That day’s blizzard was not the first snowfall of the winter of ’62–’63, but it came with a singular speedy intensity. By afternoon, the decision was made to close school an hour or so early and send everyone home before the roads got any worse. The drifts on the country roads were already too much for the school buses, and parents were phoned to make other arrangements to get their children home.
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Schoolchildren in Roanoke, Illinois, population 1,800, belonged to one of two groups—the town kids or the country kids. Town kids walked to school (rarely did anyone’s parents drive children to school); country kids rode the school buses. Inclement weather sometimes kept the school buses from running, giving the country kids a day off until the plows could clear the roads. I started kindergarten as a town kid, and I often envied the country kids’ extra “snow days.”
But this winter, my fifth-grade year, was the first my family spent in our newly built house located just a quarter mile north of town on a corner plot my dad bought from a farmer. A country kid now, I rode the school bus to town, and extra snow days were a distinct possibility. But I hadn’t figured on getting stranded at school.
When we students learned school was letting out early, some parents—country and town alike—were already waiting outside in cars. Townies who lived near by bundled up and headed out to walk home.
My teacher, Mr. Castro, passed the message from my mom: “Stay at school and wait for your dad. He’s out on a call, but will come and get you when he’s done.”
My heart sunk. My dad was a veterinarian, and his “calls” could take him to far-flung farms across the Illinois River valley, and the duration of his visits were unpredictable.
Happy to get home early, all my friends skedaddled out of class in a blur, leaving me—the last kid. As the minutes ticked by, the custodian seemed to be the only soul in the building as I waited and waited at the school door, a lump growing in my throat. Did Dad get detained? Had he slid into a snowy ditch? There was no way to know and nothing to do but wait.
Unless . . .
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The school was on the northern edge of town, its athletic fields backing up to a cornfield. And beyond that field, at the intersection of the section line road and the gravel extension of Main Street, was our house. In the summertime, I often took my bike down the gravel road into town. Or, to avoid the dusty road, we kids would simply take off through the cornfield, following the straight rows until they ended at “civilization.”
Now, with the field empty save for the snow, I could easily see the gravel road from the school, and I knew that at the field’s highest place, I would be able to see the roof of our house. There was no way to get lost.
And so, taking charge of my own fate, I headed out the door. Rounding the school building, I slammed into an icy wind blowing with ferocity off the flat, expansive prairie. I caught my breath, and for an instant, hesitated. Then, pumping up stubborn determination, I thought, “I can do this. It’s not far.”
On I trudged, into the field, snow swirling and blowing around me, heading due north to home.
The going was easier at first, snow just to my boot tops. But the farther I went, the deeper the snow became. Soon I was up to my knees, and it was a slow slog. Clearly, the trek was going to take longer than I figured, so I determined to angle off toward the road, hop the fence, and take the road home.
Reaching the rise, the older snow was packed hard from the dry wind. I could walk on top of it as I turned toward the road.
Then, whoosh! The snow bank gave way and I went down into a gully. I was over my head in snow. Flat on my back, staring up at the steely sky, I was spent. This was a dumb idea, and I was going to have to eat crow, if I was ever again warm enough to chew. No matter—dry clothes and a warm house was all I wanted.
As I struggled to get free, the snow felt like quicksand around me. Recalling the extraction technique demonstrated in some old movie, I rolled over and over on my belly until I was back up on hard snow.
Straight ahead of me, not a hundred yards away, stood the last house on Main Street where my friend Beverly and her family lived. They would take me in! I lumbered forward, snow packed in my sleeves, my boots, my cap, and falling down my back.
I must have looked quite a sight when Bev’s mother opened the back door to my knock.
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“What in the world...”
“Mrs. France, can I stay here until my dad comes to pick me up?” I asked.
“What happened to you?”
The Frances graciously took me in, warmed me up, gave me dry clothes, and fed me the most delicious potato soup I’ve ever had.