How I came through the great ice storm of '61 in an eight-room house with the heat off and coped with everything except my wife

KEN JOHNSTONE December 2 1961

How I came through the great ice storm of '61 in an eight-room house with the heat off and coped with everything except my wife

KEN JOHNSTONE December 2 1961

How I came through the great ice storm of '61 in an eight-room house with the heat off and coped with everything except my wife


IT WAS JUST TWENTY minutes to nine on the last Saturday night in February when the power tailed at my home on the outskirts of Rockburn, a tiny satellite village of Montreal about an hour's drive from the city. There had been a freezing rain the night before, and the tips of the young ice-laden birches were already touching the snow'. Ed McNally. my neighbor and a well-known commercial artist, had come over earlier in the day to warn me: "It looks like a bad storm coming up. You'd better run a few buckets of water and fill the bathtub, just in case the power line breaks.” That morning the squirrels had been scampering about in great activity, a sure sign to the natives that trouble was brewing. Then, during Saturday afternoon the storm worsened, and when Ed and Pat McNally came over for dinner, the big pine and elm trees w'ere starting to droop with their load of ice, and the occasional dead branch already littered our driveway. Dinner was over, the girls w'ere finishing washing up, and I had just turned on the television for the hockey game when the lights flared, went out, came on again briefly, and then w'ent out a second time.

“It’s bad when they do that,” Ed said. “I think we've had it.”

But the phone was still working, and we called the power substation at St. Remi. We learned that there had been a break in the line just out-

side Rockburn and that a repair crew was already on its way. But that crew never got there. When we stepped outside a few minutes later to walk the dogs, big branches, solidly encased in ice, w'ere crashing all around us. Ed returned to the house quickly and told Pat to get ready; they were going home right away. They left to the rifle-crack ol breaking tree limbs along our half-mile driveway.

Meanwhile Elizabeth had brought out a formidable store of candles and a lone oil lamp, fortunately full of oil. I had a blaze going in the living room fireplace, and I lit another in the bedroom fireplace. I thought we were well off for wood. The woodshed was overflowing with most of a big dead pine tree which one neighbor had felled for me and another had sawn into fireplace lengths, splitting it generously into pieces which I could barely lift. A pair of such logs made a merry flame and spread a glow that kept the living room thermostat where the expired furnace had left it, at a comfortable seventy degrees.


Around ten o’clock I tried the phone. It was dead. But out in the night in the pelting freezing rain things were very alive. Our house is on the crest of a hill, guarded by a dozen great pine trees under the captaincy of a black walnut, with a supporting phalanx of equally great oaks and, lining the driveway, a double column of pine, elm, maple, wild apple, birch, and varieties I can’t identify. Our farm is dotted with tall elms, while an apple orchard of 500 trees nestles on the northern slope toward the village behind a second-growth maple bush. In short, there are trees around us, and the trees accumulated an unbearable burden of ice during the storm. As the wind increased they started to break with sounds that varied from rifle reports to crashing thuds like mortar fire. From ten o’clock that night until dawn the barrage was constant and heavy. It kept up, my wife kept up, she kept me up, and I kept the fires up. It was during that night that 1 became disillusioned with dead pine as fuel for a fireplace.

It seems to me that most of that night I stumbled, half asleep, from the woodshed to the living room fireplace, back to the woodshed, and then to the bedroom fireplace, then to the bed where I would wearily stretch out, only to be jogged back into action by my wife, who apparently slept with one eye open. She would announce that either one or the other fireplace was just about out. That cursed pine in its unwieldy shape burned like paper; it flared up and then it flared out. Only the pieces with knots in them had any real heat, and they were invariably the most difficult to manipulate. When a cold miserable dawn broke shortly after six on Sunday morning, I felt



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the relief of a jailbird who hears that his sentence is up. I could not have been more wrong.

“Get the barbecue pit going in the kitchen.” my wife ordered. "We'll cook on that.”

Wearily I kindled a fire in the barbecue pit. which smoked viciously, as we had not yet installed the hood. But soon water w'as boiling for tea; my wife had instant coffee which I dislike on principle (next.

instant scotch?) and we had orange juice, buns and jam. Then we looked outside.

