Photo by Pachydiplax
The winter of 1957-1958 was an eventful one for my family living in a western suburb of Baltimore. To a 13 year old, the 8” snowstorm in early December was an opportunity to make some money shoveling snow off sidewalks and driveways. The snow also closed schools for several days, which disappointed my mother for sure, having seven children to watch over. It was good practice for what was yet to come in the months ahead.
The next major snowfall began on Saturday February 15 and continued until the 17th dropping up to 22” in some areas. Temperatures fell to just above zero and the wind picked up causing drifts that closed major roads, kept businesses from opening and children home from school. None of this would have affected the family but for the fuel oil tank running dry.
The lack of fuel for the furnace resulted in the entire clan sleeping in the living room in front of the fireplace for five nights. It wasn’t that bad, we had electricity that allowed my mother to cook hot meals that we ate in front of the fire and television to hopefully keep seven children occupied. The telephone worked also, I don’t recall the phone ever not working as a result of snow. Fuel oil would be delivered as soon as the truck could make it down our road, after the snowplow cleared the road, whenever that would be.
On Monday, I learned how to install chains on a car’s tires and I learned that even with chains sometimes the snow on the ground is too deep to drive in. Later that day, I walked with my father and a neighbor, each of us pulling a sled, the mile and a half to the nearest store at Catonsville Junction. We returned with basics like milk and bread for several neighbors in addition to food for our own needs. One sled carried several cases of beer and a couple fifths of whiskey purchased at the bar across the street from the grocer.
Despite being snowed in, there were many things to do, like splitting logs to burn in the fireplace or sledding on the hilly part of Rockwell Ave. just two blocks away. There was money to be made shoveling snow and going back to the store for other people in the neighborhood. Finally, on Friday, a snowplow went down our street. The fuel oil company couldn’t get to us until Saturday. Friday night my father brought home an empty 55-gallon drum. It was filled with fuel the next day, in addition to the 500 gallons in the tank that fed the furnace. We were set now, or so we thought.
Over the next month it snowed enough to where there were 12” of snow on the ground, then on 19th of March, a slow moving nor’easter began dumping an additional 24 to 30 inches of heavy wet snow over the Baltimore-Washington region. Of course we were prepared with plenty of food and fuel oil, except for one thing: The snow had knocked down power lines and we were without electricity.
Once again, the family was huddled around the fireplace, only this time we were cooking over the fire too. The snow that had begun falling on Wednesday stopped on Friday. The snowplow came by and the paper man was able to deliver the evening newspaper. There was an article about President Eisenhower leaving the White House to spend time at Camp David, the Presidential retreat in Frederick, Maryland. After reading that story, my father called Western Union and sent a telegram to the President: “Dear Mr. President, seeing how the Whitehouse will be empty this weekend, would you mind if my wife and I and our 7 children who have been without heat and electricity for 4 days moved in to thaw out and take hot baths?”
Obviously, the Western Union operator contacted someone at the Baltimore Sun Newspaper because the following day a small article about my father’s telegram appeared on the last page of the Baltimore Evening Sun. The one thing that I have remembered about this time, the thing that has allowed me to pinpoint the exact dates was the headline on the front page of the March 22nd edition of the evening paper: “Mike Todd Killed in Plane Crash” (To those of you who have never heard of Mike Todd, he was a movie producer, the inventor of the Todd-AO wide screen projection system and at the time was married to Elizabeth Taylor.)
The winter of 1957-1958 will always be one of my most memorable, a reminder to respect the powerful forces of nature with a lesson in being prepared.