The Mythology of Childhood Weather

Last Friday evening it began snowing about 5 p.m. It fell at a rate of an inch an hour. By nine, four inches of powder covered the yards and roads as the fast-moving storm softened every angle with a shadow of unexpected white. There wasn’t even a mention this time of a “wintery mix.” We were getting pure snow.

As usual, our weather came up the I-85 corridor from Atlanta. Like clockwork, two hours after it was snowing in Atlanta the storm began in Spartanburg.

As the snow fell, it brought back many memories of frequent childhood snow storms to rival anything in Nebraska or Ohio. (Note to self: Someday check the newspaper archives to see whether it really did snow more in Spartanburg back in the 1960s and 70s.)

Back then there was also an order of expectation connected with winter weather. Every time the WSPA weatherman called for frozen precipitation, I knew there was also the possibility of a whole other order of disappointment.

On Friday Weather.com reported the exact hour the snow would start, the number of inches, and when it would stop. I tracked the storm on radar, watching the pink blob move over us in the cyberspace of my laptop.

In my childhood the weatherman seemed right about half the time at best. I think he kept a crate of chickens in the back for divining. “Might snow, and it might not,” was the best he could do.

It was up to us young mortals to worry over the mythology of weather. “Stick” was one of the magic words I remember from my piedmont childhood.

“Will it stick this time?” I would always ask my mother when the uncertain weatherman made his prediction. I knew if it didn’t stick, then school was a certainty.

Mama would open the door and check the actual conditions outside. She’d look up at the “snow clouds” and say, “Yes, I think it’s gonna stick this time.”

And what about those snow birds Mama was always pointing out when she’d drive out to get our bread and milk?

Where have all the snow birds gone? It’s been thirty years since I’ve heard anyone talk about them, and I can’t find them in my fancy field guide. They’re as rare as Greek gods now.

Instead of snow birds our children have the Weather Channel, and they’re fooled into thinking it’s not so important to look for snow clouds. They’ve traded self-reliance for weather personalities like Jim Cantore.

There are also some snow memories I’d rather forget. I remember once my brother in law got the car stuck on Whitestone Road and we walked a mile in the dark before finding shelter and a working phone at a stranger’s house. Those were the days before cell phones. I remember it felt like I’d fallen into a Jack London short story about Alaska. Were there wolves in the snowy Pacolet woods? Could I start a fire with spruce boughs? Would we ever see our distant family again?

And there’s the radiation that we all worried about in snow cream. Out west our government was still testing nuclear weapons in the early 1960s. We were all told not to eat the snow. The effect of that warning lingered for decades. That radioactive snow should have turned everyone into environmentalists, but it didn’t.

We quickly forgot that whatever you put in the air has its consequences. Forty years later the Chinese are polluting the snow in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains with their own industrial revolution, and coal-fired power plants in the Ohio Valley are blotting out the peaks in the Great Smoky Mountains with their fumes.

That’s what I thought about as the snow fell on Friday. I thought about snow memories. I watched it drift down and renew the whole February landscape. It brightened the dull winter hues and lifted my sprits. It focused me on the weather and reminded me I’m part of the world.

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