The Blizzard of 1958 (Southern New Jersey)
1958: I was seven-years-old and living on a farm in South Jersey. It was mid-March, just a couple of days before the first day of spring. Our weather forecasters said we were going to get 1 to 2 inches of snow overnight. We woke up to over a foot of heavy, wet snow that pulled down most power lines across the area. There was over 2 feet of snow on the ground by the time the surprise storm ended that evening.
Luckily we had fireplaces in all the living room and all the bedrooms. My Uncle Ed and I had just brought in a big load of firewood so at least we wouldn’t freeze to death. However, lights and running water were a problem. It was decades before bottled water was a thing. We had a well and a manual pump in the yard so at least we’d stay hydrated. My grandparents lived next door and my grandmother had canned enough fruits and vegetables for the Apocalypse, so we wouldn’t starve.
Our water was heated by propane so if we could just find a way to get running water, we would be able to bathe. My Uncle Ed, a serious inventor, came up with some solutions, each one more far-fetched than the last. He was actually going to put a huge barrel on the roof, fill it with water and run a hose to the main water input. When he figured we’d have to lug over 100 buckets of water to the roof, he went back to the drawing board.
While the adults were busy trying to change the laws of physics, I remembered a Popeye cartoon where Olive Oyl hooked a pulley to her bicycle and used it to run a washing machine. I wondered if it would work to run the electric pump in the basement. While my Uncle Ed along with my mother and grandparents were busy trying to figure something out, I hit the barn and got all the supplies I needed.
There was a large fanbelt that had been hanging on the wall of the barn ever since I could remember. I planned to rig it to my bicycle’s rear wheel. There were a lot of weird things in our barn that made no sense to me until I found out that my grandfather used to make bootleg whiskey. Since Uncle Ed was a major league bootlegger during prohibition, I guess it ran in the family. There was also a “secret” (well, I found it) storage area in the floor of the barn containing a cache of some pretty nasty looking weapons, shotguns, pistols and high-powered rifles. Have I mentioned that I really didn’t like my family while I was growing up and today I’m the happiest orphan you’ll ever see? They were some strange folks.
I removed the rear tire from my bike and threaded the fanbelt around the rim. I took fan belt off the pump’s motor and put the other end of the fanbelt from my bike around it. I propped my bike up on several concrete blocks and turned on the faucet of the basement sink on to see if my idea would work. I had to peddle like the revenuers were chasing me, but it worked.
I went and got my folks. When they saw my Rube Goldberg-like contraption in the basement, they assured me that it would never work. They were always so supportive. But everyone was able to take a shower. The propane tank was full so we were ready for an extended confinement. Uncle Ed peddled while I showered. I took an extra long one each time just to piss him off.
We were without power for over 2 weeks. But at least we were clean. We even bottled some water and gave it to our neighbors who also depended on electricity to run the pump from their wells.
Uncle Ed and I took turns digging out our driveway, which was 800 feet long. Took three days but we were finally free. At night my relatives were lost without TV. I had a battery operated radio so we were able to listen each night. Radio was a hell of a lot more entertaining back in the late 1950’s. I did a lot of reading in front of the fireplace in the living room. My folks kept telling me I would ruin my eyes. Fooled them, masturbation took care of that a few years later.
The Blizzard of 1996 – The Aftermath
When I finally made it home from QVC to Chester Springs, PA, after the Blizzard of ’96 in early January, I had quite a cleanup chore. I called the 2 guys I usually used, Tweedldumb and Tweedledumber, as I referred to them, to plow my driveway. We had almost 40 inches of snow and some massive drifts. They finally made it to my place and started to plow my driveway. The truck came in like an Indy racer. I guess they thought their excessive speed would propel them through the massive snow.
Their speed did cause them to spin out and cleave off my well cap, causing all kinds of crap to fall into my water well. They were drunk and drove off laughing at me trying to get them to pay for the well cap. Okay, I now had no water and had to shovel for several hours to get my car out of the garage, since they had plowed it in while clearing the rest of the driveway. (They have both since died from natural causes. Their house had to be demolished because they were hoarders and their house was overrun by rats, mice and roaches. Simple country folk with a plow.)
I called the well people. That’s how you know you live in the country; you have “well people” Luckily they were able to come over and had my well fixed, complete with a new well cap, in about an hour. It cost over $400 but at least I had water. The drunken plow guys gave me a $400 credit on mowing my 5 acre yard in the spring. See my blog “It Blowed Up Real Good,” for their escapades in lawn care.
