Like any kid that age, I was all excited about Christmas Break. Some free time to build snowmen, maybe go skiing at nearby Jay Peak, presents under the tree and warm woodstoves on cold winter evenings, hot cocoa in hand in front of the TV watching some mundane teenage drama or sitcom.
And as the 1997 gave way to 1998, I was eager to get back to school and see my friends who lived in other towns. As Benjamin Franklin once said, “Fish and visitors smell after three days,” and I was ready and roaring to get out of my house and back in the classroom following that extended break.
But, then came Sunday, Jan. 4, 1998. The day before we were supposed to go back to school. The meteorologist on our local TV station said freezing rain would fall overnight, so “it may slippery out there in the morning.” No biggie we all thought. This is the North Country, our daily lives in the winter is being in constant survival mode in the midst of freezing rain, heavy snowfall and temperatures dropping to 20 or so below zero.
As expected, school got cancelled on Monday, Jan. 5. The roads were simply too slick and dangerous for the school buses. But, the freezing rain kept falling, and with no end in sight. For more than 80 hours it fell, coating the entire North Country in inches of ice. You couldn’t open car doors (if you could even make it down the driveway), you couldn’t even chip it away to get to the door handle it was so thick.
We lost power, as did everyone else in Upstate New York and northern New England, all the way up along the border into Maine and New Brunswick. Our old farmhouse was now an ice cube. We closed up the French doors of our living-room and huddled around the woodstove. My parents, little sister and myself.
We had a generator in our barn to run sporadically during the day. There was enough food in the pantry to go around for a few days until we could emerge and seek shelter elsewhere. And I remember my handheld battery-operated radio atop the windowsill, the echoing sounds of the latest news reports from outside in the depths of this once-in-a-lifetime storm.
At night, you could hear the horrific sounds of our old maple trees succumbing to the weight of the ice. The branches would snap and crash to the ground, just outside our windows, so close you felt one would just blow through and take out your entire family. It was terrifying, and something that happened for several days. Those sounds are forever etched in our minds.
In the mornings, my father and I would carefully traverse down the street to check in on our neighbors. Everyone seemed to be holding up, a sense of neighborly love and community camaraderie wafting through the tangled mess of fallen trees and downed power lines.
Soon, days turned into weeks. By the end of the first week, we were able to drive over to my aunt’s in the tiny village of Rouses Point (we lived on the edge of town surrounded by cornfields). She had power and hot water. Most of Rouses Point (population 2,200) was still cut off from the rest of the world at that point, the roads impossible to maneuver for the better part of two weeks until crews from all over the United States and Canada were able to clear a path. At one point, I even got to ride in a military Hummer, the National Guard bringing my dad and I to the nearby gas station to get milk and bread.
By the end of it all, that old farmhouse went without power for 21 days. It wasn’t until the end of January when we returned to school, just over a month since we left for Christmas Break. And it would several months before all the power lines and poles would be resurrected, many of which left dangling along the roadside through the spring and early summer of that year.
Even today, whenever I do get back up to my hometown, the scars of that infamous Ice Storm of 1998 are still visible, especially on the old maples in folks’ front yards or along tree lines in distant cornfields along rural backroads.
And the people I grew up with still remember. We all do, sharing our personal stories with each other whenever the topic gets brought up during an early morning at a diner or a late night at the local watering hole.
But, I think, even to this day, that the biggest take away from that experience was how we all came together in a moment of sheer uncertainty. In our daily existence nowadays, one filled with seemingly endless division and arguing, we tend to forget what neighborly love means, or actually looks like. It’s that simple notion we lose sight of so damn easily, only to vividly face and embrace it when the time comes to help one another.
Life is beautiful, grasp for it, y’all.
1 Innovation Station (Dillsboro) will host PMA (reggae/rock) w/Center of Motion at 7 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 12.
2 The Founders Brewing “Beer Dinner” will be held at 6:30 p.m. Monday, Jan. 14, at Mad Anthony’s Taproom & Restaurant in Waynesville.
3 The Water’n Hole Bar & Grill (Waynesville) will host Doyle & Merrell (variety) at 10 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 12.
4 Andrews Brewing Company (Andrews) will host the “Lounge Series” at its Calaboose location with Blue Revue (Americana) 6 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 12.
5 “Pints for a Purpose” will be held from 5 to 9 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 16, at Frog Level Brewing in Waynesville to raise funds for Society of American Foresters.