22 April 2009

JFK Inaugural Snowstorm

After we compared notes on the last winter snowstorm of the past season, I got a message from my friend Helen in Tel Aviv. It's remarkable to me that she can sit in the Mid-East and watch news and weather reports from New York City! Anyway, she commiserated with our weather conditions, and mentioned having been caught in Brooklyn in the blizzard of '83. That reminded me that I was caught in that same blizzard--but in Jersey City where I was rehearsing Bell, Book, and Candle for a local troupe. Helen described the trek back to her apartment in Park Slope, and the scene recalled to my mind another snowstorm I experience almost 50 years ago in Washington, D.C. I can even pinpoint the date because it was the evening of President Kennedy's inauguration: Friday, 20 January 1961; I was 14. Now that we’re safely (?) ensconced in spring, I thought looking back at one winter storm might be (masochistic) fun. Here's what I recall to have happened:

I don't remember when the snow started to fall, but after school, I had a doctor's appointment downtown on I (“Eye”) Street at about 20th, right where Pennsylvania Avenue intersects--the heart of the government office district. I took the trolley downtown to my appointment after school (Washington still had trolleys when I was in school) and my mother usually picked me up afterwards. During the time I was at the doctor's, the snow had accumulated to the degree that the government offices all closed so the workers could get home. When I left the doctor's office to meet my mom on the street, the downtown area was flooded with people trying to get home in the heavy snowfall; public transportation was all backed up, of course, and auto traffic was a mess as usual in D.C. when it snows. (Washington, though it gets the same weather that New York City does most of the time, still thinks of itself as a southern town and has never learned how to prepare for snow. No one in the city knows how to drive on snow, and the city has never--at least not in my childhood--purchased a fleet of snow plows or salt-spreaders.)

Mom was driving our Ford station wagon and my little brother, six days from his twelfth birthday, was with her. She had gone shopping before she met me and the groceries were in the cargo part of the wagon. Somewhere along the line, Mom picked up a couple of government office workers; I don't remember if they were already in the car when I came down from the doctor's or if she picked them up as we were going back up Pennsylvania Avenue. I don't recall, but they must have lived more or less near us or on the way to where we lived, out on the D.C.-Maryland border in what was colloquially known as "Chevy Chase, D.C." because it was right across Western Avenue from that Maryland suburb. (It was actually known as Barnaby Woods.) In any case, there were five of us in the station wagon, making our way slowly through the traffic and snow-filled roads from downtown Washington to the northwest edge of the city.

I don't remember exactly anymore how long we were in the car, but it took hours and hours to get through the clogs and navigate the slippery and unplowed streets once we got off the big avenues. I recall that my dad was home by this time and had no idea where we were. (I think Mom remembers that Dad was out of town or something and had called home to check in, but we often differ on details of family history.) In either case, there was no way to let him know where we were or that we were safe, so he was frantic. Meanwhile, my brother and I were getting hungry--it was by now well past 6 or 7 in the evening--so we climbed into the back of the station wagon and started raiding the grocery bags for any food we could eat right out of packages we could open in the car--sandwich meat, cereal, cheese . . . whatever.

As we got into the northwest residential areas of the District, the hour had gotten late and the snowfall had stopped, but we started seeing all the toffs in their evening clothes, planning to go off to the inaugural balls, sliding along slick streets and sidewalks, pushing cars out of drifts or frozen gutters. The sight of both men in tails--some even in top hats--and women in elaborate evening gowns and high heels behind slipping, sliding, careening cars, pushing them, wheels spinning on the snow and ice, out of parking places or up slippery inclines will remain with me forever! I can't tell you how often I see a period movie or TV show set on that date and in that place and note that the moviemakers never include the snow and the disaster that made of the festive evening. For some reason, the JFK Inaugural Snowstorm is not part of our popular history. But I remember it.

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