It was a Dark and Stormy Night

by Terry Hogan

It was a dark and stormy night.* It was also Christmas Eve. Galesburg was blanketed in deep snow, but nobody could see how deep. The wind growled and the drifts shifted and piled and buried all that did not give way. Hog sheds disappeared in the snow. The clanking of hog waterers even stopped. Those in the country that had electricity lost it. The old kerosene mantel lamps came off the top shelf in the pantries and were put back into service. Why it was so cold it would have frozen the… oh, never mind.

Snow crept through every crevice of the barns. It was as if the weather was too cold for the snow. Cows and horses and pigs all crowded together and watched the snow extend its fingers through the seams of the doors and the windows of the barns. Farmers, farmers' wives, and farmers' children sat close to the fire and dared not venture out this Christmas Eve. Barn cats burrowed deep into the hay and dreamed of warmer days.

The wind howled. Tree branches reached toward the houses scratching the walls, beseeching to be let in from the cold. Squirrels and rabbits and raccoons huddled down the best they could, and wished they had worked a little harder to thicken their little nests against this storm.

At Lake Bracken, white ducks watched as their little pond of open water froze over. They settled on the ice, only to find they could not rise as feather and feet became one with the ice. Snow drifted against them and gave meager protection against the bitter wind of this night.

Near East Galesburg, the old Purington chimneys swayed in the powerful winds. Mortar and soot from generations ago drifted from the joints and dusted the newly born snow below. Mice and voles burrowed below the snow, well into the leaf litter, the remains of a much warmer, and now very cherished summer.

What should have been a busy Main Street in Galesburg, bristling with cars, was silent. Snow covered the Purington pavers. No husbands, no fathers, searched for the last perfect gift for their wives or for their children. Store owners closed up early and hoped to find their way home safely.

Between Wataga and Galesburg, the Zephyr proceeded slowly south. Its light penetrated the blizzard only so slightly. Its horn sounded like a blast from within a tunnel. Only a white wall of snow reflected back from the beam of light. The Zephyr moved so slowly, hoping to avoid too big of an impact with a snow drift, hoping to avoid a stalled or stuck vehicle at a crossing.

The Zephyr made it to Galesburg, but made it no further than night. The wind howled too loudly. The snowed gave no consideration to the passengers hoping to make it home for Christmas. Galesburg was not ready for these people, stranded on Christmas Eve. Hotels were closed. Folks spent Christmas Eve with families, not in hotels. This included hotel owners, bellboys, cooks, and even the doormen. Christmas Eve was for the family.

But the telephones worked and the word went out. Party lines helped. Families left their homes, left their fires and fought their way to the Q depot. Some took one. Some took many. But soon all were taken to homes, to a warm fire. Some were treated with hot Swedish coffee. Some were treated to a hot Irish drink. Some received a prim hot chocolate. But all were made welcome, each as was the custom of the household. But all were given a place of shelter, and made welcome for Christmas Eve.

Christmas morning was clear, but cold. Not a footprint dimpled the snowy blanket that covered the human imperfections of this little prairie island of man. The Zephyr still stood. No railroad tracks could be seen. Roads and sidewalks and all the best that man could do to civilize the prairie were somewhere below the pristine silver-white promise of a new beginning.

Christmas breakfast was shared with all. Guests helped with the morning chores, whether it was feeding the horses and chickens, or digging out a path to the outhouse. Barn doors were shoveled out and forced open. Hay was forked down for the livestock. Ice was broken so livestock could drink. Cows were milked and eggs were gathered, perhaps with a little less efficiency than normal as the city guests helped. At Lake Bracken, ducks were pried loose from the ice and placed in a basement, pending warmer weather.

After the morning chores, a hot breakfast was shared and stories were told. Stories were told not only of the train ride, but of Christmases past, both recent and long ago. Galesburg Swedes told of the old country ways to Chicago Italians who had been on their way somewhere west. Catholics and Lutherans and Jews shared Christmas morning together, as weather and circumstance dictated. Differences were overlooked by all and human kindness was shared. Nothing less would do.

There may have been an especially bright star shining on Galesburg that night. Who would know? The snow and clouds would have hidden even the brightest star. But for many, Christmas was renewed. Homes were opened for strangers. Perhaps a baby was born; a new mother was made and an honorary grandmother helped it all to happen. It was a snow storm that changed lives. Some perhaps forever. Some for perhaps only a day. Life is fickle. Who is to know?

In time, the rails were cleared. The passengers returned. The Zephyr continued on to Denver. Lives that met briefly on Christmas Eve never met again, although a few Christmas cards were shared for a few years. Perhaps some on that Zephyr that night passed through Galesburg again, years later, and thought about stopping. But, people get busy and brief friendships give way to demands of the day. Old events are forgotten until another big snow storm stirs the old memories.

When did this happen? Don't you recall? It was a long time ago, back when Uncle Verne and Aunt Doris were young. It was back about when the tornado took down Charlie Brown's old barn and it took three days before his dog came home. You remember that, don't you? You remember Charlie? He lived out there by Tylerville, just down the road from the old school house. It wasn’t all that far from Barefoot where they found part of the old barn and the dog’s dish. You surely remember his father, Harry. He was the township road commissioner when the snow hit. He had a terrible time just finding the road to plow. The snow was so deep. Why, he almost took out his brother Russell's fence with the snowplow. You remember that, surely? No?

Shaw, you're just getting too old.

Merry Christmas.

*with apologies to Snoopy.

(And if it didn't happen, it should have.)