Local view: Keep a sleeping bag in your car to keep your life, fingers and toesIt was a clear, windless April day in the early 1980s; the thermometer crept up over 60 degrees in the Missouri River village of Newcastle, Neb., population 350. Children buzzed like insects anticipating spring, but the kids had a larger agenda. The upcoming, one-night-only performance of the “Wizard of Oz” at the little K-12 school of barely 100 students kept the munchkins and their pals busily on task.
By: Ken Lindberg, for the News Tribune
It was a clear, windless April day in the early 1980s; the thermometer crept up over 60 degrees in the Missouri River village of Newcastle, Neb., population 350. Children buzzed like insects anticipating spring, but the kids had a larger agenda. The upcoming, one-night-only performance of the “Wizard of Oz” at the little K-12 school of barely 100 students kept the munchkins and their pals busily on task.
Relief was felt by all when an approaching storm was predicted to veer south and miss the community.
But faith in that forecast turned out to be misplaced.
That evening of the show, virtually every school child and family from miles around had their attentions solidly riveted on the stage until the curtain lowered for the last time and the big double front doors swung open — to a raging, wet, howler of a spring blizzard.
Some families immediately holed up with relatives in town. Some made a dash for their farm or neighboring village. A few of those who immediately drove like the Dukes of Hazzard made it home before the wind intensified.
Near hurricane-force gusts reduced visibility to an honest-to-goodness absolute zero for most of the night. Fleeing playgoers who perhaps didn’t start out as quickly as they should have drove blindly. Some found roadside ditches. Others rescued those in the ditches between gusts and before making U-turns right back to Newcastle.
I recall carrying the 16-year-old fairy godmother, still dressed in her gossamer gown, and her sister through drifts to my crowded car. Two families then literally inched toward safety in our old Ford Pinto lifeboat of a station wagon, averaging 1 mph, which was noted for posterity. My wife on the leeward side rolled down the window and shouted, “Go!” whenever she could see the road’s shoulder, and, “Stop!” when she could not. We waited anxiously, rocked by the wind.
I tried not to think of how vulnerable we were to the whack of a semi-truck. Our young kids were less bothered by the danger and seemed to enjoy the ordeal as an extension of the actual play since they had the fully costumed fairy godmother between them — and to themselves. I guess they remained confident that, since she possessed unusual powers, she would let nothing bad happen to them.
To the adults, however, it seemed a grim eternity before houses and trees abated the deafening wind and the faint village street lights mercifully enveloped our intact, compact life boat with all hands safely cocooned inside frozen shut doors. Our kindly good fairy granted us a much-appreciated wish of staying at her uncle’s house. We dried our clothes and slept warm, as visions of magic shoes, yellow brick roads and swirling snow danced in our heads.
By all reports, Dorothy, Toto, the entire cast and the rest of the community survived under the shelter of other village roofs. We all anticipated frostbite and fatalities but received a miracle instead.
Thirty years have passed, but to this day there are no puzzled looks if you should mention the “Blizzard of Oz” in certain parts of northeastern Nebraska. They just nod in acknowledgement of a staged drama that merged into a real one.
As a sad postscript, since that storm, I always have carried a sleeping bag in my car. This winter, young Brian Chase, who grew up across the street from that same small school, did not. He was buried Wednesday, Feb. 6, after tragically freezing to death on that same isolated seven-mile highway stretch of our long-ago ordeal. His girlfriend survived and reportedly will lose most of her fingers and toes for want of a sleeping bag. God bless them both. They were the right age to have been in that school play.
Ken Lindberg of Superior has been a business owner in Canal Park since 2000 and always has lived in winter storm-susceptible places.