Monday, February 1, 2010

Warm memories of the Blizzard of '78

Happy Monday.

I see that at least one TV outlet, local public television, is planning a retrospective on the Blizzard of 1978. I don't know why now. It's not an even anniversary, but the storm started 32 years ago on Feb. 5. Channel 3 insists on calling it Storm Larry, because they name storms. Easier to remember, I guess.

I was there, in the middle of it. Remembering it is pleasant for was a positive experience. It also reflected a bygone era when newspapers gave a damn about covering news and their employees.

My poor wife, pregnant with our second child and stuck home in Moodus with a 2 1/2 year-old doesn't remember it fondly at all.

It was funny afterward but not then...she was out shoveling snow because she thought I was coming home that first night. I was trying to call to tell her I was not coming home for at least two days and probably three. She couldn't hear the phone because she was shoveling. This, remember is before cell phones.

As for me, it was an adventure. Pete Zanardi, a talented sports writer and editor who lived in Chester, used to carpool to work with me. That day, his editor had told him he could stay home, but he drove in anyway with me so I wouldn't have to drive the 50 miles alone. That's a friend! He kept up a steady stream of conversation so I wouldn't think about the disaster that was occurring all around us. He even brought along a pint of brandy just in case we became stuck. More about that later.

So off we drove from Chester picking up Route 9, a four-lane limited access road that would lead us to the Connecticut Turnpike (Route I-95) and New Haven, where we both worked for the late, lamented Journal-Courier morning newspaper.

There was a cleared lane -- that is one that had only a few inches of snow in it, and we soon caught up with the plow that had cleared it and followed it down entrance ramps and up exit ramps. The radio, WELI which, at the time, actually covered news, was saying I-95 was a mess with cars littering the road. Not true. I'm glad we didn't listen. We lost the plow in Old Saybrook, but by then, we were almost at I-95.

So, we drove slowly along the turnpike, stopping to pay the tolls in Madison and Branford. We drove down an entrance ramp to I-91, up a few one-way streets the wrong way and into the newspaper's parking lot. We had made it.

At the time, the New Haven Register and Journal-Courier were at Orange and Audubon streets, now a parking lot.

Inside, it was barely managed chaos. We, who drive 50 miles, were assigned hotel rooms at the Park Plaza and listened to phoned excuses from people who lived 20 blocks away how they didn't dare try to get to work. We all had assignments...mine was signing off on pages as they made their way to the composing room. I was to be the last one out, but everyone waited for me. Nobody from the newsroom was left to their own devices. A few production people had to sleep in a convent that shared the block with the paper. They didn't have a good time.

We put out the paper. There were stories, some the usual stuff, some really bizarre. The funniest was from a photographer -- I can't remember who. Gov. Ella T. Grasso had closed the state highways. It was illegal to drive on them, unless you were piloting an emergency vehicle, but reporters and photographers were out there anyway.

One camera jockey came back laughing so hard he could hardly breathe. He was driving in on the closed I-95 when he approached the Branford tolls. As he slowed, a hand came out of the toll booth. The road was closed but the state still was collecting the quarter tolls.

We put the paper to bed. In the left hand column was a ruler as tall as the news hole -- about 18 inches, with a headline that said "It Snowed This Much." That was the brainchild of Bob Granger, the news editor, a man so beloved because, in spite of a Draconian management style, he never told a lie. Can you imagine: a boss who, if he tried to lie, his tongue would fall out of his head?

Reporters and photographers went out and got remarkable stories and photos. They told the story of the blizzard from macro and close-up perspectives. These people were the best.

Granger was famous for another headline. He had been ordered to juice up the headlines, so, when a man shot five people to death in a West Coast Chinese restaurant, the headline wrote "Chinese Diners Served Hot Lead." The bosses left him alone after that.

Another great head from the J-C. When Felix Frankfurter had to replaced on the Supreme Court, Connecticut Gov. Abraham Ribicoff let it be known he was interested. The headline was "Abe Relishes Frankfurter Role." Those were the days!

Back to the storm.

In order to collect for ads, the paper had to be published, which meant printed and distributed somewhere. We rode the six or seven long blocks to the Park Plaza hotel in delivery trucks, about 10 to a truck. The bottle of brandy rode with us for the two blocks that it lasted.

Speaking of booze, there was a copy boy, it was said, who was given the following order from Managing Editor Bill Guthrie. "Here's $200 cash. Go to the liquor store. If you come back with change, you're fired." Remember, this is 1978 money.

The paper had bought up every hotel room it could. The bosses cared about the reporters, editors, photographers, and the rest. In other papers, people had to sleep on their desks. Not New Haven, Not then anyway.

The delivery truck drivers told us they couldn't stop for fear of becoming stuck in the snow, which was still coming down too fast for plows to keep up. So we lined up, paratrooper style, stand up, stand in the door. We tossed out our bags, tossed out a few packages of papers, and jumped into the snow. No casualties.

On the way through the hotel lobby, we were accosted by businessmen offering obscene amounts of money for our rooms. Nobody even thought twice. Forget it.

We shared rooms, but the party was in the boss' room. One hell of a party. It spilled over into the hallways on the 17th floor. There were stories....if you know Mary O'Leary of the Register, ask her about her night. She was just trying to get some sleep -- she was quite pregnant -- but her roommate had other ideas.

The next day, we slogged our way back to the paper on foot along Church, Elm and Orange streets. We were kicked out of the Park Plaza because the Ice Capades show, which had reserved the second night, showed up. They had driven in from Canada and wondered what all the fuss way about. A foot and a half of snow is a spring day up there.

Anyway, we all transferred to the Howard Johnson's on Long Wharf. The booze, or what was left of it, made it, too. More drinking. Then, on the third day, our cars were plowed out and we drove home, tired.

My wife, by the way, wasn't interested in hearing the stories. She was too tired from shoveling a space in a driveway and keeping it clear so, if I could get home, I would have a place to park.

So, there's the inside scoop about newspapering and the Blizzard of 78. It was good training, because about 15 years later, there was another blizzard in another state and I had to run the paper and make sure the staff was housed properly, which I did. But that's another story.

Until next time...


Andrea said...

I love that story!

Doom Is Above Such Things said...

I often wondered what took Dad so long to get home.
Thank you for clearing that up for me.
-Thom Guthrie