© 2019 Terry Swails

THE YEAR WITHOUT CHRISTMAS, ALMOST....

December 25, 2018

Back in the holiday season of 1983 I was a lean man of 28 living and working in Dubuque, Iowa. Christmas was always a big deal for my family and me. Unfortunately, my career choice in television broadcasting meant there was no such thing as a holiday. 365 days a year the show must go on. At this point in my profession I lacked the staff or seniority to take both Christmas Eve and Christmas day off. In the fateful year of '83, I made the determination in early December that I would work the 24th and be off Christmas day. I was thrilled to get that arrangement.

 

The plan was that as soon as the Christmas Eve newscast ended at 10:30, I would hop into the car and head to my parents to be with my family in Coralville. The hour and a half trip mean't I wouldn't arrive until at least midnight. My family, being super cool (and sympathetic to the fact I had to work) would wait up and open gifts with me when I got there. It was a time honored tradition going back many years.

 

While I never saw the big chill coming that would threaten my Christmas, the writing was on the wall as early as December 15th. By then nearly 15" of snow had fallen in Dubuque laying the foundation for an Arctic front that produced a low of 7 below the morning of the 16th. On the 17th, which happens to be my birthday) the high only inched to 1 above. It was the coldest birthday of my life and still is to this day.

The ensuing days were even worse with lows of -19 and -21 the 18th and 19th. Highs were 6 and 7 below. Temperatures warmed into the teens the next 2 days but another 3" of powder was the price of moderation.

 

By December 23rd the bitter cold was back and the high plunged to 13 below, a record! The deep freeze was on and so were the winds. A massive Polar high was building southward and Christmas Eve morning the low flat lined at 25 below zero. Wind chills were near 50 below, levels rarely seen.

Heading to work that afternoon I was packed and ready for the journey home as soon as the late news ended. I knew it was going to be a difficult drive with reports of blowing snow becoming frequent due to the powdery snow cover and NW winds exceeding 40 mph. Christmas Eve services had been cancelled in many churches and in places like Rock Island, Illinois, mail service had been shut down for the day.

 

Bad as it was I never once considered not making the trip, come hell or high snow there was no way I was missing Christmas. After the news and a stinging walk to the car, I slammed the door and turned the key with the temperature at minus 15. I was greeted with the sounds of silence. The battery was dead and all I could hear was the Arctic wind howling through the parking ramp. Within seconds it dawned on me...I was going nowhere for Christmas. The streets were deserted as the clock neared 11:00 pm Christmas Eve. Dubuque was closed for business.

Thanks to a generous friend I was able to get a ride back to my place where I made the call to my parents that for the first time in my life, I would not be home for Christmas. I spent the night by myself with visions of Christmases past dancing in my head.

 

Christmas morning the phone rings. It's my mom saying dad had packed up the Chevy Suburban and they were coming to get me. Living in town, neither of us knew how bad it was out in the open country. With wind chills still 40-50 below zero it was dangerously cold to be out for more than a few minutes. 40 mph winds whipped the 12 to 18" of powdery snow covering eastern Iowa into white outs and spectacular drifts outside of the city. It was no time to be stranded.

 

While I waited for my parents they battled the drifting snow and low visibility to make their way to Dubuque. A couple times they ran into drifts and visibility so bad they had to stop and find alternative routes to get to my destination. After a long harrowing trip they finally pulled up and told me about fighting the Christmas blizzard. There was some talk about not making the return trip but dad felt he had a plan and knew where the trouble spots were. He was confident we could make it back to celebrate what remained of Christmas.

 

The trip home was a slow go with numerous cars abandoned in the ditch but we finally pulled up to the home where I grew up. The Christmas tree was decorated and the house was warm and cozy. My father, a man of few words would never say it, but he must have cared an awful lot about me to make that miraculous trip. He, with mom at his side, just found a way to get me back. 

 

Many Christmas days have passed since that unusual one in 1983. None goes by when I don't think about the sacrifices they've made on my behalf and what a reliable gift they've been to me. So on this Christmas day, I'll be with them and my family again for the 63rd year in a row. The times may change but the love we have for one another keeps adding up. Here's hoping all of you find the joy of family and the meaning of Christmas in your hearts this and every year. Merry Christmas and by all means, roll weather...TS

 

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