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Notably Norwich: When does it actually feel like spring?

The April storm that dumped several inches of snow on portions of eastern Connecticut a few weeks ago is a reminder of how unpredictable the weather in New England can be, particularly in the spring.

Forget for now the claimed impact of climate change or global warming or whatever the term is these days. New England weather has always been fickle. Just when we think summer has ended and we’re coming into the chill of fall, we experience something pleasant called Indian summer that renews our spirit and gives us a few extra days of comfortable outdoor activities in late October or even early November.

Some would call them “bonus days” allowing a little extra time to clean up the yard, fix up the home or, better yet, get in another round or two of golf.

By contrast, just when we think the warmth and sunshine of spring are upon us, that daffodils will begin to sprout and that we’ll be teeing off in Bermudas and short-sleeved golf shirts, Mother Nature “springs” a surprise on us (sorry) in the form of snow and cold. So much for her partner, mean, old Father Winter being behind us.

Just when we think it’s safe to go outside again, they sneak up and wallops us with an April surprise of at least several inches of snow and accompanying cold.

Oh, the snow doesn’t last long, even when a few inches or more accumulate. And it’s oh so pretty when it’s freshly fallen and undisturbed on the ground. However, it can be a grim reminder of who’s really in charge of our lives and our daily activities, especially of the outdoor variety. I remember one year, when my sons were trying out for Little League baseball in New London, that they were playing baseball in the snow — in April.

Remember that term about a “handful of bees” when you put bat to ball on anything but the bat’s sweet spot on a cold spring or fall afternoon? It hurts — a lot.

Believe me, no one was singing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” that wet, chilly day. Nevertheless, the kids — and their parents — toughed it out, and before long, they were, indeed, The Boys of Summer, playing in the twilight warmth of May, June and July with lots of fans sitting comfortably in the bleachers.

While climate change is supposedly responsible for modern-day meteorological extremes, I seem to recall some pretty extreme weather in our corner of the world earlier in life — back when the experts were predicting the imminent onset of another Ice Age. How often back then did we have to don those black rubber galoshes with the metal clasps to schlep through several or more inches of snow en route to and from school or to go sledding or even earn a few buck shoveling the neighbors’ driveways and sidewalks?

For younger readers, this was before snow blowers had been invented, and clearing a path in the snow was actually back-breaking work.

As long as I’m on this old-man rant, I’ll mention that school was postponed exactly once during the four years I was in high school. Norwich Free Academy was notable, if not infamous, for hardly ever calling off school, no matter how severe the weather. It had purportedly been decades — literally decades — since the last time NFA had called off school because of the weather.

There had been days of horrible weather when only relatively few students would show up for school, but to their everlasting credit, the teachers were all there.

There was, however, one day in my senior year of 1972, when 10 inches or more had fallen in and around Norwich. That day, NFA leadership wisely put discretion above valor, and called off school all together. We students celebrated euphorically by grabbing our sleds and toboggans and sliding down what is now the steep second fairway at Norwich Golf Course.

These days, even though school buses pick up and drop off students near or even in front of their homes, school is often called off before the first flake falls — even sometimes when there is merely just snow in the forecast.

No, I’m not going to claim as some of our parents did, that we walked with no boots five miles each way to and from school (uphill in both directions, too). And to think our parents thought WE were soft when it came to attending school in foul weather.

Anyway, sufficiently deep snow would afford kids in those days the opportunity to go sledding, build snow forts and have snowball fights in which no one lost an eye or suffered a concussion. There weren’t even any lawsuits. Each fall, the East Great Plains Volunteer Fire Department would conduct a controlled burning of Ford’s Pond off New London Turnpike and close the dam at the south end of the property to flood the pond. Eventually, the flooded pond would freeze and people from all over eastern Connecticut would come there to ice skate. Some people would bring sleds to slide down onto the ice from the hill on the Gifford Street side of the pond.

Other sections of the pond were used for spirited hockey games. There was a small hut next to the dam on the south end of the pond where a fire would be lit and we could take a break from skating to warm our hands and feet. It was great, wholesome fun.

In the spring of 1977, during my senior year at Eastern Connecticut State University, we had a freak snow storm in mid-April that dumped eight inches or so of snow on eastern and central Connecticut. I had a girlfriend then who lived in Glastonbury, and I thought my intrepid 1963 Chevrolet Nova would make it through the storm that night. Well, despite any number of near misses with trees, guardrails and passing cars, it did make it. However, what was normally a 30-minute ride took more than two hours that night. A day later, all the snow had melted.

In 1989, former U.S. Sen. Lowell P. Weicker, Jr., scheduled an 11 a.m. press conference to announce that he would run for governor the following year. As The Day’s political reporter then, I planned to attend the press conference, and allowed two hours for my ride to Hartford as it had begun to snow heavily that morning.

Almost three hours into the drive from New London to Hartford, I was stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic on Route 2 in Marlborough and had to listen to the press conference in the car on WTIC radio, dutifully taking notes while inching forward ever so slowly in the deepening snow.

Of course, the worst snow storm of our lifetime was The Blizzard of ‘78, when two feet of snow, accompanied by winds of up to 70 miles per hour, hammered Connecticut and the rest of the northeast, closing roads and businesses for several days. Here in Connecticut, then-Gov. Ella T. Grasso shut down the state during and after that historic storm, banning vehicular traffic on local and state roads, except for those who had to drive, such as first responders, physicians, nurses and — like me — news media.

After all, someone had to inform the public what was happening outside the safe comfort of their snow-covered homes.

So much snow fell during what had been named Storm Larry that the roof of the Hartford Civic Center collapsed on the night of Monday, Feb. 6, only a few hours after the completion of a University of Connecticut men’s basketball game. Had the collapse occurred during the game, hundreds, perhaps thousands of people would have been killed or injured. As it turned out, no one was killed or injured in the collapse, but the blizzard still took a devastating toll throughout the Northeast, killing 100 and injuring about 4,500.

It was all bad enough for then-President Jimmy Carter to declare New England a federal disaster area.

 

Bill Stanley, a former vice president at Lawrence + Memorial Hospital, is a native of Norwich.

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