Winter storm long ago: Researching my own weather history and memory. [Part I]

omaha ice memories

One of the strongest memories of my entire life is a single image, burned so indelibly into my mind, for whatever reason, that I’ll probably remember it on my dying day. It occurred when I was 11 years old during a winter storm in Omaha, Nebraska, where my family lived at the time. It had been snowing heavily for a while, and in the evening, after dark, I remember looking out the glass patio slider door at the outside and seeing numerous ice crystals sheeting down the window. Caught in the dim beam of a streetlight, the crystals shimmered like jewels, but the sky visible behind them was chocolate-brown in color. This memory is not entirely disconnected from anything else, but it stands prominently above a confusing clutter of other memories connected loosely to the same event. For some reason I know that I saw this on a Sunday night, and I’m sure it was right after Thanksgiving, which would place it at the end of the month of November 1983.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog or know me well, you probably know that my academic research has to do with the history of weather and climate change in the 19th century. I’m slowly becoming known as a “climate historian,” and weather in history has become an increasingly important theme in my work. Weather is much more than just what’s going on outside your window. It’s a companion in our lives, every day of our lives, and the backdrop against which our personal and collective histories take place. While in my academic work I write about how weather of the past affected other people, some time ago I decided to try out my skills of weather history documentation and analysis on myself. I decided to investigate this incident in my own past, and try to match up what I recalled (or perhaps imagined) with what the documentary record shows. I discovered a surprising amount of interesting things; for that reason this article may stretch into a two-parter.

The Christmas lights at Country Club Plaza (“The Plaza”) in Kansas City, seen here in more recent years, are a big deal. The lighting ceremony for the 1983 season figures in my memory; I was there.

First I’ll recall what I remember, and then I’ll share what the documentary record has to say about it. My family moved to Nebraska in the summer of 1983, and that following winter was our first in the Midwest. We lived about 3 hours’ drive from my father’s sister and her husband, who had an apartment on the Plaza in Kansas City, Missouri, and so we as a family–my parents, my sister and I–were going to spend Thanksgiving with my aunt and uncle there. In 1983 Thanksgiving fell on November 24. I remember we left for the trip on Wednesday afternoon after my sister and I got out of school. There was bad weather of some kind that day. I recall being in the back of the car, and it was after sundown, and seeing wind-blown snow going across the highway behind us. I also recall my dad, who was driving, being worried about the weather.

Strangely I remember almost nothing of Thanksgiving itself, except what my relatives’ apartment looked like. At some point on that trip we witnessed, in person, the lighting of the annual Christmas lights in the Plaza, which was evidently a big event in Kansas City. A man dressed as Santa Claus brought a little girl up to the podium and had her press the button that illuminated the lights. The next thing I remember clearly was the next morning. It was sunny and the TV in the apartment was on to one of those local “morning magazine” type shows, which was reviewing the Plaza lighting ceremony, and showed a clip of the little girl hitting the switch. I associate this with a memory of my dad suddenly saying, “We have to leave and drive home right now.” This was unexpected and ruined the end of our Thanksgiving holiday. I was sure he cut the trip short because he was worried about weather conditions on the drive home. The next clear memory I have is that one I described at the top of his article, watching the ice crystals come down the window. At that time we were clearly in a deep blizzard and it had been snowing for some time.

Everyone’s favorite (now) Christmas movie, A Christmas Story, premiered on November 18, 1983, only days before the blizzard I remember. As if you need an excuse to watch the trailer!

Over 30 years later, when I decided to check my memories against what really must have happened, the first thing I did was to order from Inter-Library Loan microfilm copies of the Omaha World-Herald, Omaha’s chief newspaper, for November 1983. As it turned out ILL sent films for both November and December. Scrolling through the old newspapers was like taking a trip back in time. I saw advertisements for stores I remember, movies that were playing in theaters then (including A Christmas Story, then in its first release), and names of local prominent people, politicians and such, that I hadn’t heard since my family lived there three decades earlier. I saw advertisements for Apple II computers; our family’s very first computer was bought that Christmas, possibly as a result of one of these ads. Naturally I checked the weather readings first. On November 23, 1983, the day before Thanksgiving, the high in Omaha was 27° F, the low 23°, and at the airport they officially recorded 1.1″ of snowfall. Surprisingly, the next day, Thanksgiving, was sunny, temperatures in the 40s, but the forecast for that day had a famous-last-words quality: “There will be a chance of snow Sunday.”

It was also sunny and relatively warm, 47°, on the Friday after Thanksgiving, which in 1983 was not yet called “Black Friday.” Then the news grew bad. The forecast called for snow beginning in the panhandle, in western Nebraska, on Saturday night, with the possibility of snow in the metro area on Sunday. Saturday’s papers, though, changed the forecast: the blizzard building over the Rockies had grown much larger, and Omaha was battening down for a major storm. Yet, Saturday itself was fairly calm, 32°, with no snow officially recorded in the metro area.

Putting these records together suddenly made sense of my memories. When we left for Kansas City on Wednesday, my father was worried because snow was coming in, and we did see it on the way, accounting for me recalling seeing snow out the car windows on the trip. However, the snow was less than expected and the weather improved. We must have been planning to stay until Sunday, but Saturday morning’s news report on the TV in Kansas City–the same one with the recap of the Plaza lighting ceremony–must have disclosed the changed forecast. My father decided to leave abruptly (“We have to leave and drive home right now”) while the weather was still good, because he thought, correctly it turned out, that a blizzard was on the way. We drove back home evidently without incident. Sunday was the day the snow hit.

omaha dawn post snow by raymond bucko sj

This photo of Omaha after a snowfall was taken in 2012. The taller building at center was not there in 1983, but this is more or less what the city looked like after the storm.

Indeed, the World-Herald reported that Omaha officially got 7 inches of snow on Sunday, with one or two more expected by Monday morning. Two people were killed in Lincoln. The high recorded that day was 31° and winds were strong. Thus, the image I recall–the ice crystals coming down the patio slider–I saw on the evening of November 27, 1983.

Weather and climate historians are beginning to experiment with the approach that I demonstrated here: collecting peoples’ memories of weather events, then checking them against actual historical documents to determine what happened and, more importantly, why people remember weather events the way they do. Alexander Hall, a climate historian who blogs at GreenGambit, recently wrote a paper in the Weather, Climate and Society journal that utilizes this approach. I just tried it on my own recollections, on a small scale, to riddle out something that happened to me as a child more than 30 years ago. There is actually more to the story than this, which I’ll get to in the next installment, but in the meantime it’s worth thinking about how weather plays a role in our personal pasts, and how it shapes our memories.

In Part II of this series, I’ll go beyond the Thanksgiving blizzard to investigate some other of my weather-related recollections from the harsh winter of 1983.
The picture of Omaha is by Flickr user Raymond Bucko, SJ and is used under Creative Commons 2.0 (Attribution) license. The header is compiled by me from free images, including a painting by Albert Anker. I am not the uploader of the YouTube clips embedded here.
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