It was one of those March days when the sun shines hot and the wind blows cold—-when it is summer in the light and winter in the shade. —Charles Dickens, Great Expectations (Chapter 54)
March is a riddle. I’m sure there are meteorological and climatology-based explanations for the inherent fickleness of this month. But to me March has always offered winter’s last hurrah. In Rochester, we sometimes get what I like to call a false spring. It begins mid-February and wraps up near the end of that month. Like February, false spring is short. We might get a few consecutive days where the thermometers edge upward and the thermostats are lowered. And after January any outside air temperature in the 40s Fahrenheit seems downright balmy. Then we all make the Mistake and tell ourselves that March, and therefore spring, is just around the corner. Many conversations in the department break room center on this hypothesis. There may even be reports of robin sightings.
This year March First started out warm but then a blast of wintry wind pummeled the city. In the days following the temperatures dropped below freezing and a few passing flurries powdered our area. It was pretty. And perhaps a sign that winter was giving up but just making an effort for show. But by that first weekend rumors abounded that more winds were on the way. Soon, we heard ominous warnings from that most modern of oracles: the weatherman. High winds and gale warnings. Squirrels going to ground. Trouble! Harbingers, harbingers everywhere! It was as if we were all in that first chapter of Ray Bradbury’s novel Something Wicked This Way Comes when a strange, wizened little man has limped into town carrying lightning rods for sale. We all held our breath.
Tuesday, March 7th, saw a beautiful beginning with the brightest, bluest sky. Cloudless and clear. Yet the winds came and strengthened all day. The Rochester Airport recorded gusts of 81 MPH and the last flight was allowed to land at noon. Power lines and infrastructure succumbed and by that afternoon my son called me at work with a report of no power.
I arrived home late and our entire block, several square miles, was dark. We opted to go out and have dinner. We searched amid darkened intersections where nervous cars stopped and started. Above us hollow traffic lights swayed uselessly in the high wind. Standing against the growing night our old haunts seemed entirely abandoned. Had we really, ever, eaten there? It seemed like another age now. We made desperate calls and to our surprise found that our favorite Thai restaurant remained valiantly open. We drove a half mile to this little oasis of light and warmth and enjoyed delicious phad thai and panang tofu. Like two idlers in a far-off land we laughed about not having to cook dinner. Around us in the dining room the lights flickered and dimmed with each passing gust.
Back home, we climbed into our winter kit and read books by flashlight. We snuggled into these amazing arctic bags, one a gift from my Dad and another a gift from my wife. I received the first when we started our winter camping adventures many years ago. You know a woman loves you when she spends $300 on a sleeping bag. My son and I talked about finally being able to enjoy a night “in the mountains.” The next day it was chilly in the house. I opted not to shave, which seemed like a bonus despite everything, and headed into work. My son joined me as there are things to do in warm places at the University of Rochester. Also, we assumed, ample connectivity. Ah, these first world problems.
Dinner that night was at the fabulous Texas Roadhouse. We don’t often eat out but without power it seemed like a good bet. The block was dark but the few shops around the restaurant were lit up. The sight of 30 power company trucks in the parking lot was quite impressive. Although we laughed that maybe the crews restored the power here first so that they could have a good meal. Who can blame them? They came from all over the Northeast and eastern Canada to help restore light to our beleaguered city. We were very thankful for their help.
Dinner was yummy. Our waitress was very nice and we all empathized about our new lives without electricity at home. Camping was definitely a theme. Aidan and I enjoyed dinner under the watchful gaze of Gene Autry posters while country music twanged from the overhead speakers. Occasionally the wait staff would gather around a patron’s table to dance, sing happy birthday, and conclude the short festivities with a mighty yee-haw. There is now a strict and inviolable agreement between my son and I that this will never be something we experience at any eating establishment. We shook hands on it as another diner was serenaded. But boy, the steaks were really delicious.
Power remained out for two days. We got up on a very chilly Friday morning and talked about a story we had read aloud the night before. The Forgotten Enemy was written by Arthur C. Clarke in 1949. It’s about the last man alive in London’s urban snowscape during the onset of a new ice age. It opens with furs thudding to the ground as Professor Millward is startled awake by the distant booming of glaciers. Later our hero is even chased out of Piccadilly by a polar bear and must seek shelter in the abandoned Underground. The story seemed very topical. We quickly got dressed and wandered out in search of coffee.
Work was quite busy and we stayed late. Maybe to catch up, maybe just to stay warm. We then headed home. There was the promising sign of street lamps as we pulled into our parking lot but our building was quite dark. Resignedly, we went through the main door and just as we got up the stairs to our apartment the lights went on. Perfect timing! We were very happy for electricity but kept those arctic bags close as it took awhile for our little place to warm up. We took it easy with whatever we switched on, avoiding the high amperage stuff like the microwave. Neither of us wanted to be the guy who overloaded the strained system and caused a regional blackout.
A week later power was almost fully restored to our area. And yet the weatherman returned with more grim news. An incoming storm was predicted. It was called Stella. Like hurricanes, winter storms have names now. The name reminded me of A Streetcar Named Desire and I put it on reserve at Netflix. Yet experience now led me to ask whether the power would remain for me to watch?
Stella did indeed arrive. Yet many are now calling it the Ides of March storm. Like an over-eager conspirator this weather pattern decided on an early start. It began on March the 14th and we all knew to beware. By noon the heavy snow started really coming down outside my office window. The University is on Spring Break so it was quiet to begin with. The snow just added to the hush. By mid-afternoon people were being encouraged to stagger their departures from work to help minimize traffic delays. I left around 3PM and was very grateful for the shuttle bus home.
By the next day I experienced what might best be called my first snow day in 12 years at the University of Rochester. All non-essential personnel were asked to stay home. As I don’t do surgery or keep the University’s power plant operating I decided I was non-essential. Hard to believe it was Spring Break. Glad the students all got away when they could. It was nice to stay indoors, have tea, and watch it pile up outside. The facilities people at our apartment did a great job keeping up with it. However, by the end of the day 26.3 inches of snow had fallen. It was amazing!
A week later Rochester is still cleaning up and the snow banks are still quite high. I walked home last night and there were some challenges. But perhaps not the ones experienced by poor Professor Millward in the Clarke story! I warily check the calendar on my computer’s desktop. March still has ten days before some distant midnight turns over and brings us the month of April. Yesterday spring arrived.
We’ll see if it is for real this time.
Note on photo: The Sphinx emerges from the snow yesterday near Rettner Hall at the University of Rochester.