October Blizzard

A businessman who turned to writing in the autumn of his life, ARTHUR H. TASKER was born in Granite Falls, Minnesota,but now makes his headquaters in the Idaho mountains. “I have always loved words.” he writes, “written words,especially those rising out of the heart’s experience and contemplation.”

I woke to the sound of music, deep, rich, and penetrating. It filled the whole place — vast music, music from the skies. I was vitally aware of angels; had been, since my younger brother died in the swirling waters of the lower dam. I trembled now, but in some ways I was glad. Then I heard the subdued voices of my two older brothers, who slept in the other bed. They, too, had heard the great sound. They did not think of angels; but — what was it, that pouring song? Jamie, who was four years older than I, was speaking but stopped short: “Sh-h-h.”

Benny, who was in between as to age, was not excitable, and never afraid. “What is it, what do you think it is?” he asked drowsily. But Jamie’s words roused us to reality: “Geese, geese, millions of them.”

There was no more sleep for any of us that night, as the huge choir chanted on in its loud chorus. At daybreak we were up and out in the warm late Indian summer air. It was October 14; we knew, for Charlie Dodsworth, our friend, the banker’s son, would be sixteen on October 16, this year of 1880, a boy’s way of remembering dates.

Daylong and nightlong of the fourteenth and fifteenth, the undiminished flight went on. How could there be such vast wedges of Canadian geese and ducks, fairly dimming the skies! Then, on the morning of the sixteenth, there was a stilling of sound. It was almost startling, this sudden quiet. A few scattered wedges of geese went wearily south, too driven and worn to make a sound. The old black hen under the cherry bushes scratched for worms, her chicks just in the change from soft dark down to edging feathers; she had stolen her nest in the late summer, this hen. And now it was indeed late in the season, this balmy October day — later than any of us could have believed.

My father unlocked the door of his hardware store on the west side of the Minnesota River, here in Granite Falls, and busied himself for a time turning paint cans to prevent hardening; I swept the floor and dusted with a damp cloth. There had not been a customer as yet; farmers were wary, something was strange. The door burst open and Matteson thrust in head and shoulders. He was breathless, but managed to say, “Close up, Tasker; hurry home; there’s an all hell of a storm coming; run, or you’ll never make it!”

This was a shock. Father knew this weatherwise old Norwegian meant what he said, however inelegantly phrased. We ran: two long slanting blocks to the bridge, over it speeding, clicketyclick, now south and down the steep road to the creek in the beauty of autumn trees, over that bridge and up the slope past the bleak schoolhouse, on, up, and along the ridge path. He was fleet of foot and as nearly scared as an Englishborn man could be. I was even more alarmed, for indeed a change had come over things. A misty warm pressure, a closing light, was in the air; and then, out of the north and west it came, a rising roar. The riverside trees began to rock; then, like the physical blow of a mysterious hand, a great white mass struck, and sent us staggering — wind that was crushing, snow that closed out the light and sucked the very breath from nostrils or open mouth. Here, within a hundred feet of his home, the place he had left snuggled against this very stone-studded ridge, my father stumbled, loosing my hand as he fell.

When first the storm had struck, setting the timbers of the house quivering, Mother had opened the woodshed door, only to be hurled against the summer-season stove. But she felt no pain or injury — not then. With Jamie’s sturdy help she managed to close the door. “Oh, Tom, Tom, where are you?” She was crying, but Jamie comforted her: “Mother, Mother, no! Just think what time it is. They are at the store. Don’t cry.”

Mother, I fancy, had looked at her first-born in something like surprise. “You’re brave,” she had tried to say, with a new Hood of tears. But what they should have guessed was that the mettlesome father they had in mind was not one to leave his family in fright and anxiety, not if he could help it.

What that family were thinking, halfway saying, was that they must wait and wait —for hours; if need be, for days. “O God, merciful God, help us, save us!” It was, then, a shock that made my mother scream, when the door again burst open and a blinded, staggering ghost came in, leading a smaller ghost by the hand, mid rush, roar, and pelting snow. Our faces were plastered white in snow; so too my father’s beard and small mustache; in every line of clothing, snow.

My mother screamed, but then, quick-witted, a woman of action, she seized a towel and began swiftly to humanize this man she had loved since she was sixteen, and then myself— these two whom she and two staring boys had looked upon, moments ago, in awe.

The first words Father said, as soon as he had recovered his breath, were: “God, and no one else, put my fingers on the latch.” Mother began to cry, and I, too, cried, and even Benny. Oh, we were home again, we who were so nearly lost. How near indeed.

In what was called the parlor or, more often, the front room, there was a sofa, an uncomfortable couch upholstered in figured Brussels carpeting, our showpiece, much admired. There Mother made my father lie down, and she covered him with a padded quilt, though he protested that he was boiling hot, which from our long run and the warm, humid day was readily true, howling blizzard and wintry storm to the contrary. To me it had been less of a strain. I lived outdoors. I, too, was fleet of foot.

When Mother came from the bedroom’s huge curly maple bureau, bearing winter underclothing and towels, we three boys and our young sister, Prudence, were shooed from the place to the kitchen-dining room. What was said there in the front room, what tears shed, what prayers of gratitude, we, the children, were never to know.

Later in the day, on Father’s request, Benny came into the kitchen with the two clotheslines, and my father showed us the sailor’s knot he had learned in the long voyage from England’s lovely shores; that, too, had been flight.

And now the lines were knotted together into a single long line with a draw loop at one end, which would be fastened to the clothesline hook outside the woodshed door. At early chore time, Father and stouthearted Jamie, on Mother’s insistence, tied themselves loosely together, father and son; then, milk pails swinging, their hands on the guideline, they forced themselves out into the blinding, moving density of blizzard snow.

It would be hard to imagine what it must have been like out there in the unprotected barn, with its thin, single-boarded roof and walls. Why, even here in the well-built, plastered house, snuggled close to the protecting hill, we were shouting to each other in an effort to be heard, so deafening now had become the thundering impact of the storm. “Long away?” Try to think of all there was to do: the feeding down from the mow of snow-laden hay, forkful after forkful, to the mangers below; the mixing of ground cow feed with salt, and snow for moisture; oats to be measured and fed to the horses; corn shelled for the ravenous clutter of hens and the yellow-legged fryers; corn on the cob to the three fattening hogs, silent for once in the greater sound.

When Jamie had finished telling us all these things they had done, he suddenly paused. “And if you’d climbed with me into the hayloft, you’d have been surprised, for there were five beautiful, scared prairie chickens back in the west end of the hay. Must have flown in at that open place. They kept turning their heads and I thought they were going to fly out again. Poor things!”

Benny asked excitedly if they were likely to be there in the morning. And why couldn’t we catch them, putting up sheets or something, to keep them from flying out? Jamie looked at Benny in a puzzled way. “Would you do that . . . to things caught in a storm, just flying in?”

Prudence, a very sensitive child, turned her large, round, blue eyes on Benny, and slowly they misted over. She loved him. We were silent. A color of red crept into Benny’s checks. Benny, the gentlest one of us all, was ashamed! And so, too, was I, who had shared his impulse, his thoughts having been my thoughts. I felt a sudden tenderness for all things lost, or — so nearly lost.