In Milwaukee in the 1970s, it snowed. I mean that on January 1st, 1970 it started to snow, and never stopped until December 31st, 1979 with the occasional pause for summer.
Between December 31st, 1978 and January 1st, 1979 14 inches fell. This was the famous New Year’s storm. Winds gusted to 40 mph and caused snowdrifts to 6 feet, blocking many roads. Then on January 12th and 13th, we received another 14.3 inches, again with 40-mph winds. Finally, on January 23-24 we received another 9.5 inches! The only way people were able to get around was with skis.
Winter is a special time for children. One could throw snowballs, build snowmen, or go sledding with the knowledge that the comfort of home and a warm fireplace was right around the corner. Mom would make hot cocoa, and when you came inside all red-faced and shed the wet clothing and rubber boots lined with plastic bread bags, the steaming cup would be miraculously waiting, complete with a marshmallow. I spent a lot of time outside in the winter. The lawns on Downer were big enough to construct snowmen, and the #30 bus ran by our house so that endless snowballs could be launched at them.
Lake Park ran an ice skating rink that was free, and I owned a succession of old rummage-sale skates allowing me to visit the rink. It was family oriented during the day but became dominated by aggressive bigger kids after dark.
One major fauxpas my mom made was to dress me in her old white girl’s figure-skates when I outgrew the pairs I had. Note to all parents: Do not do anything of this kind to your children. Ever. Period. I almost got lynched by the other kids for wearing them, despite Mom’s wise words to “Just ignore them”. If you think your kid looks ‘cute’ in an outfit, be forewarned that he or she will return from any encounters with the neighborhood toughs bruised, battered, and missing several articles of clothing.
Winter attire in the 1970s mostly consisted of what was inexpensive, with the realization that kids playing in the snow would be hard on their clothing. I wore some hand-me-down corduroy jackets held together in places with safety pins, layers of old pants with various holes, and rummage sale big black rubber boots with those annoying metal fasteners that never stayed fastened. I may have looked like a rag-a-muffin but why cloth your children in Gucci to play in the snow?
My favorite snow related activities were building snow-forts and playing soldier. I used sticks as rifles, and would run back and forth pretending to fire at imaginary enemies and dive repeatedly into the snow or slush. I could keep this up for hours.
We had a classic wooden sled with red metal rails. Ideally you sat or lay prone on the sled and used the wooden control bar to steer by shifting the rails. In actuality, the system provided such poor steering that by the time you tried to avoid danger, it was already too late, requiring one to bail-out into the snow.
At the East End of North Avenue was a large hill next to the historic water tower. On any given day dozens of families would be sledding down the steep run. The city tried to keep people away by erecting snow fences, but we got around them. One could attain a high speed on this hill, and if you were not careful, your ride could end with both you and your sled in the middle of Lincoln Memorial Drive, a busy street next to Lake Michigan. Several of the more creative and poorer kids used flattened cardboard boxes as sleds. This offered great speed and the added bonus of no control whatsoever, often going down the hill backward or spinning in circles. Sometimes the cardboard ended up on top, and you became the sled.
While winter is fun for children, photographers, and lovers, it can be a real trial for adults. Dad seemed to be always shoveling snow, with the piles on the side of our walk growing to tower over my head. He would come in after shoveling all covered with snow and with his nose running and his mustache frosted and growing icicles. He literally had to thaw out.
We never owned a snow blower, and all of the accumulation had to be cleared by hand, Mom and I adding our backs to the effort.
Of course with Dad’s obsessive nature he started shoveling when the first snowflake fell, and didn’t stop until it ceased snowing.
Snow also had to be removed from our upper deck, a rickety platform accessible only from the master (Dad’s) bedroom, and off limits except for shoveling. One year so much snow fell that I could jump off the second story deck and land on the ground safely cushioned by the snow.
A bad snowstorm in Milwaukee is one where the bus system has to shut down, as the huge vehicles can’t get through the streets. That is how we define a real snowfall. When this happened, the streets would be abandoned. No cars or busses would pass, and nobody was outdoors. I loved this time best. The streets would be filled with that awesome muffled silence only a blizzard could bring. My boots would make virgin tracks through the snow, as the streetlights lit the snowflakes like miniature falling stars.
The worst part of the winter snow ritual for our family was the ownership of a car without a driveway or garage to keep it in. Waking up in the morning after a snowstorm, we faced the task of trying to remove the auto from under the frozen hill of ice and snow that the city plow had encased it in. In order to allow plowing, ‘snow emergencies’ would be declared, necessitating the removal of all cars from main streets to side streets. This had the effect of mandating that we first spend hours digging out the car from a side street, and then pushing and shoving it to the newly plowed main street. A few minutes later while removing our sodden clothes in the front hallway, we would observe the plow come by again and bury the car a second time. This nightmare would be repeated until all the streets were plowed, spring came, or we set fire to our car, whichever came first.
Many times, we would get the car hopelessly stuck trying to move it to a different location in anticipation of the plows. Once Mom and I got the car stuck in the middle of the street a few blocks away, and I had to run and get my dad and several neighbors to try to push the thing to safety. I seemed to spend much of my later childhood helping shovel out the car, or running down the street behind it trying to push as it fishtailed and slid from side to side.
It seems now in looking back, that after the beauty of a white Christmas, all of Milwaukee spent the next few months hoping for the first sign of spring.