A Yankee Notebook, Columns

Long a Scoffer of Hyperventilation

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by Willem Lange

EAST MONTPELIER – Christmas week 2022 in the United States was, depending upon your circumstances and point of view, exciting, challenging, profitable, calamitous, frustrating, expensive, or ruinous. The winter storm, as if programmed by an enemy, caught us at our most vulnerable, and even strained the best-prepared of us.

Long a scoffer at the hyperventilation of many weather forecasters, I doubted it would be as harsh a storm as it turned out to be. My traveling companion, however, much more experienced in airline problems and considerably wiser than I, nixed the idea of starting from different airports – she from Boston and I from Burlington – to reach our destination in Arkansas. The chances of not arriving together were too great. So I’d drive to her home in Nahant (an island connected to the mainland north of Boston by a causeway), and we’d leave (or not leave) together from Logan Airport.

The drive – on dry roads with moderate traffic, all-wheel drive, winter tires, and the disembodied voice in the dashboard guiding me – was a relative piece of cake. The storm was still in the hinterlands and, according to the news, was wreaking havoc there. Poor Buffalo, already deep in drifts from the last snow dump, was getting buried again. I sympathized, but perversely hoped it would track north of Boston. If I’d given it a second thought, I would have realized that would take it right past my house in Vermont.

Our flight out of Boston was scheduled for Friday morning. We had to be out of the house and in a cab by 6:30. But during the evening, as the wind and surf both increased, we noticed – the view from the front window is of the distant approach path of flights landing or taking off from Boston – that there were no planes at all coming or going. So we kept a phone tuned in to the American Airlines alert notices.

Consider what a boon instant communication is for today’s traveler. Instead of having to drive to the airport, park, and schlep baggage into the terminal to get bad news, you can get it right at home. Which we did, about three in the morning. By breakfast time the photos of airports jammed with stranded travelers and reports of wind damage back in Vermont were headline news. We contemplated rebooking; a two-change flight was possible through Chicago. We called the kids in Arkansas to bring them up to date.

Now, Chicago has long been my kryptonite, the troll beneath my bridge, the black hole of many of my ventures westward. My son, hoarse with a head cold in Arkansas, almost shouted, “Don’t go through Chicago!” We didn’t need any reinforcement in that regard. Envisioning our luggage joining the piles of lost baggage piling up in airports, we canceled, and were gratified moments later to find that our travel agents, working around the clock, had already secured our refunds.

Back home, I discovered, power was out all over town (as I write, over a week later, it still is in spots) and I had two trees down across the driveway. I silently cheered the decision, last summer, to install an emergency generator, as well as my good fortune to have a son-in-law with a chain saw and plow truck. It appeared that, unlike many of my neighbors who were sitting tight during the heavy winds, we would be spared the worst of the effects.

The combination of an unusually high tide, a storm surge, and heavy surf submerged the causeway during the day. The town was effectively marooned. But the power, heat, and water were still working, and there was enough in the refrigerator, as my friend likes to say, to last us till at least August. The house is over a hundred years old and has seen a storm or two in its time. So we stayed put, snug as bugs in a rug, and even planned to attend the Christmas Eve service at the local community church.

By Friday evening the temperature had dropped to around zero, and by the time church ended, the wind was howling. I thought, “I need to record the roar of that surf on the sea wall, even though it’s dark.” The storm door was locked. I fiddled with the latch and pushed as hard as I could. It was the wind holding it shut. My next thought was, “If I get that mostly glass door open just a few inches and the wind catches it, it’ll be gone – and me too, maybe.” I retreated. My internet pals will just have to imagine the roar.

Meanwhile, out in California, the water resource guys were jumping for joy over a storm-dumped snowpack well above average. On the plains, ranchers were trying to keep their stock alive and their silos vertical in the blizzard. In murderous Buffalo, it was against the law to try to drive for the time being. In central Vermont, folks with heat and water were sharing their good fortune with those who had neither. Towing services and plumbers braced for the flood of emergencies about to come their way.

On the shore of Broad Sound, however, the wind had lessened by Christmas morning. Very grateful that we hadn’t dipped our toes into the stream headed toward Chicago, we breakfasted on an amazingly good almost-everything omelet and plenty of coffee. With the news of calamities pouring in from every side, we felt like the little subnivean creatures that scurry about beneath the snow hoping the ceiling won’t fall in and a fox or owl won’t detect them. The surf was down, the causeway and the shoreside drive northward to Swampscott were open again, and front-end loaders were scooping up the rubble.

A most unusual Christmas. I read, drank coffee, and napped; she worked, drank coffee, and Zoomed with her extended family. I got the good news that my generator at home was running. And at four, as the light faded from the sky and the lights of Revere brightened across the water, we went out for Chinese.

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