Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Wednesday, January 04, 2017

Snowstorm (x)

Finally, the last installment. As a young writer, I was clueless about things like length. Sorry it took so long, but I must admit I did enjoy going through it after all these years. And, if you're wondering, it was greatly embarrassing often. Still fun, however. And it's -20 or something this morning, the right time for this story. Sometime, have a look at Koozer's Blizzard Voices or David Laskin's The Children's Blizzard, great reads. A tragic time out here on the plains.


There was a sound, or at least she remembered telling herself she heard one, half asleep in what must have been the middle of the night. Her mind focused drowsily. She knew she heard someone or something walking slowly over the wooden floor. Her heart thudded in her chest as she numbered the children. 

The footsteps halted. She looked up at a figure at the door, a figure encased in snow. It was Johnny Mulder. His head was covered by his hat, and a scarf was wound about his neck. In his arms were a half-dozen snow­y logs.

"Had to go, ma'am," he whispered faintly. "Thought I'd get some logs once too." He laid the logs quietly on the floor, took off his hat and scarf, and, after putting several drier logs in the stove, lay back in the place he had been earlier. The stove cracked and snapped and pushed out more heat into the little circle.

“Thank you,” she whispered into the darkness. "What's it like?"

"It's howling a ton," he said, turning over on his shoulder.


"Worse," he told her. 

"Not letting up?"

"Got any rope here? I'll string a line to the privy. Soon enough, kids'll have to go."

"We'll figure something out," she said.

Then it was quiet, the shadowy sounds of a dozen kids night breathing.

"We'll be okay," Johnny whispered. 

Felt almost like medicine to her, just to hear that. "We'll find some way to make do," she told him. "And it's cold out there?"

"Freezing cold," he said. "We ain't leaving."


There was no dawn really. The darkness of the night carried on a slow but futile struggle with the light, until, at last, what lanterns still burned faded in the face of a blinding gray morning unrecognizable through the windows. Katharine never really slept soundly. Her dreams were plagued by half-formulated plans of what she'd have to do.

First, would be a decision about the food: should she allow them to eat what remained of their lunches, or should she try again to have them put it off until at least the afternoon? The answer would be determined in the course of the weather: if the storm gave no promise of breaking, she had to hoard the little food that remained. The windows were thickly coated on both sides.

She saw a movement where Johnny was lying.

“Johnny,” she said, "you awake?"

He sat up quickly.

“Do me a favor, please? —go outside and check,” she told him. "I can't see anything in here. Just look. And bundle up.”

He pulled his cap down over his ears, wrapped his knit scarf about his neck, and tip-toed toward the door. It was morning, but the darkness inside--and outside--kept the children from waking. The wind burst through the doorway when he stepped out, bringing in a cascade of fresh snow. By the sheer volume, she knew what he was going to say.

“I don’t know, ma’am,” he said, when he came back in. “Snowing hard, maybe not as hard as yesterday or last night even.”

“Letting up?”

“I'd like to think so.”

“Guessing?” she said, raising an eyebrow.

“I’m just a kid,” he told her, smiling. Then he sat back where he had slept the night before, pulled his jacket over one of the little kids, and lay back.

She didn't know how he meant what he'd told her, but it was what he wanted her to hear--"I'm just a kid." Maybe so. Maybe not.


In an hour or so all the children were awake and grabbing a bite of what little food remained in their buckets. Those who had something extra shared with those who had none-after they were prompted by their teacher. Not everyone was happy, but all of them knew now that what was going on around them was something that had never gone on before. 

Soon the chairs were set back behind the rearranged tables, and, as if nothing at all had happened, another school day began with a morning prayer. They were at least a half hour early, she thought, but there they were, in school--what better way to spend the time than school itself? 

She thanked God for their protection, asked Him to bless each of their families and their cattle, and asked forgiveness for their sins. She was just finishing up when the door opened and two snow men walked into the schoolhouse, white from head to foot, even their hats heavy with snow that fell in chunks as they stomped their feet and clapped their mittens together.

Icy scarves were wound around their heads and necks. Only their eyes could be seen. "We brought food," one said and grabbed a bag they'd dragged in behind them. 

"Nobody's moving in this blizzard," the other one said. She still had no idea who they were.

"Ya' did the right thing, Miss Baarman," the first one said, unwinding that scarf until, red as an apple, his face began to appear. It was Mary's father. Before anyone else knew it, she was in his arms. "I don't know what might have happened if you'd sent 'em home," he said, hugging his daughter. "I don't want to think about it."

Katharine Baarman picked little Nick up and hugged him as if he were her own child. All of it seemed too much just then, what Mr. Boersma said, the food in the bag, the rescue. The other guy said something to Boersma, then walked back out for a moment and marched back in with the horses, pulled them in right into the room behind him. The kids loved it--went crazy.

"They can't be out," Boersma told her. "You got no horse barn here--you ought to maybe. We'll see about that." 

There they stood, two work horses, six feet at the shoulder, snorting, shedding snow.

The other man slowly unwound his scarf, and when he did, she actually shuddered. It was Marvin Fedders--she should have known because he'd talked about doing some work for Boersma. Try as she might, she could not have held back tears. 

She'd never seen such a shine on his cheeks. With Nick still in her arms, she walked over to where he was standing, and when she did, Emma took Nick from her. Even though she knew it was risky, sheer happiness made her hug the man as if he were everything the girls wanted him to be. It wasn't a long hug, and there was no kissing--but there they stood, beside the horses, in each other's arms. 

"I guess we're just going to have more scholars for a while," she said, pulling away from his arms and looking at the horses. "Four more--what do you think, children?"

They howled in laughter.

She walked back to the front of the room and stood at her desk, while the men opened up the bag and started handing out bread and cake. When they were finally eating, she circled around, and spotted Johnny Mulder sitting at his place in the back, eating a sandwich. There were apples too, and cookies. 

"Don't eat everything," she told them. "We still don't know when we'll be able leave."

When she came to the back of the room, Johnny looked right up at her, paused a minute, swallowed, and said, "I'm sorry about what I did."

She smiled, broadly. She wasn't expecting that. She nodded. "You were a great help," she said, because he had been. It wasn't easy to say that either, but then she told herself that maybe Johnny had learned something in the storm, maybe he had, she thought. Maybe they all had. Maybe she did too.

She reached down, touched his shoulder, and smiled.

When I wrote this story, 35 years ago, I knew very little about the Blizzard of 1888, the "Schoolhouse Blizzard," as some called it. All I'd read was the account in a local history. I didn't know it was a killer, a mass murderer, didn't know that it swept through a region hundreds of miles wide. Not far from here, five boys froze to death trying to find their way home. The most heralded hero was a Nebraska teacher named Minnie Freeman, who led 15 children through the blizzard to her home a half-mile away from school. All of them survived. In all, 235 people are known to have died in that violent storm, most of them schoolchildren. Many bodies weren't found until spring.

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