It was a sail sight. I he fields were covered with thick six-inch spikes of ice. The driveway was completely blocked by a curtain ot hanging ice-encased limbs dangling above a bed of smashed ami twisted boughs. Halfway down the driveway a huge elm tree had fallen and blocked any possible exit. Wherever we looked w'e saw shattered elm trees, their limbs hanging

or already fallen, and the stripped trunks pointing skyward like giant toothpicks.

We were completely subdued and silent as we crossed an open field and came to the Rockhurn side road. I imbs littered its length. Halfway down the road a snapped telephone pole swung out from the bank like a giant battering ram partly blocking the road, and at the edge of the village a huge maple tree had fallen to block it completely. But this didn't matter then; there was no traffic. Only the occasional crack of falling branches broke the Sunday-morning quiet.

Down at the fallen maple we met Maurice Maither, who looks after the roads in the district. He shook his head glumly. "It's the worst storm I’ve seen in twenty years,” he said. “We’ll be lucky if we have any power in a week. Everything is knocked out in the whole district, and Highway Fifty-two is blocked at both ends of the village. You can sec for yourselves.”

We walked to the crossroads, and if the sight at home was sad. this was appalling. A tangle of power and telephone lines, and snapped poles, mingled with broken tree limbs, stretched down the highway in both directions as far as we could sec. Happily, Maither said, nobody had been hurt in the storm, though a maple limb had smashed a window at Barr’s general store.

"I've got to get a couple of crews working,” he told me briskly. “We’ll clear your side road so you can get out, but I doubt that anyone will be able to leave the village till tonight. Let's hope nobody needs a doctor in a hurry.” And soon the buz/ of chain saws, a familiar sound in the weeks ahead, echoed from the highway at both ends of the village. We went over to see how the MeNallys had fared.

Both had spent a sleepless night tending fireplaces and listening to crashing trees. They had barely made it home from our place. Ed had stopped several times on the way to remove blocking branches, expecting at every moment to have a branch come crashing through the roof of the car. The fallen maple had forced them to make a detour over back roads, and they had seen the sky light up with green, blue, yellow and orange (faring lights as two transmission lines (I learned later) from Beauharnois, thirty miles away, had swung together in the gale. Ed had been listening to the news over his car radio: he could get only one Montreal station. Apparently the power failure had been general throughout the St. Lawrence valley as the storm moved eastward to the Gaspé. More than a million homes were reported without power. “No power in Montreal.” he said cheerfully, and somehow that seemed to make our own plight less serious.

"How' arc you fixed for water?” I asked. "I forgot to take my own advice,” he said, “but Í can always draw some from the hot water tank, and the brook is high with the storm. Norman Lussier (a neighboring farmer who manages our apple trees) is bringing me some eight-gallon milk cans full of water, so we’ll make out. You’d better do the same.”

I told him that my driveway was blocked. and then Elizabeth and I walked up past I.ussicr's. spotting a pole on the power line leading to our place that had snapped: that w'ould mean further delay for us when the power finally came back to Rockhurn. We plodded glumly through Lussier’s orchard, noting where the ice had split the trees at the crotches: if this sort of damage was general, you could predict a shortage of apples and a higher price next season. Our apple trees were on the same slope but we didn’t have the courage to go over to inspect them.

Instead we went back up our side road, dodging under the elms whose broken limbs still dangled on threads of torn sinew. We stopped at the LaPalmcs to sec how they had made out.

Robert I.aPalme. the brilliant political cartoonist, had recently moved to Rockburn. building himself a stone cottage on our brook just a few hundred yards up the side road. The LaPalmcs were up when we got there. Bob said he assumed it had been an invasion from the American border two miles away. "They’re sore about Cuba,” he explained. "I could hear them firing at us ail night."

The LaPalmcs were not in bad shape

at all: they had a gravity-feed space heater. and their well flowed constantly. They offered us water if we needed any. Enviously we left, and walked home through softly falling snow that seemed anxious to cover the wounds inflicted by the storm.

Tater Fxl McNally arrived on foot and advised me to try to get my car out to the side road oxer the field, so that 1 would be mobile for getting xxater and supplies. I tried it and wedged the car fast in a snowbank about four feet deep and thirtx feet long. I he snow was like cement, with a thick crust of ice. After half an hour of futile digging we left to get Finest Maither (nephew of Maurice) who has a homemade but very effective snowblower. He freed us quickly, but warned against the field route: the least drift of snow would block it. He promised to come as soon as possible to open my driveway.

