Winters of Iowa past…

At the time I certainly didn’t think we were rough & tough. No one did. If you were brought up in Northwest Iowa, several ‘givens’ describing our little corner of the world were assumed to go along with our lifestyle.

  1. We had the best soil in the world for growing crops. When you drove beside the farmer’s field your eyes feasted on the richest, darkest black color dirt on the planet. 
  2. When one mentioned living and loving ‘all 4 seasons’ of Iowa, they meant it. The 2 minor seasons, (understudies) spring and fall were simply expected to show up every year. Length of stay wasn’t of consequence as long as you could state, “yeah we had spring last week Tuesday & Wednesday.” Then the heat and humidity found its way to Iowa and settled for a spell.
  3. Fall would manage an obligatory visit after we (the locals) whined long and loud enough about the damn heat & humidity.
  4. And then came winter. And stayed. And stayed. Lingered until it was almost unbearable. Like the unwanted houseguest who wouldn’t leave. Or ever heard of the saying about over-staying your welcome and smelling of fish. Yet we knew no different. It was just another Iowa winter. 

But we never gave winter much thought. It was a time when the fields rested. The land and the farmers needed the rest, (the other 3 seasons involved the bulk of their work) after feeding the world for another year. Growing up I never fully understood just how cold it was-and stayed that way for months. It was a common sight to see several cars parked at the grocery store. Cars unlocked, devoid of people-but running while their driver ran in to buy necessities. There was no fear back then of your car getting stolen. Another common sight was an electrical cord hanging outside on the grill of your car. What? I know, it looked weird. Cars were prone not to start on frigid mornings unless you kept the car plugged in during the night. I think there were a couple different methods used. The heaters either kept the fluids in your radiator warm or the oil warm with a “hot dipstick.” Some folks had the dealer install a heat pump before they’d take their new car off the lot! 

No way around it we got a lot of snow. Usually fell sideways, zipping in from the west, namely Nebraska. Iowa’s not known for an abundance of trees, so there was nothing to break the wind from storming through. My home town of Rock Valley had such wide streets, the snow piles from the side streets were piled skyward in the middle of main street. For months you were unable to see if your one of your friends happened to be shopping on the other side of the business district, because the snow was piled so high. 

The snow even sounds different when the temperature hits a certain (low/frigid/subhuman) degree. (I don’t know the exact temp it has to be to sound like this, but in Iowa these temps lasted a couple months, namely January and February. But not unheard of in April once in awhile either). Not like the cute little ‘slup’ when your foot hits wet packing snow in Michigan. More like noisy popping corn, or crunchy peanut brittle being chewed by the unmannered. It sounds cold when you’re walking or driving on it. We’ve been in Michigan for 30 years and one morning this week as we were backing out of the driveway, John said, “man that sounds like Iowa snow.” One of the few times we’ve heard that particular noise since we’ve been here. Not a sound I’ve missed by a long shot since we left our native state. 

Rock Valley didn’t have many snow days when I was in school. Normally it wasn’t the below zero temps or the amount of snow that would determine school closing, but more importantly the miles per hour of the (sideways-westerly) winds while it was snowing. Wasn’t uncommon to see drifts reaching the roof of some homes accompanied by completely bare ground nearby. These drifts were a better indicator whether we’d be in or out of school for the day. Surrounding country roads would be completely blocked off from the rest of the world for a day or 2.

Our school district was not above cheating the town kids out of sleeping in and staying home either. Half our town’s population lived out in the country. The great Iowa farmers. (They had to do something during winter’s downtime so they made babies). The gravel roads would be impassable so Rock Valley Community would say, “the busses are not running, but you townies get your butts in to school so we can notch another day towards our 180 state mandated total.” Thugs. Used to just infuriate me. So unfair. Sure enough after a couple days the state and county road crews would have the roads clear enough for school bus service to run again. 

I don’t remember what year the higher-ups (superintendent, principal, school board, maybe even some local preachers) saw the light about our dress code, but I think I was in high school, so mid to late-60’s. Meaning all those miserable winter blizzards, with gale force winds and below zero temps for days on end, we had to wear skirts to school. I’d like to know what yahoo thought that was conducive to a girls learning process. Yikes. 

Dad on the snowplow where highway 18 meets 75. probably 1960. Look how much snow…

Snow storms and blizzards meant different things to those living in the Gerritson home besides a possible day off from school. Dad worked for the Iowa State Highway Commission, meaning it was his job to plow highways 18 & 75. Blizzards meant one thing, often resulting in OVERTIME. Yay, we loved overtime. Well, maybe not Dad as much as Mom and I. Dad’s boss, Harry Hewitt must have gotten up every hour during the night to check how much, how fast the snow was accumulating and more importantly how hard the wind was blowing. 

