward the north again. More adults were aroused by the sound of the vehicle as it approached doing its snow dance. Finally, it got close enough, with back lighting from accompanying vehicles, to see that it was a skip loader - scooping up snow, turning to the side and dumping it, scooping another load, etc. I thought - have they been doing that for eight miles? Continuing to watch this strange snow-eating dragon procession, we all, save one, were amazed to see it turn into our driveway and begin to clear out the snow from our driveway. Soon an army jeep made a quick u-turn in our driveway and a uniform came to the door. “Anyone here in need of rabies shots?”

Before anyone could answer, the dog-bitten-boy’s father carried him, followed closely by the rest of the family, to one of the waiting jeeps, and the weird processional soon disappeared over the hill heading back east…and it was dead quiet again. The rest of the little rescue mission’s occupants gazed out over the snow and realized that it had quit snowing and a full moon lighted the fields of brilliant white. The dog-bitten-boy’s father’s persistence had paid off. But who would have thought of calling the National Guard!

Realizing that any sleep we’d already gotten was all we were going to get this night, the wife of the withered-handed man asked where my Mom kept the oatmeal. Again, the small kitchen was the center of action.

At dawn, we drug ourselves again to the highway to survey the deepest snowfall and the highest snow drifts we’d ever seen in our lives. Snow had entirely covered cars. We got out the box camera and took pictures of ourselves standing by humps in the snow - cars. With clear, blue skies, the bright sun began to melt the snow. The only movement on the highway was people walking, or rather wading through the snow, back to check their cars.

Soon, from the west came a D-9 Catapillar bulldozer, clearing the part of the highway that wasn’t covered with parked cars, making a single lane for traffic. A line of cars from the west followed the D-9. Soon, from our vantage point a little east of the house, we saw Dad pull into the driveway. He saw us out surveying the scene and came toward us in his overcoat and hat. “Why is the driveway all cleared out?” “We’ll explain later, Dad, Mom’s coming up six mile hill!” as we pointed east.

--Carl Morrison, Class of '60, posted to this site: 3/28/98

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