secret_history (2007-06)

Snow Daze

by Jack Neely

The other day a UT instructor who's lived in Knoxville for a couple of years asked me a historical question. She'd lived here long enough to know where all the cool nightclubs were, where you could find exotic foods.

"By the way, Jack," she said. "Do you know whether it has ever actually snowed in Knoxville?"

She asked it in an earnest, thoughtful sort of way, as if she respected me as a guy who had done some deep library research. As if expecting the answer, "Yes, in fact, though we can't be certain, there are indications that on one remarkable day in 1807, it may have snowed here, perhaps as much as three inches."

I did answer in the affirmative. When I was a kid in the '60s, we typically got several real snows every year, snowman-building snows, sledding snows, around-so-long-you-get-tired-of-them snows. From the late '50s to the early '70s, Knoxville averaged almost two feet of snow every year.

After last week, though, I suspect my friend has begun to take my historical stories with a grain of salt.

Once again, meteorologists on every local TV station predicted snow, much more than the dusting we got on Thursday.

Predictions of snow can seem something like a sport, a mean-spirited sort of holiday. It's National Make Fun of the Hillbillies Day. Here's how the prank works. First, you predict snow. Then you send news crews to the grocery stores to show the hillbillies loading carts with more bread and milk and canned pinto beans than you'd think they could consume in a month.

One station, after predicting snow, sent a reporter to ask the Knox County school system why they closed, considering it didn't really snow.

How many times did you hear that last week: "I can't believe how people here freak out about snow. I'm from [Buffalo, Grand Rapids, Minneapolis], and let me tell ya...."

The assumption is that a small amount of snow is an alarming problem for Knoxvillians. But I'm not sure that's it, mostly.

Weather predicting has made great strides in the last generation or two. Predicting basic things, like approximate temperature or chance of rain, they tend to be pretty close, right more often than wrong. But when it comes to snow, one of the few kinds of weather it would be genuinely useful to know about in advance, well, they should just admit that your guess is as good as theirs. Predicting snow is always a long putt. Everybody knows that.

News directors must instruct them, sternly, "Don't you ever say, 'I have no idea.'"

Lately, when they predict it, it doesn't really happen. Considering last week's rush on the groceries was reportedly not as impressive as in years past, maybe our snow alarm is atrophying, like that of the villagers when the boy cried wolf.

Sometimes it works the other way. The unpredicted ice storms that ambushed Knoxville in the early '80s stranded hundreds downtown. Not only couldn't you drive in it, you could hardly even walk in the stuff, even if you were from Michigan. Some slept in offices, some got rooms in the new hotels fresh built for the World's Fair.

And a great many of the people who actually were shopping at Kroger last week remember March 13, 1993.

I've always told people that what happened that weekend was completely unexpected, but then, like most young men, I didn't watch TV much, and never paid any attention to the weather. I looked it up in the archives to get the facts straight. Marti Skold, the WBIR meteorologist, had originally predicted rain for the weekend of Saturday, March 13. By Thursday, she amended her forecast to mention that we'd probably see some snow in the mix. By Friday morning, she was saying it was going to be a big one, eight to 12 inches, the biggest storm since

So even with snow, they're sometimes close. But as it turned out, the estimate of merely a foot, maximum, was modest.

The prediction had been that it would start on Friday afternoon, two inches by 6 p.m. But when 6 arrived, it was just a chilly rain. One News-Sentinel columnist turned in a column complaining about having canceled some family activities for nothing.

Many of us went to bed that night grumbling about alarmist meteorologists. I stayed up barely late enough to see some snow flurrying in with the rain. I woke up in the morning when I heard a crash. I couldn't tell what time it was; the clock-radio was black. The lights didn't come on.

We lit some candles. Everything outside was white, and a large part of a tree had fallen onto a neighbor's house and also onto our car.

I didn't figure I could get back to sleep. My wife, who loves to watch weather roll in, was peering out a big window in the back. I've rarely seen lightning with a snowstorm, and it's an eerie sight.

The furnace seemed to be out, and I went into the living room to get a fire started in the fireplace. I heard my wife scream, and next I heard a much louder crash that rocked the house and rattled the dishes in the kitchen. A large hackberry tree, weighted down with more snow than it had ever known, had fallen on top of the house. I tried to get back to see how bad the damage was, but I couldn't get out. The tree was squeezing the doorjamb against the door. There was a big hole in the roof, limbs sticking into the attic.

In just a few hours, we got a reported 15 inches of snow. I measured 19 in our yard. It was a good deal deeper in drifts. That Sunday a friend of mine and I walked down to a big field by the river and found the snow more than waist-deep in some places. It was the only time in my life I've ever swum in snow.

We were stuck at home for several days. Nobody was driving, not even the smartypants Yankees with the four-wheel drives. The house was cold and dark, colder and darker the farther away we got from the hearth. Neighbors who didn't have a fireplace came over to use ours, just to cook their food. It was a good thing, because they shared some of it. We didn't have quite enough. We completely ran out of milk and beer and orange juice. The water pipes in the kitchen were frozen; we were lucky one bathroom tap worked, or we would have had to melt snow for drinking water. And we had two small children to take care of.

So you may see me and some other older folks at the grocery after a prediction of snow. I try to be subtle about it, casual and nonchalant, always buying something that's clearly non-essential, some Chinese Five Spice or an almost-ripe avocado, just to prove I'm not freaking out.