When we first moved to 15th Street, there was only one phone in our house. It was in the kitchen. The stairs leading to the bedrooms were wicked steep with a poltergeist inhabiting the sharp turn near the top step, trying to trip up whoever was disturbing his domain. After Larry died we all slept upstairs. Middle of the night, I’d wake up to the sound of a far away phone-rriinngg, rriinngg. You didn’t have to hurry (no answering machine) because Harry was patient and waited until Mom or Dad stumbled downstairs to pick up the bright orange wall phone. Wasn’t a long conversation, just informing whoever Rich was needed as soon as possible. Once in a while it was snowing so hard Dad couldn’t make it to the State shop (about 10 blocks away) in our car. First man to reach the shop would hop in a truck and plow his way to pick up the rest of the guys. Wasn’t long before Mom had (Ma Bell?) install a phone upstairs which sat primly on the night stand in between their twin beds. (I wasn’t above silently picking up that extension phone to listen to either one of them talking. In my defense they did the same thing to me).

On highway 18 with our 1958 Chevy Biscayne measuring the height of the snow…

Mom always made Dad’s dinner (Mom called it, making his lunch pail) the night before, wrapped snugly in waxed paper, sitting in the fridge. A banana sat on the table, (wrapped in waxed paper too so the smell wouldn’t seep into his buttered Hillbilly bread-American cheese sandwich). But the smell did seep. Dad’s whole lunch pail smelled like a banana. Always). Dad ate the same lunch 9 days out of 10. On the the tenth day he’d get 2 peeled, hard boiled eggs, each wax paper wrapped like individual hard candies. Another smaller, twisted piece of wax paper contained approximately 50 grains of salt for his eggs. Dad’s black metal lunch pail sat wide open on the table waiting for the fridge items and his thermos of fresh coffee to be locked in place in his lunch pail lid. 

When I opened my paper this week there was a picture of some governor (I don’t even think he’s from an ice cold, snow producing state, maybe Kentucky) making a statement how he thinks people are getting soft about winter weather. If I look back on my youth, I might have to agree. Hubs and I WALKED everywhere all winter long on our dates. We’d duck into a small notch outside of the Catholic Church, away from the wind and not close enough to the street for anyone to see us. That was our make-out spot. (Hubs purposefully wore no gloves so he could try for second base). If I was at his house during the evening and the weather was utterly brutal, his dad might give me a ride home. Never let Hubs drive me home, didn’t trust him with his car, but if Jim was still awake, I’d get a ride. 

Iowa’s sideways snowfalls…

Things are different now. Times change. Twenty-four hour TV weather stations are commonplace. And they tend to sensationalize every weather pattern. I remember several years ago, The Weather Channel’s Jim Catore was spotted walking in downtown Des Moines, Iowa. The headlines of “The Register” the next morning read something like, “Oh no, Jim’s in town!” Meaning he was there for some ‘epic’ weather pattern and wanted the rest of the U.S. to give their FULL, UNDIVIDED ATTENTION to him on whatever was plaguing Des Moines at the time. They wanted everyone to experience it with Des Moines. But that wasn’t exciting enough for the weather dudes. Why limit only hurricanes with catchy alphabetical names? Let’s start naming snow storms. This is just unbelievably lame in my book. It’s merely a snow storm, nothing more or less. But a snow storm with a name (anticipated for days ahead of time) sounds much more ominous doesn’t it? Think scared straight. 

Wearing a skirt making a snowman. Crazy that slacks were not allowed

We didn’t have the term ‘polar vortex’ as part of Iowa speak. The weather dude on Channel 11 in Sioux Falls or Channel 4 in Sioux City would simply say, “we’re in for a cold snap, or cold spell.” Right there was enough to let everyone know to bundle up their kids really warm before they went outside or had to walk 9 miles to school. While some really appreciate the educated Meteorologist of today stating the snow will start precisely at exactly 6:11 as opposed to the local weatherman of the ‘60’s muttering, “we’re gonna start seeing some snow right at supper time, so it would be a good idea to stay home tonight.” I’m really not on board with all the hype they constantly spew. Why does the weather department have to be called ‘Storm Team 8?’ 

You can say all you want about knowledge equating power, but some of the changes in the world have not benefited us. Some have been a detriment making us fearful and soft…

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