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TideWriters Tales
Winter Storms During School Terms Sixty years Ago
     By Catherine C. Brooks

     When snow and ice storms soared upon us with little warning in the 1930s, everyone automatically knew we wouldn’t have school. But in the 1939-1940 school year, the smaller schools closed. Three elementary schools and one new high school existed after the change, and all traveled by school bus unless they lived in walking distance of their school. I took for granted that school would open regardless, giving no thought about what had been impossible in former years. However, when a storm hit in January 1941, I learned to change my views. 

     In early years high schools had stood in every section of the county, but only three existed before the big consolidation. Any student, who had completed elementary school in 1939, was required to attend “Mathews High School,” which boasted all the modern conveniences we didn’t have earlier. The school had been a big achievement for the small rural county.

     I entered “Mathews High School” as a freshman with over 100 in my class the first year the school functioned. On the opening day, both pupils and teachers, some having never taught except in a student teaching position, had shaky knees as we gathered in the auditorium. But our capable-soft-spoken principal and sterner assistant principal used their experiences in the county to put all at ease.

     When we returned from Christmas vacation in my sophomore year, we began to review for mid-term examinations. Being determined to make a straight A, I studied in school and until 11:00 p.m. at home on school nights. My first examination was literature, and we had many titles with authors and main characters in the story to remember. On the afternoon before we began the tests, which meant a third of our grade for the semester in each subject, a student raised his hand, telling our teacher to look out the windows. That made the whole class turn their heads, and we beheld a sight we only saw once every few years. Snow had begun to fall, not in flurries but thick and fine. It was so thick that we couldn’t see the shop building about 20 feet away. 

     One boy said, “That is fine snow so it’s a real blizzard.”

     Within minutes, the principal announced on the intercom system that we should return to our homerooms. (We didn’t have lockers in those days so all our wraps and books stayed in our homerooms). School busses would leave in 15 minutes. While some of the boys rejoiced that our examinations would be postponed, I didn’t believe them. We had to walk less than a mile to meet the bus, and the school had a new furnace that heated the building. I felt prepared for the exam and wanted to get it behind me.

     When we left school, the bus driver crept along the highway at a snail’s pace. Although everyone had their lights on, you only saw the flashlight-like gleam when a few feet from the approaching vehicles. It took over an hour to travel the three miles to the bus stop. 

     The walk home was another challenge with fine snow blowing directly in the faces of those of us walking north towards my home. My sister, Barbara, had boarded the bus at the elementary school after we left the high school. She clung close to me as we plodded forward, becoming stiff from the moisture penetrating our clothing. When we got to the back porch, Momma met us with the door open. She said, “I’m glad you made it home, but your Daddy isn’t here yet. I don’t know if he can find the shore line or the boat dock.”

     Momma had old-fashioned-homemade hot chocolate, sitting on the back of the iron-wood-burning cook stove, and she put freshly made gingerbread on saucers. Once out of our damp wraps, we didn’t hesitate but accepted the hot nourishment as if we’d had no lunch. 

     It wasn’t long before Daddy arrived. He looked worse than I felt, having been oystering from an open boat near the Chesapeake Bay when the wind became strong. He headed towards the dock on Stutts Creek through Milford Haven, but after the blizzard began, it slowed his travel. His face was blood red and his lips looked cracked. The cap with flaps on the lower portion had kept his ears from freezing. 

     Through the night, bundled under a blanket and so many heavy quilts, I could barely turn over, there seemed to be a hush about us except when the wind whistled around the house. As I looked out the window the next morning, I beheld the beauty that we only see when the sun rises after a snowstorm. I dressed for school as I usually did. 

     Downstairs, Daddy asked, “Where do you think you are going?”

     “To school because we have our first exam today,” I replied, thinking him a bit dumb.

     “There will be no school today,” Daddy continued. “The drifts on the roads are at least six feet in places. No one will go anywhere.”

     After breakfast, I sat and cried. “I can’t miss that exam and have to take it by myself,” I pleaded with Momma.

     Knowing she would see no peace until I had tried the walk to the bus myself, she made me put on a pair of her heavy cotton hose under my socks before I donned my shoes and pulled up my boots. She wrapped a heavy scarf, which had been packed in a drawer with other unused clothing, around my neck and another over my head. With so many wraps and an extra sweater under my coat, I felt like a mummy when I ventured out the door. I trudged down the lane to the state road. Before I had gone a quarter of a mile, the cold temperatures made me ache so intensely that tears ran down my face. And I faced a tall snowdrift. If it were soft in the center, I’d be buried and freeze before lunchtime. My legs felt almost numb above my boots where ice covered my heavy stockings. I supposed Daddy wasn’t so dumb after all. That was before the day of sweat suits or slacks except for the younger children’s snowsuits. 

     Could I make it back home? I cried with my words dying in the air.

     I didn’t tarry but began the trek back towards home, facing the north wind again. I couldn’t walk fast with all the clothing and snow beneath my feet. An hour later, I almost fell in the doorway.

      “Your daddy was right, wasn’t he?” Momma asked.

     I just shook my head as Momma helped me out my frozen wraps. My head ached, and I felt sore all over.
I awoke the next morning with my headache no better. I grabbed some clothes and headed downstairs for a room with heat, wondering why everything looked so fuzzy. When I reached the sitting room, I fell on the day bed, dizzy. Momma came in from the kitchen, took one look and got the thermometer. She read the 104-degree temperature and said, “You’ve done it now. Just keep your pajamas and robe on, and I’ll bring your breakfast in here. You’ve got a terrible cold from the exposure so I’ll fix the day bed for you to sleep on.”

     For a week, while Daddy ice-skated and Barbara made a snowman, I stayed in bed with no strength and a fever. The figures on the wallpaper came to life with my imagination. But I soon tired of the old-fashioned men and women with their carriages and became bored. 

     The new school and school bus didn’t help when the roads had become impassable. I’d learned a lesson that I haven’t forgotten all these years later. 

© 2003 Catherine C. Borrks All Rights Reserved 
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