Then the I.apalmes arrived on their w ay back from the McNally s', and Fd and Hob and I drank hot buttered rum. We felt a lot better. The rum was 151-proof.

Our visitors left and darkness settled swiftly over the house. Fli/abeth lit the oil lamp and several candles. I hen she conjured up a meal of warmed-up pork chops in a sensational wine and mushroom sauce with vegetables, a soup, and Christmas cake for dessert. It was the last civilized meal I had in that house for a week.

Sadly, 1 watched my wife leave

l he xxeek that followed is one that memory begs me to forget. After another night of semistupor, spent feeding clumsy logs to insatiable fireplaces, sad I x I saw hli/abeth depart in the morning vxith Fd for Montreal (she has a ballet studio there), for the roads xxere open. Then I embarked on a merry-go-round of stoking fires, fetching wood, fetching xxater from the brook, boiling water, washing dishes, and (when I began to master these basic chores), other household duties and sorties into the countryside to inspect damage and find out xx hat was being done about it.

My trips away from the house xxere necessarily short, for though the weather was mercifully mild, mainly in the thirties during the day and never lower than twenty at night. I didn't know xx hat x\ as in store, so I didn't dare let the fires die.

I managed to get up to a nearby provincial hoys' school, where about fifty poles of the power line had snapped like so many matchsticks. The school, happily, had stand-by power equipment. Then 1 got over to St. Remi and talked to a Mr. He I lefeuille, the manager of the Shaxvinigan Water anxl Power Company there.

He told me that the storm xxas a major disaster. In addition to the destruction at the school, there were a hundred poles down near Ste Philomcne on the transmission line coming in to the substation, anxl. in all. about 1.500 poles were xlow n in the xlistrict. His normal repair staff of twclxe men xxas augmented by more than a hundred from power companies in Quebec anxl Ontario and even from the United States, and he still xlixln't have enough men to handle the repair job with the speed desired. Poxver had been restorer! to most of the main towns by Tuesday night, but the villages anxl the farms xvoulxl have to xx ait until the broken transmission line xxas mended so that more power xxoulxl be available for xlistribution. He hopexl this would be done by the enxl of the xxeek. but it xvoulxl be another three weeks before ex cry farm hail normal pow er again.

My neighbors, xxithout exception, showed a native skill and ingenuity in coping with the emergency. Willie Maither anxl his two sons. Bruce anil Finest, rigged up a lawnmower motor to pump water. Walter Welburn hookexl up another laxxnmoxver motor to pump gas at his garage.

Bruce Rennie, like many others, had a wood stove in his kitchen and Norman Lussier, who had treated his wife to an electrical kitchen only the summer before promptly hauled in the old wood stove which he had kept in the back barn. Water was the main problem for most people. Bruce Rennie, after trying to rig a motor to his pump and finding that the pipe was frozen, went back to the bucket, which he filled at his spring, and Milford Oliver used the same spring. Dr. Reid, at eightythree, carried his water in buckets from the spring, a good 200-yard haul.

Those who had to use brook water, boiled, for drinking, had their troubles with the soft water; both F.d McNally and Norman Lussier suffered for a couple of days with a mild form of dysentery.

People lived pretty well on the defrosting contents of their freezers. Bruce Rennie’s wife put up twenty-five quarts of wild strawberries before they had a chance to spoil in her freezer. Some fellow' from Ormstown came around with a machine for keeping the temperature down in the freezers, but one servicing job cost eight dollars, and that was only good for fortyeight hours. Norman Lussier was the only one I know' who went for it. but he has a whopping big freezer with a lot of meat in it.

Right across the countryside people responded to the crisis with vigor and ingenuity. Tractor and car intake manifolds were used for milking, chain-saw and lawn-mower motors w’ere hooked to Vbelts; 1 even heard of people turning bicycles upside down and hooking V-belts to the sprockets to operate their water pumps. By Monday everybody was carrying on as usual — everybody but me. Mind you. I wasn't completely dumb; I learned a few lasting lessons.

I learned, for instance, that firedogs are just a nuisance when you want to build a big solid fire. The best practice is to place the logs, pointing inward, on the hot coals of previous logs. By Wednesday Ernest Maither and his father, Willie, had been over and had cleared my driveway and cut me a supply of green maple from the limbs that had crashed. 1 learned that green maple burns fine on a bed of hot coals. A big log will keep going most of the night, though you still have to add smaller pieces from time to time. But I was able to stretch my cat naps by a couple of hours.

