Mack Williams column: First snow of 2014 (but seen before)

  • Posted: Monday, February 3, 2014 1:14 a.m.

One day, just short of two weeks ago, I came out of Walmart and witnessed the beginning of this year’s first snowfall in my neck of the woods. The flakes’ size was increasing rapidly (not getting fatter as they fell, of course, but instead, much larger ones following what had preceded).

I didn’t recall seeing snowflakes of this size before. It was the kind of snow we always call “wet,” and I have seen many wet snows during the course of my life, but these flakes seemed to be just a little larger than those remembered.

Since childhood, whenever it snows I have always held out my coated arm out to “catch” a few snowflakes for closer inspection. Of course, if that coat is dark, the contrast helps.

What I saw that recent day were “groupings” of flakes, stuck together. I’m not a meteorologist, but this sort of thing is probably par for the course for a “wet” snow. If a wet snow (as opposed to a “dry” one) packs well in a pair of gloved hands to make a snowball, it also makes sense that there would be some chance clumping en route to the ground. The other day, the usual quarter-size flakes became Kennedy half-dollar size, each “super flake’s” collection of smaller ones resembling a football game “pile-on.” I also thought of skydivers holding hands in the sky, but this was like what it would have been if, following the opening of the chutes, their hand-holding had miraculously continued.

So far, the snow wasn’t accumulating, each “flake group” losing its white contrast when melting on contact with the pavement, becoming clear water in black asphalt camouflage, only a “glistening” giving its presence away. I wondered just how many flakes would be sacrificed to chill the ground in the snowy invasion before a beachhead of “sticking” was achieved. A scene of army ants storming across a bridge made of their brethren also crossed my mind.

After taking seat in my car, some exceptionally large flakes struck the windshield, almost extending the range of the “denominations” from half-dollar to that of “greenback!”

The automobile-made wind of my driving made the falling flakes seem directionally blizzard-like, in a 45 degree angle, but when I stopped, so did the wind, at which time they fell more or less straight down. The heavier flakes fell perpendicular, while those less weighty seemed to detect the slightest changing winds, falling a little to either side and across, giving the whole a “twizzler” effect.

Snow always looks fresh to me. The only time it doesn’t look fresh is when it picks up stuff from a car’s exhaust pipe, or when it seems to last almost till spring in similarly dirty “mini-Matterhorns” (also scaled, but by kids) in Walmart’s parking lot, but unlike paper, it’s never yellow with age. (Well, sometimes it’s yellow, but not with age.) Snow still looks just as fresh as when I was fresh years ago, although the same can’t be said of me. I’m no longer fresh, but hopefully a good bit away from my “shelf date.”

The sighting of snow as a child meant an automatic respite from school. If that “snow break” came a few days after returning from Christmas vacation, it seemed like Christmas again, especially if the tree were still up.

The earth is governed by cycles (such governing by nature more reliable, but sometimes less benevolent than our own). Nature also started recycling long before we did, without boxes labeled “for this” or “for that.”

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Since evaporation recycles water and sends it back to the sky to become rain, sleet, snow, hail, the white puffy clouds of midday, or the red-orange ones of morning or sunset, I’ve come to the conclusion that the first snow of 2014 is that reworked winter precipitation which has fallen throughout my almost 63 years, and restating: not just similar, but the very same which fell before. Some examples:

Those first flakes of 2014 also fell many times in the yard of my childhood home on the Old Concord Road.

In college at Appalachian, they returned (to Boone, very frequently), a mixing with sleet causing a girl walking just ahead of me one day to experience a “wipeout.”

On another return of my “old snow,” hundreds of North Carolina high school band students at a winter band clinic at Appalachian weren’t able to leave for several days.

It’s also the same snow which was on the ground outside Saint Paul’s Lutheran Church when I kissed my high school girlfriend there one Christmas Eve. (I also kissed her in a hallway there, since high school girlfriends can never be kissed too much, even at church.)

Of the many instances of snow in my life, there is one which mixes the excited closing of grade school with a remembered sadness, the sad part always causing the life’s “film” to slow down or even get briefly stuck on that particular frame.

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As I recall, the following transpired in the very early 1960s at Granite Quarry School, but it might have happened instead in the very late 1950s. (As sometimes happens in life, the last memories of one decade become confused with the first memories of the next.)

Our principal, Mr. C.L. Barnhardt had just returned to work following his leave due to the tragic illness and much-too-early death of his wife. (Nowadays, they call it “death leave,” but back then, I’m not sure if that particular phrase of the workplace had yet been coined.)

Snow began falling not very long after we had taken our classroom seats.

The progression of our school day studies was quickly halted and we were instructed to follow our teachers to the bus parking lot (that instruction being the only which I recall from that day). In our minds, the closing was ordered by Mr. Barnhardt. Even though he was probably only following the direction of the superintendent of Rowan County Schools, I have no doubt that if the superintendent had failed in his estimation of the seriousness of the situation, then Mr. Barnhardt, as “school father” would have defied him for our sake, closing down Granite Quarry School on his own authority.

Just as this was happening, I was in the school’s office checking out a little portable planetarium which went by the name of “Spitz Jr.” (after the name of much larger, much more technical equipment found in some of the planetariums of the time). It had been unavailable before, being popular and being checked out by others, but now (or rather, “then”) it was back on the shelf in the office where it was kept in the general vicinity of our school secretary, a beautiful lady in possession of a beautiful soul, Mrs. Geneva Peeler.

Even if snow clouds were to fill the next couple of nights, I planned to be viewing the constellations (or at least, their approximation) on the walls and ceiling of my bedroom.

Mr. Barnhardt was already going down the hall and heading out to the bus parking lot to oversee the loading. He was wearing his topcoat and hat, a hat in the style worn by men back then (but not for long).

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I remember looking up at him as his eyes caught mine. The sadness in those eyes made time seem to suddenly move at a slower pace (as mentioned before, sorrow putting an apparent “andante” on our timelines).

To this day, I am sure of the sorrow which I saw in Principal C.L. Barnhardt’s eyes. With our pets, we sometimes ascribe feelings to their faces of “human” character, even though they are not human; but when looking into the eyes of another of our species, there is usually not much doubt as to what one sees (unless such observation is made during the course of a game of poker).

Outside, the buses were running and the snow was falling in full blizzard fashion. The sun only shone in that sky as a faint spot of brightness beyond the clouds. Those clouds were preoccupied with their God-given business of making snow, seemingly having no time to even acknowledge the solar disk’s existence. Any sunlight making it through was greatly diffused and seemed to have lost all sense of direction.

Little pairs of feet excitedly made their way to the buses, such excited little feet, of course, ordered to be so by the excited little minds on opposite end.

Surveying the scene, a man in topcoat and hat watched, with a decidedly sad look in his eyes, giving direction where it was needed, tending to the safety of those in his charge.

All of this, under an opaque sun, giving only oblique light, on a snowy day.

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