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A Thanksgiving (true) Story

Thanksgiving Blizzard

Living as far north in Wisconsin as we did I often said jokingly that “the bad part of living where we do is that my in-laws are four hours away, but the good part about living where we do is that my in-laws are four hours away”. This meant, of course, that because of time and distance we did not get to see them very often. The truth was though that I got along very well with my wife’s parents and family, but somehow as hard as I had tried not to, I had inherited my father’s aversion to ‘visiting’, and the distance of the trip to see them required the investment of two or three days’ time.

In the fall of that year my infant son was six months old and his doting grandparents did not have to insist too hard to have us come for Thanksgiving. I was a very proud father after all and we wanted to show him off as any new parents do. It was a good time to travel because the Wednesday before Thanksgiving was my usual day off. This allowed us to pack up and leave for Rock Island, Illinois on Tuesday evening after office hours and be able to stay through Thursday. The office would not reopen until Friday morning and I could be back to work well rested after a two day break. I had begun traveling and lecturing at conventions and seminars by that time and through experimentation we had learned that the baby slept well in the car if we traveled after dark so this travel schedule worked out well in that regard. If the baby did waken we could stop and allow my wife to nurse him and because of the darkness and quiet he seldom roused enough to not fall back to asleep immediately.

So it was that we arrived in Rock Island in good order and spent a pleasant time with her folks. The added benefit of the visit was being able to watch television. We lived too far away from any broadcasting antennas to be able to pick up any television stations so we didn’t own a television set. My in-laws had a television in practically every room in the house and one or more of them were on at the same time. In addition Thanksgiving Day had football games which I had truly missed. This Thanksgiving Day, my Green Bay Packers were going to play the much hated Detroit Lions so I was anticipating a day of overeating and decadence. The only thing that darkened the day was constant reminders on the television broadcasts warning of an impending blizzard.

Making sure that everyone ate too much was one of my mother-in-laws specialties. She was a spectacular cook. A skill she had passed on to her daughter as well. In her tiny kitchen she bustled about and created a worthy feast of turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes and gravy, sweet potatoes and on and on. While she worked she whistled and only interrupted her tune to give us the latest forecast from the little television set on the kitchen counter. The weather report became increasingly grim and, for once, exceedingly accurate as it began to snow just before noon.

The dining room table had so many added leafs in it that it extended through the all the way out into the living room and it was covered from one end to the other with delicious food. Not all of the dinner plates matched, there were just too many of us, but we all sat at the ‘big’ table. As my wife’s brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews, and mother and father-in-law sat, prayed and enjoyed our dinner the snow swirled past the windows and the football game continued on two of the strategically located televisions. A “trailer” crawled across the bottom of the screen continuously reminding people of the danger of holiday travel with the epic storm pressing down from the northwest.

The snow accumulated at a rapid rate and snowfall of well over a foot was forecast. I began to have concerns about our ability to make the drive home, especially as the afternoon progressed. The office was scheduled to open at the seven the next morning and there was usually a few patients already waiting when the doors were unlocked. Already there was at least four or five inches on the ground in Rock Island so I could not imagine how much must be falling to the north. I knew my little pickup truck and I could handle just about any snowfall amount but the idea of travelling with my infant son and wife was a major concern. In the end, it was decided that I would leave as soon as possible and leave my wife and son with my in-laws. If all went well my father-in-law would bring them home during the upcoming weekend.

As I got ready to go my mother-in-law bustled about in the kitchen filling a large thermos with coffee and packed a large shopping bag with turkey and ham sandwiches and slabs of pumpkin pie. Her concern for my safety was obvious and she mumbled it to herself over and over as she worked. When I told her that there was way more food in the bag than I could possibly eat she reminded me that I was most likely going to spend the night in a ditch somewhere stranded. At least I would be able to survive until I froze to death. Although she was being over-dramatic she made an excellent point and I accepted the food and thermos with my thanks.

With a quick kiss and hugs all around I backed the truck out into the street and began the journey north. The snow was light and powdery and it did not relent. There was only minimal wind for which I was thankful for because the snow was already deep enough to make the driving difficult the addition of drifting snow would have made the trip impossible. As it was the little truck created plowed through the snow blowing it out on either side and creating a rooster tail of kicked up snow behind us as we went.

The best route home from Rock Island required that I cross the Mississippi into Iowa and take the highway north to Dubuque before crossing back into Illinois. Dubuque, Iowa was the first leg of the trip and was a little over seventy miles of curving winding roads. There was almost no traffic on the highway and I met very few oncoming cars. By the time I reached Dubuque the snow was fast approaching ten to twelve inches and my speed was reduced to less than thirty miles per hour. When I attempted to go any faster the rear end would “break away” as the lighter rear end of the empty truck bed lost contact with the roadway. It took a little more than two hours to make the first leg of the trip and during that time, darkness had fallen. Passing through the deserted streets of Dubuque I soon came to the bridge crossing the Mississippi River and passed into the upper left hand corner of Illinois and then quickly crossed into Wisconsin.