I learned the difference between hard water from our well and soft water from the brook. This lesson dawned when I added soap flakes to brook w'ater while doing my laundry. It came foaming up out of the basin like a carelessly poured bottle of warm beer, over the table and down to the floor while, up to my elbows in suds, 1 watched helplessly. And 1 didn’t get all the soap out of the clothes till I took them down to the brook and rinsed them in the icy water and watched clouds of soap float free. Even then, my underwear felt slithery when I put it on. and I expected to start bubbling every time I perspired.

When I opened our freezer after fortyeight hours without power, I found that the ice cream had melted and run over everything else; a beef tongue that I had failed to wrap in aluminum foil had defrosted, as well as four pair of kippers which had been properly wrapped. Everything else seemed frozen solid, so I packed a big plastic garbage pail with alternate layers of ice and meat; four chickens, two filets, a roast of beef, two dozen of my own specially prepared de luxe hamburgers and a couple of steaks. Then 1 put the pail in a corner of a stone outhouse and covered it completely with ice. There was plenty of ice, shed by the pines.

Yet, despite these efforts to cope with

my environment. I felt myself going through a process of slow but sure disintegration. It began physically and then became moral. My back ached all the time, night and day. from the unaccustomed exercise of constantly carrying wood or lugging eighty-pound cans of water. I needed only to think of getting wood to feel a twinge in my back. My hands became scratched, cut. calloused and full of splinters from handling the dry pine without gloves, and 1 broke every fingernail of both hands. I wore moccasins for warmth on a floor where the house temperature varied from fifty degrees in the kitchen to seventy degrees in the bedroom, when I had a good fire roaring there. But I soon bruised both heels in some mysterious way, and then the tough skin at the back of the heels cracked open and became extremely painful; 1 had to walk on tiptoe to get relief. By the middle of the w'eek 1 had developed a sore throat, which turned into a hacking cough and a solid head-stuffing cold. 1 wheezed constantly like broken bellows; I was startled by the sound, which first 1 attributed to our boxer dog who is getting pretty ancient.

I lived like a squirrel

The moral disintegration stemmed from the long lonely nights, which extended from six p.m. to six a.m. 1 tried to feed the dogs and to have my evening meals in daylight so that I could save oil. and usually the only light I had after about seven o'clock came from the fireplaces. It was impossible to read; there was no radio, no television; and I didn’t feel like sponging on my friends during their difficulties. 1 went to bed early. I got in and out of bed so often during the night and piled so many covers on my bed that it seemed foolish to make it every day. I simply fashioned a hole in the bedclothes like a squirrel’s, and dived back into it after every fire-stoking excursion during the night.

My parsimony about oil also extended to water. I didn’t wash properly once, because every time I used the water I could see myself filling the milk cans at the brook and lugging them into the house. So I barely dampened my face and hands, and my beard bristled like a porcupine before I realized that 1 had a gadget for using an electric razor in the car. Even then I used it only twice — to save the battery. I had the makings of a first-class hermit.

But nowhere was my moral disintegration more clearly expressed than in my attitude toward the dumb animals that constantly followed me about for company. The moment that 1 slumped before the fireplace to catch a tired breath. Nicky, the old boxer, would come wriggling up ingratiatingly and slobber over my knee and Sam, the half-Persian cat. and Annie, the dachshund, would race to see who could get on my lap first. If Annie won, Sam simply crawled higher up. dug his claws into my quivering breast and flaunted his hairy tail under my dripping nose. At moments like that I ceased to be an animal lover. 1 hated those animals, collectively and individually, but I was too demoralized to do anything about it.

The house got more and more disorganized. A fine white wood ash lay over everything like a cloud; the carpets were littered with bits of bark and slivers of w'ood; my place at the table remained permanently set with salt and pepper, butter dish and ketchup bottle, like an island in a changing sea of beer bottles, tools, nails, mitts, flashlight batteries, sticks of firewood and candle drippings. I soon stopped using dishes in favor of aluminum foil or even the soot-covered cooking pot

itself. One horrifying meal 1 cooked for myself consisted of a tin of meat balls dumped into a pot, covered by a tin of spaghetti, in turn covered by a tin of creamed corn; it was enough for four people but I ate it all myself, along with six slices of bread and two bottles of beer, and then I lay bulging in front of the fireplace like a boa constrictor that had just swallowed a calf.

