THUNDERSNOW by John R. Hoddy
I’ve always wanted to see a snowspout. I've seen dust devils, whirlwinds, waterspouts—even a wimpy Category 1 tornado once—so why not? Lord knows I've seen the snow.
I spent the better part of my adult life in New York snow country—not that stretch off Lake Erie those wusses in Buffalo are always whining about, but the snow belt, the real one off Lake Ontario. Winter begins there in November and hangs around as late as Mother's Day. It's the kind of place where six feet of snow can fall in an evening, and the bus will be picking up kids for school bright and early the next morning. It's a place where a three-day snowburst once stranded the participants in a national meteorologist symposium for a week.
On a more personal level, it's the kind of place where a woman driving in white-out conditions once got rear-ended by the same driver eight times in ten miles. I lived in the mild section of the belt north of Syracuse and south of the lake. Our town averaged about twenty feet of whiteness a season. The deep stuff fell around the corner along the eastern shore. Why live in such a place? I got that question often over the years, mainly from my wife and kids. The answer is simple: a two-year work assignment somehow morphed into three decades—a classic example of life happening while you're planning other things.
Eskimos are reputed to have fifty and more words for snow. We had about half that number, most of them unsuitable for polite discourse. As for the snow itself, we experienced the usual flurries, generalized snow, sleet, gropple (those little white pellets that go bouncing along the ground,) an occasional blizzard—same as everywhere else. What set and sets the place apart is lake effect, a peculiar, lake-induced weather pattern that gives the snow belt its name. Lake effect snow occurs when air passing over relatively warm lake waters picks up moisture and then dumps it with a vengeance when it moves over the colder land. The odd thing about the phenomenon is that it occurs in narrow bands, sometimes only three or four miles wide but extending in streamers a hundred miles and more in length. Outside one of those bands, the sun dazzles in a cerulean sky. Drive into one and visibility chokes off to where you can't see past the hood of the car. Finding a spot to pull off is hopeless, and you don't dare stop; the guy behind you can't see any better than you can.
Thundersnow has to be the snow belt's pièce de résistance. One minute you're creeping along in a whiteout, nose to the windshield, looking for that idiot somewhere in front of you to slow down yet again, all the while hoping the eighteen-wheeler behind you pulled into a truck stop. Then a brilliant flash that comes from all over torches the gray oblivion, followed in a heartbeat by a thunderclap that you feel as much as hear. Time to find a mom-and-pop grocery, pick up a loaf of bread, a jug of milk, and a couple of cases of Michelob—the staples—and scoot for home, dude. It's fixing to snow.
I can't think of thundersnow without thinking of Ann. Ann was a co-worker assigned to the same corporate division, but working in Manhattan. She seriously considered transferring to our facility . . . until the thundersnow got her.
I’d recently been named site sponsor for an information system (infobase) project that Ann had spent several years developing, a pleasant assignment on my part, as she was a multi-talented individual, probably twice as competent as most of the men in the division, and a personable conversationalist. She was also a stunning blonde; a former fashion model with a smile that could stop a truck and a pair of legs that . . . Ah, but I digress. She and a man named Jaime, the president of the New York City-based firm picked to develop the project, came up to roll out the pilot. I would introduce them to the site personnel involved and provide logistical support.
The night before, I met them in Oswego and took them to dinner. Jaime looked entirely too handsome, in a New York City handsome sort of way. Ann looked . . . well, like Ann.
Snow was falling lightly as we entered the restaurant. That led to a word about snow, and in the following conversation I mentioned that we sometimes had thundersnow, a comment that turned out to be prescient. Ann related how she'd been born and raised in Buffalo and had seen thundersnow and pretty much every other kind of snow. Jaime listened with a look that said yeah, right. As we left the restaurant, a flash lit up the parking lot, followed by ground-shaking thunder. It started snowing harder.
The next morning, I woke up to brilliant sunshine. I looked out the window to the north. A wall of angry cloud covered the horizon in the direction of Oswego where I was to meet Ann and Jaime and escort them to the plant site. The phone rang. It was Ann, speaking in a tiny voice. She and Jaime were holed up in a restaurant across the street from their hotel. They couldn't see as far as the street due to raging, wind-driven snow. She said they couldn't find their car in the parking lot, as fresh snow had completely covered all the vehicles. Neither of them had slept due to howling winds and continuous, rolling peals of thunder throughout the night. They'd been hit with about every kind of snow there is—heck, maybe even a snowspout. I told them to stay put, I'd be up to get them.
The twelve-mile drive north to Oswego proceeded in bright morning sunshine with a crystal clear sky overhead. The wall of clouds to the north loomed closer, however, as I drove and I passed under the clouds at the Oswego city limits. A few flakes of snow started to fall. Things remained that way until I reached Route 104, the main east-west highway through the town. The northbound road I was on terminated at the Lake Ontario port facilities some three blocks further on, with Ann and Jaime's hotel a block south of the port. At least that was how it was supposed to be. This day, the world ended in a howling wall of white on the north side of 104. I took in a deep breath, crossed the highway, and drove into an alien world of white and gray. About two-and-a-half feet of snow covered the roadway. Off the road, it got deep.
A couple of slow blocks later brought me to the hotel, where some indistinct shapes that looked vaguely human were valiantly digging out cars. I picked a spot, stuck the car into a soft snowbank, and gathered myself for the most important part of the entire venture: The Grand Entrance.
One of the rare, perverse delights in living in frozen snow hell is regaling others with tales about it. Another lies in downplaying the extreme, treating absolute disaster as if it were an everyday occurrence. I figured to go with the latter. Before leaving home, I'd donned a London Fog trench coat instead of my usual goose-down parka. Stepping out of the car into knee-deep snow, I composed myself, went through a visualization of Humphry Bogart walking similarly attired along the fog-shrouded Thames, and casually strolled across the street. The restaurant appeared from out of the snowy void. Ann and Jaime stood with noses pressed to a window like a pair of hopeful puppy dogs in a pet shop storefront. Eyes wide with disbelief, they related their experience of the night before and the raging thundersnowstorm, while I shook off a layer of snow. Ann looked good wide-eyed . . . but again I digress.
The rest is anti-climactic. I explained that there was still a world out there, and that it began a scant two blocks away. We dug out their cars, drove the two blocks, exited the alternate universe of white and gray, and went back to our usual lives. The project rollout was a success, and I became the on-site expert, as neither of the two principals seemed eager to come north again. Ann later related that my trench-coated materialization from out of the frozen fog had its planned impact, and I never let on that it was staged.
Ann and I remained distant friends until a corporate reorganization left us moving in different circles. Sadly, she never again mentioned a transfer, and she only came north during the summer months. So that’s how the thundersnow got her. In a way, I suppose, it got us both.
I live in Southern California now, so I guess I never am going to see that snowspout. Oh, it's not like we don't get snow. It's an easy hour's drive if I ever get to missing it too much.
So far, I haven't felt the urge.