I never watch a snowstorm without a feeling of gratitude that I got to live, as a teenager north of Boston, through the Blizzard of 1978. Since Washington is having its snowiest winter in a century, I have been having these feelings a lot. It is not the storm itself that sticks in the memory three decades later, although that was amazing enough. For a while, snow was falling at four inches an hour, and the winds were close to hurricane force. Had the storm lasted an hour you would have said, “Wow, that was terrifying” at the end of it. But the storm’s exit from New England was blocked by a big Canadian high-pressure area, so it kept spinning over Boston and Providence for 36 hours. It coincided with a new moon and an unusually high tide, so along the coast, houses and seawalls and even roads were shattered by flying water and flung rocks.
The storm was unexpected. People left for work with cocktail party invitations and movie plans and didn’t make it home for days. Traffic halted on the highways and snow quickly drifted over the cars, which people sensibly abandoned. So the roads along the coast were filled with rocks and the roads inland were mined with buried cars. Plowing was impossible in much of the state. So the governor, Michael Dukakis, banned driving, except for essential deliveries and road work.
That was the glorious thing about the Blizzard of ’78: the liberation, which lasted about a week, from the automobile. There was a lot of discontent in those days about “the system”—America was conformist, consumerist, mass-oriented, anti-individualistic. That many of the people who said so were political opportunists and folk-singing, dope-smoking pseudo-intellectuals should not blind us to the fact that they were right.
A 15-year-old feels the shackles on him particularly painfully. That is why so many New Englanders of my age—provided they didn’t have friends or relatives killed—remember the blizzard as a liberation, a deus ex machina. It was a sort of meteorological equivalent of the Commune of Paris or the Six-Day War. We were all in the uncomfortable anteroom of adulthood, in the sense that adulthood—under the idiotic values by which our country then lived, and lives still—was conferred by a driver’s license. Now, suddenly, cars were worthless.
What was valuable? First, the snow-shoveling brawn that teenagers had and which could be converted into cash. Second, the endurance to walk to the store with a sled to fetch groceries for the whole neighborhood, which could be converted into social standing. Even New England, although more pedestrian-friendly than the rest of the country, had by then been grotesquely misbuilt to serve the needs of the automobile. For a lot of people, even in crowded parts of town, the closest grocery store was a mile or two away.
As we became more equal, we became more free. It turned out that parents’ fears for their teenage children were of three kinds: accidents, exposure to drugs in some of the nastier towns nearby, and pregnancy. Without cars, the first two were impossible, and the third was (in this kind of snow) impracticable. So the adults left the kids to wander about the town, on what would ordinarily have been school nights.
There was a woman who ran a ballet studio in a rented building downtown, where she taught half a dozen girls in my class after school. Her son was in my class, too. She now opened the premises every night for dances. It was like living in a Jane Austen novel. Here was a woman whose talents and generosity became apparent once the busy-ness of life abated. I had never heard of her. Suddenly I revered her.
Without automobiles, we loved each other more. Even in the first days after the snow began to melt and cars began to move in a limited way, what a spirit of community there was! Anyone who hitchhiked anywhere in town was picked up by the first car that passed. My friends began to ask: Do we need all these cars? Wouldn’t two or three on a street do? A better way of life was opening up for us. Except that it wasn’t, of course. By a month or two after the state of emergency had been lifted, it was as if the Blizzard had never happened. People went back to their honking, selfish, soulless, conformist ways.
We loved the world the Blizzard created, but we learned nothing from it, and thinking of that has often reminded me of Coventry Patmore’s great poem “The Revelation”:
Love wakes men, once a lifetime each;
They lift their heavy lids, and look;
And, lo, what one sweet page can teach,
They read with joy, then shut the book.
I liked that poem as a young man because it seemed to insist on gathering one’s rosebuds. I like it now because it sees how robust people’s preconceptions and habits are, how resistant to argument and experience. That is one of life’s great disappointments and one of its great consolations.