Not surprisingly the snow on the east side of the river was deeper. The majestic bluffs that lined the river were as much as seven hundred feet above the water and wind and weather rushing in from the western plains were deflected upwards. The air, much warmed near the ground than in the air above created convection which in turn forced the clouds to release even more precipitation, snow in winter rain in summer. The fourteen or so miles from Dubuque to Dickeyville, Wisconsin took me half an hour.

Dickeyville is a tiny burg sitting alone in the foothills of the Mississippi bluffs and although I had no reason to expect any activity the streets were pristine with no evidence of cars passing to mar the smooth snow that covered the road and sparkled in the headlights of the truck. Even the lights in the tavern window were not lit and the town was dark and quiet on this Thanksgiving night. Then without warning a set of police lights flashed in my rear view mirror and a squad car pulled up behind me. I knew I wasn’t speeding and I was sure I hadn’t missed any stop signs so I had no idea what this was all about.

I had no idea where the shoulder of the road was and I couldn’t be sure that there even was one. Since there was no evidence of other vehicles I simply stopped in what must have been about the center of the road, or so I hoped. The police cruiser pulled up behind the truck and waited. Since we were the only ones on the road and since I had been sitting in the truck for almost three hours I got out and began to walk back to the squad. At the same time the cop got out and began to walk toward me. In a small town citizens are not a threat to the police and this small town was no different. We simply strolled up to each other and the policeman offered his hand to shake.

“Evening sir, pretty rough night to be out on the road. I hope you’re not going to far.”

“I’m heading for Tomah, snows getting pretty deep alright. As long as the truck keeps rolling though I don’t think I can get stuck.”

“Yeah, well, about that. The reason I stopped you is because you’ve got a headlight out”

“What? Really?” I waded through the snow to the front of the truck and sure enough the driver’s headlight was not working. “Dammit”

“My brights are still working but with the snow coming down so thick using the high beams makes visibility worse.”

“Yeah, it’s really not a very good idea to be driving at all much less with only one headlight. Listen, I’m not gonna write you a ticket about this but I’ll give you a warning you have a grace period then before it has to be fixed by.”

I thanked him and we went back to his car to write out the warning. Because there was nothing else to do I stood outside of his door and we conversed while he filled out the form, just making small talk. After he finished he got back out of the vehicle and explained the “fix it” warning showing me the specifics and how much time I had to fix the headlight. After that he just stood in the road next to me leaning back with his hand on his big Maglight flashlight on his utility belt. For a while we both watched the snow fall through the streetlight.

“Crappy night for you to have to pull duty being that it’s a holiday and all.”

“Well I’m new on the force so I get the holidays and the nights too. If you think nothing happens in this town during the day, you should spend some time here at night.”

I told him about coming from Rock Island so far and then remembered the grocery bag on the passenger seat and offered him a sandwich and a piece of pie. He gratefully accepted but declined my offer of coffee as well saying that he had a thermos of his own. Then he said,

“I’ve been drinking all night and I could stand to pee.”

With that he stepped over toward the shoulder and hiked up his utility belt a little, yanked his zipper down and began to relieve himself. The very thought of having to pee reminded me that I did too, so I joined him and we shared a moment both standing in the deep snow urinating as the snow fell around us. After that there was little else to do but give our farewells and another handshake and drive off into the worsening storm.

The snow already deep didn’t show any signs of slowing down and progress on the lonely road was slow but steady. I drank coffee and ate pie and used the telephone poles along the side of the road to estimate where the center of the road should be. Sixty miles and three hours later I had not met another car. I crossed the Wisconsin River just east of where it empties into the Mississippi at Prairie Du Chien and again skirted the bluffs into the scenic Kickapoo Valley.

Within a mile of crossing the trestle bridge flashing lights in my rear view mirror informed me that I had another visitor. Stopping this time I did not hesitate to step out of the truck and push through the snow to the state police car. As he stepped up out of the vehicle I addressed him right away.

“Evening Officer, I hope you’re not stopping me about my headlight. I didn’t know it was out before I left home tonight, but I already got stopped for it and I already got a fix it ticket.”

“Nope, I didn’t stop you for that at all. I was only wondering if maybe you had any more of those sandwiches left.”

I smiled and gladly offered him one and a piece of pie, and we shared a little Thanksgiving spirit in the middle of nowhere in the beauty of Wisconsin. I guess you can’t outrun a police radio.