The one bright spot in that week w'as on Friday. F.d McNally had been over earlier in the day; he was going to Huntingdon and he wanted to know if he could get me any supplies. After carefully checking my shelves, 1 said yes. he could get me a bottle of rum and a bottle of sherry. He looked a bit startled, but said nothing, and went away. Then later, he came back and said I’d better come to their place for dinner. I agreed reluctantly, but I was glad all the same. Pat. miraculously, had devised a delicious meal from her fireplace grill; ground beef mixed with mushrooms and green peppers, baked potatoes, lima beans, peas, cottage cheese and peach salad, mince pie and coffee, and a Chateauneuf du Pape to accompany the food.

Next day I went in to Montreal to pick up Elizabeth, and as I left Rockburn, the first power company repair crew showed up in the village, clearing away the brush that entangled the lines. When we got back, around five o’clock, most of the village had power, but we were out of luck. A second snapped pole had been discovered on my line and nobody knew when we might get power; perhaps in a week. Elizabeth and I went home to our dark smoky lair and I stirred up the fires, and even she began to share my low' spirits.

Then that Good Samaritan. Ed, turned up again. He felt sorry that we had no power, and he and Pat invited us to dinner. We went eagerly, for neither of us relished the idea of making our own dinner that night, when everyone else had electricity.

Later, after a good meal, we were a little more cheerful, even though the weather prediction was for more freezing rain. W'e stoked up the fires and went to bed feeling like a couple of smoked kippers.

Despite the sight of ice-sheeted windows greeting the dawn, trees again encased in transparent sheaths, and a glassy carpet underfoot. I rallied in the presence of Elizabeth, who quickly reinstated order in the disordered house, dusted the wood ash from the furniture, cleaned the rugs and swept up. All this she did after breakfast while I was out looking vainly for power repair crews that might be installing new' poles. We continued our wood and water routine, but the knowledge that pow'er was in the vicinity and yet not available to us was maddening. I called St. Remi from a pay phone at Franklin Centre several times, but Mr. Bellefeu¡lie had enough ptoblems of his own and I was unable to reach him. Ed suggested that perhaps 1 had better drain the plumbing and move into town, but I wouldn’t hear of such a suggestion after having put up with so much misery so far and having succor so close.

Monday morning Elizabeth and Ed left for Montreal again, and we were still without power. Ed had done a striking cartoon in the Montreal Star that week on the power crisis: it showed a repairman in a tangle of wires atop a broken pole, being watched by two youngsters; one of the kids is saying: "Betcha he could lick old Roy Rogers any day.” I suggested that he call the power company and see if his work of art had won him any influence. This he promised to do, and 1 went prowling again in search of repairmen.

The only crew I met were Bell telephone repairmen, and they told me a dismal story. They had 1,700 poles down, and

they had no idea when we would have a phone in service. 1 could see for myself that the phone wires were in an even worse mess than the hydro lines.

Then, suddenly, it was all over! I called Mr. Bellefeuille again, shortly after noon, and he said that a crew was on the way to connect a temporary line. 1 went home and waited, and at five o’clock, as though by magic, the lights all went on. the water pump started, the furnace jerked into life, the refrigerator started up. and the television came blaring on. I was in touch with civilization again. 1 celebrated briefly with

the repairmen who came to make sure that everything was in order, and then I started to clean up all the mess. Gallons of hot water, one box of steel wool, and two cans of cleaning powder later I had the last soot off the last pot. and 1 brewed myself a cheering potion.

Now I can regard the whole experience objectively. 1 had been given a sharp lesson in our dependence on modern living devices. Now I will make that kitchen barbecue more effective for emergency heating anil cooking. 1 still have a bathtub full of emergency water, and I’m in the

market for a modestly priced generator — me and a couple of thousand other people, I gather. But I still can’t hear Percy Saltzman mention freezing rain on Seven-oOne’s weather forecast without feeling a chill that has nothing to do with the temperature. However, the memory of all that will eventually fade. But what 1 won’t be permitted to forget for years to come is the decimated ranks of shattered forest giants outside my door whose scarred and mutilated trunks will remind me that compared to nature on a rampage, man is still pretty picayune. ★