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  • February 14th, 2011

Orphans In The Storm

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By Joel M. Vance

They’ll be talking about the Great Blizzard of Ought-Eleven for a hundred years.  Kids today will tell their grandchildren how they were cut off from the world for hours when the satellite dish went down and they couldn’t get a cell phone signal.

Oh, the horror!

Blizzards….we’re not talking a snow with softly falling flakes, some wine, firelight, a setting romantic enough to turn a monk into a Hollywood horndog.  No, this is snow right off the polar ice cap, with testicles, the kind that blows right up your nose and turns you into Frosty the Dead Snowman.

Twice I have been sidelined by nor’westers that locked up the Interstate and forced me into refuge in unlikely places.  Once was in Oklahoma; the other somewhere in the middle of Kansas.  Both times the resident Mom and Pop came to our rescue.

Four of us set out in a car from Jefferson City, Missouri, to Albuquerque, New Mexico, for a conference.  All was well for 400 miles.  We ate peanuts and told stories.  The blizzard hit quickly and violently, the way those spring storms savage the Plains States.  Teddy Roosevelt lost his herd and his shirt when a blizzard killed all his North Dakota cattle back in the 1800s.

We were in that no man’s land of western Oklahoma where an oil well derrick is the only thing between you and the howling wind.  Snowflakes began to fall, a few at first, then a bunch and finally a whiteout.  Some little town was the last outpost between us and nowhere.

We spied a huge Ramada Inn on the south side of the highway.  No rooms–it was filled with bankers having an annual convention.  Just across the highway was a little motel run by an old couple barely hanging on.  We got their last room featuring a black and white television that apparently showed Lawrence Welk 24 hours a day.

About 9 p.m. I zoned out on the Lennon Sisters and one of the other fellows and I put on the insufficient jackets we had thought would be clothing enough for the desert Southwest, and trudged into the storm, across the closed-down highway to the Ramada where there was a bar and a badly-needed drink.

Storm it was!  The blinding snow was horizontal to the ground, driven by a shrieking wind.  The lights of the Ramada, only yards away, were almost invisible in the blizzard.   We staggered in the door, coated with snow, and heard the distant sound of a Bob Wills Texas Playboys clone band playing Western swing.

We sank gratefully into chairs in the bar and the waitress said, “What’ll you have?”

“Bourbon and water,” I said.

“Do you have a bottle here?” she demanded, every bit as friendly as a puff adder.  Apparently my Missouriness stuck out like floating crude oil on the crystalline pond of her evening.  it was a bottle club.  You brought your own and they served set-ups.  Only in Oklahoma where every other guy is a bootlegger would you find such arcane liquor laws.

“Well, where can we get a bottle?” I asked.

“You can go to town,” she said.  “It’s only a couple of miles.”  She leaned on the bar, daring me to whip out a pair of snowshoes.

“I barely made it across the highway,” I said.  “What am I gonna do—take a dog sled to town?”  She shrugged.  Not her problem.  Frustrated I went to the restroom.  A friendly drunk banker stood next to me and I had an inspiration.  This only work with drunks.  “Boy, I sure wish I had a drink,” I muttered to the guy.  “Damn storm—can’t get to town to get a bottle.”

“You need a bottle!” he cried.  “Meet me out in the hall.”  He staggered through the door to the banquet hall, releasing a blast of “San Antonio Rose,” and shortly was back with an unopened fifth of Jack Daniels Black Label.

“There you go!” he said handing it to me. He didn’t even ask me for collateral.   Now that we are in a banking crisis and folks are down on bankers, I’m here to tell you that there are true Samaritans among them.

Especially when they’re drunk.

Then there was the time that eight couples headed across the Plains to ski in Colorado.  We made it as far as mid-Kansas when the blizzard turned Interstate 70 into a slalom course and KDOT quickly shut all the gates, trapping us along with many other orphans in the storm.  We ground to a halt.  We ran the heater periodically all night long, sleeping fitfully.  I hadn’t slept that uncomfortably with a bunch of folks since I was on field maneuvers in the National Guard.

One wife was convinced we all were going to die.  While it was an adventure for the rest of us, it was the end of life for her and she spent the night writing goodbyes to her children.  She seemed grumpy when dawn came and she still was alive—she had wasted all that whine time.

Daylight brought the sight of a Coors truck stranded directly ahead of us in the deep snow.  The driver, another Samaritan in time of need, shared his bounty with us.  Toward evening plows cleared the west-to-east lanes and we crossed to the cleared lanes, risking a head-on collision to reach a Stuckey’s a short distance away.

We pulled into the lot and sent a delegation to ask for shelter, much in the fashion of Joseph and Mary, only with nobody having contractions except the panicked wife who still wasn’t convinced she was tomorrow’s headline.  The Mom and Pop who ran the place were less than enchanted to have 16 visitors more interested in a place to sleep and stay warm than in buying Kansas postcards and rock ashtrays.

But finally they agreed to let us sleep in the place and even fix breakfast on their grill if we would leave them money for what we used.   That night, lying in my sleeping bag under the rock ashtrays  I heard the rustling sounds of the other 15 settling in for the night.

“The Waltons” was popular on television, and from all over the darkened Stuckey’s we heard voices saying, “Good night, Ma.”  “Good night, Pa.”  “Good night John Boy.”

I fell asleep to the sound of Coors-inspired giggling.


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1 Comment

  1. David Powell

    March 1st, 2011 at 3:35 pm


    Most of the trips you have written about leave me wanting to take the same one.

    Your precise description of these do no.

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