When the well people left, I looked at my mostly unplowed driveway. It was a big circle and was over 300 feet long. I know because I recently had it repaved. Not wishing to find another drunken duo to plow it again, I decided to buy a snowblower. I headed out to a few local hardware stores. I found out that trying to buy a snowblower after a major blizzard is like Noah trying to get flood insurance. I was laughed at in almost every store.
I decided to head north where the storm hadn’t been as bad. I drove up Rt. 100 for several miles and finally came across The Coventry Mall. This shopping center, which may be gone by now, was great. I didn’t know how it stayed in business since it was never crowded. I always did a lot of Christmas shopping there for that very reason.
Sears was one of their anchor stores back then. Surely Craftsman would have exactly what I needed. And given the smaller accumulations of snow in that area, they surely wouldn’t be sold out.
Hey, when I’m wrong, I’m wrong. Not a snowblower to be found. At least the legendary Sears customer service kicked in and the salesperson didn’t laugh at me. He offered an interesting solution. He told me they were getting an order of industrial snowblowers in the next day and they still had one available.
According to him, it was made by a company in Canada who made all of the U.S. Craftsman snowblowers. It had a 50 inch track and a 24 horsepower, electric-start motor. I did a double take when he said it was $3,800. But then I thought about the drunken family plowers and reached for my checkbook. He said it would be delivered by a truck late tomorrow afternoon. He kept making a big deal that it was a common carrier and not UPS or Fed Ex. The phrase “common carrier” should have been my first clue. However, since another big storm was coming in a few days I felt pretty good about the purchase.
The next day a huge delivery truck pulled into my half-plowed driveway. Once he made sure he was at the right address, he and 2 other men started to unload a wooden crate about the size of a Studebaker. When I balked at the size, he said that this was just one of three crates. One of three? Of my dear God, it had to be assembled!
They left the crates in my driveway with just enough clearance for me to get my car out. Along with the boxed Studebaker, there was a Volkswagen Beetle-sized box and one the size of a refrigerator. These were heavy, wooden boxes that were built with heavy nails and screws. While I had a full complement of socket wrenches and tools for the assembly, I lacked the one thing to begin the process – a crowbar. I headed off to Ace Hardware and bought one.
It took a half hour to open the first box. Yeah, this was going great. I was tempted to just let the house go and take up residence in the box. Then I could buy a truck with a plow, start drinking heavily and start my own business.
The damned thing didn’t come with instructions. It came with freakin’ blueprints. Luckily I had learned how to read them while growing up on the farm. Six hours into the project I had opened all the boxes and laid out the dozens and dozens of parts. I’d tackle it tomorrow at daybreak.
Daybreak was as cold and damp as a witch’s thorax. Plus, a huge groundhog had taken up residence in one of the boxes. He was not pleased that I would be working in his vicinity. He lives with the groundhog God now. He felt no pain and I’m sure my neighbors wondered what the huge bang was at 7 AM.
After the burial detail, I started bolting the pieces together. By noon I had a huge monstrosity that looked more like an Erector Set on Steroids than a snowblower. I took a break for lunch and to get warm and went back to bolting. While outside, I noticed the several feet of snow on my roof so I took a break to shovel it off.
Shoveling snow off a high roof might is as much fun as juggling monkeys while you’re trying to eat a banana. I’ve always had a good sense of balance but this was an awful job. Lots of “almost” falls. Took about several hours but didn’t end with me needing a cast or wheelchair and the weight was off my roof so I considered it a win. I was beat, so I decided to tackle the rest of the snowblower construction tomorrow.
Next day I again started at daybreak. No squatting groundhog so it went pretty well. By noon, it kind of looked like a snowblower. By 4PM, it was finished and ready to test. I plugged it into the outdoor socket, pushed the button and it roared to life. Good grief, it was as loud as a 737 taking of without noise abatement. I stood on the operator’s platform and eased it into gear. Self propelled with a 50 inch throw. King of the world, Ma!
It took a few minutes to get oriented but soon I started blowing the snow from my driveway. It was amazing. I had the entire driveway clean I a couple of minutes. It was too big for the sidewalk along the house so I made a mental note to buy a smaller snowblower for that chore, which I did the next year.
For the next 9 years I lived in Chester Springs, I was a snow blowing machine. I started wearing headphones to cancel the noise. Listening to books on tape while clearing my driveway seemed kind of decadent and helped to pass the time. When the road crews would plow in the end of my driveway, the snowblower was powerful enough to throw their pile of snow to the grass on the other side of the road.
When I moved to Nashville, I left the well used snowblowers with the house, figuring the new residents would make good use of them. And someday, I might just build a real Studebaker. It’ll probably have fewer parts.
©2018 Steve Bryant – No portion of this may be copied and used in any print or broadcast medium without the express permission of the author.