THIS AND THAT: Now that was a snow storm to remember

  • Posted: Saturday, February 1, 2014 9:06 a.m.

This area gets snow so infrequently that each blanketing takes on a memorable life of its own.

Those who live in areas where snow is a routine event, take it for granted, and the days with white covering the ground run into one another. Except for the rare blizzards, none of the storms is remarkable.

It is like that here when we have our summer heat. The 95-degree days of August are just repetitions of the days before and harbingers of more to come.

That is why each snowfall that we experience in Aiken becomes such an event. We anticipate it, we survive it and we relive it for years afterward. The Aiken Standard this week ran a piece that highlighted some of the major snow storms that Aiken has experienced in recent decades. All of them were notable to those of us who lived through them.

The one storm that I remember best wasn't among those mentioned. As I thought about it, I realized that most people in Aiken didn't see it from the perspective I did. They were chilled with ice, while I was deep in snow.

It was December 1971, and my Navy ship the U.S.S. Blakely had been out to sea all week. While at sea we were isolated from the rest of the world. We didn't know what was going on in the news, didn't know what our loved ones were doing and didn't know what the weather was like.

Friday morning we were heading into our homeport of Charleston when the Sea and Anchor Detail was called. My post was on the ship's bridge on one of the sound-powered phones. I repeated instructions from the Office of the Deck to various posts on the ship.

When I arrived on the bridge, I was welcomed by the sight of a cold, gray morning with a steady rain rinsing the salt from our decks. I was delighted that we were on our way to our pier at the Navy base, because then I could get into my car and drive to see the love of my life.

Despite the clouds, the rain and the cold, we easily made our way from Buoy 2-Charlie, between the jetties and into the Charleston channel. We passed beneath the spans of the Cooper River Bridge and before long the ship was assisted by a tug and pushed into our position.

When the Blakely was secured to the pier and all of the post-cruise work was complete, liberty call was sounded. The cold rain didn't deter those of us who were excited to go ashore and get our land legs back.

The parking lot where my 1970 VW Beetle was parked was at the end of the pier, and I carried a canvas gym bag with the change of clothes I would need for the weekend. My fiancée was just three hours away in Spartanburg. The route was direct – turn onto I-26 and go 200 miles. There she would be.

As I drove out of Charleston, the wipers played their monotonous beat back and forth as the rain continued to fall. I was in a great mood – one more week of my Navy enlistment was behind me and a weekend with my fiancée and her family ahead. Sunday night was a long way off.

Things began to get interesting as I neared the exits for Orangeburg. I noticed the shimmer off the tree branches beside the highway. What had come down as rain was now becoming a coat of ice on everything it touched.

By the time I got to Columbia, there was snow on the side of the road. That was an interesting sight, I thought to myself, as I continued with a single-minded purpose – to get to Spartanburg.

Somewhere around Newberry the snow began covering parts of the highway and before long, there was just a single lane of the Spartanburg-bound interstate that was usable.

Then came the stop. With the sign for Laurens County two car lengths ahead, traffic stopped. It was not one of those stops where vehicles would move occasionally. We were stopped. I looked at the Laurens County sign for more than an hour before I was able to move again.

I turned the engine off to save gas, and when the temperature got too cold, I would fire up the little four-cylinder vehicle until the passenger compartment got warm again. Then the engine was cut off again. A full tank of gas could easily get me from Charleston to Spartanburg, but running the car for who knows how long during this weather delay was not part of the routine.

It was well past dark before our single-file line of traffic began moving – and moving ever-so-slowly.

We inched along until we crested a hill and I could see down to the bottom of the next dip. That is where the problem was. Several vehicles tried to climb from the bottom to the next peak, but many were unable to make it. Fortunately there were some people who had posted themselves at the bottom of the hill and were assisting the drivers in their ascent.

One by one the vehicles would go from the bottom up to the top about a quarter mile away. When one got well along the way and it seemed likely it would complete the climb, the next vehicle began.

After a long wait, it was finally my turn with my trusty VW. I dropped the car into first gear, gave it some gas and began going. At 15 mph I put it into second and kept it in that gear until I crested the hill. My blue Bug easily made it, and I had clear sailing ahead.

I was already six hours into my three-hour drive, and in spite of making the climb, I found that the driving was not so easy. The single lane that was open still had snow in it, and all that was visible was the ruts made by the vehicles that had passed that way.

While there were many attributes to my VW, one of the drawbacks on this occasion was that the width between the wheels was narrower than most American cars of the time. That meant that my car could not ride with both tires in the ruts. I could put either the right or the left wheel in the rut, but the other rode on the slippery and uneven snow.

Somewhere around Clinton there was an exit with a gas station that was open. Like many of my fellow travelers, I decided to get off, fill up with gas and call my gal to let her know I was still on the way. (This was long before cell phones were invented, and a pay phone was one's only possible communication while on the road.)

The next 35 miles was exciting. The ruts in the road became harder to see. If I got up to 30, I began losing control. Snow was everywhere, and the fellow travelers became fewer. When I left I-26 at the Reidville Road exit, only one other car had driven in the virgin snow ahead of me.

At 12:30 a.m. I drove down the street where my fiancee's parents lived. The trip that began at 3:30 that afternoon was finally over. Well almost. I had made it through rain, ice and snow. I had gotten up icy inclines. I had made it through six inches of snow on a highway that not too many people were brave (or stupid) enough to try. And I was here.

With my fiancée coming out of the house to greet me, worry evident on her face, I turned the steering wheel to parallel park by the curb – and got stuck in the snow. With help from her dad, we were easily able to maneuver the VW into an acceptable parking posture.

That is my most memorable snow day. And while I was wrestling with all that white stuff, Aiken was enduring an ice storm, which didn't even count in the review of the top snow events in the past 50 years.

Memories are made by what happens to us, not by headlines in a newspaper.

Jeff Wallace is the retired editor of the Aiken Standard.

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