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Archive for the ‘winter’ Category

The pandemic drums are beating again.

As I type this (just after Thanksgiving), I’ve been seeing more and more media reports of increased concern about Asian flu. (Exhibit A: The staid New York Times, on Nov. 17, reporting “Bird Flu is Spreading in Asia, Experts (Quietly) Warn.“)

Last time a pandemic threatened the world, which would have been around 2009 or so, my place of employment prepared a mammoth contingency plan. My copy’s been sitting in a file cabinet ever since; I guess I oughta dust it off and see what it says. (It will also be good to have handy so I can throw it at the first person who exclaims, “We need to make a contingency plan!”)

Anyhow, we had a pandemic almost 50 years ago, right around this time of year. So we’ll pack up our tea and tissues and head there this week.

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The Cazenovia, N.Y., Republican goes for the seasonal spin, December 25, 1968. Front page made available by nyhistoricnewspapers.org.

According to Wikipedia, the Hong Kong flu of 1968-9 began causing trouble in the Far East in July 1968. It came to America in September — brought home by returning Vietnam War veterans — but did not spread widely until December, when it became front-page news.

An archived U.S. government site says the Hong Kong flu killed about 34,000 people in the U.S. between September 1968 and March 1969. For context, that’s 10 times higher than the U.S. death toll from the 2009 flu pandemic, but only about half as many deaths as the 1957 Asian flu pandemic.

(Of course, all of these events are dwarfed by the 1918 “Spanish flu” pandemic, which killed 500,000 to 675,000 people in the U.S., including one or two of my great-grandparents and doubtless others on the family tree.)

For most people who got it, the Hong Kong flu produced three or four days of discomfort, with high fever, chest tightness, general body aches and fatigue.

In most places, the flu affected society in relatively small ways. The Cazenovia news article shown above (that’s in the Syracuse area, by the way) noted that school absenteeism had risen to 17 percent, and holiday mail in town had seen minor delays because eight Post Office employees had been off work at the same time.

Other areas seem to have sounded the alarm more loudly. The Massena, N.Y., Observer of Dec. 19, 1968 (that’s in the far northern part of the state, on the Canadian border), quoted the American Red Cross as calling it “a disaster situation.”

Officials in New York City estimated one in every 16 New Yorkers had had the flu in the prior two weeks, with 300,000 of them currently at “the most critical stage” of the illness. School absentee rates of 30 percent were reported in the Pittsburgh area.

(Perhaps the highest-profile flu victim: Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who was resting in Phoenix. Reports of flu are also frequent in sports reports from late 1968 — victims included Bill Russell, Dave Bing, and 20 members of the Minnesota Vikings — though it’s not specific whether these were cases of Hong Kong flu or just regular ol’ grippe.)

People over 65 were at the highest risk of dying from the disease. No surprise, then, that my 82-year-old great-grandmother was the first one at 1107 Hope Street to get a Hong Kong flu shot. (Everyone had already gotten regular flu shots in early November.)

She took the pencil into her own hand to document it:

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December 13, 1968.

Although some news reports at the time said flu vaccine was reserved for the elderly, my grandparents (in their mid-50s) and my aunt (college-age) also managed to arrange Hong Kong flu shots that holiday season.

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December 16, 1968. My grandma, Corine…

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December 17, 1968. My grandpa, Bill (a.k.a. WHB) …

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December 23, 1968. And my aunt, Elaine.

The stuff must have worked, as my grandpa’s calendars through March 1969 give no indication of anyone being sick.

Will we do so well again this year, or in the year to come? We can hope, anyway.

If not, I’ve got this big contingency plan I can read while I’m flat on my back…

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Once again I find myself writing about a name you only read in obituaries nowadays.

(It’s a lonely business, like clearing the leaves off a grave, but not without its pleasures all the same.)

This week we ring the bells of memory and follow my grandpa into a once-proud community institution that was already dying when he went to visit:

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December 16, 1969.

I’ve written about department stores before, almost three years ago, so I won’t unleash the full torrent of my crap on you again. (My views have not changed.)

Suffice it to say that C.O. Miller’s was another in America’s seemingly endless roster of once-beloved downtown department stores.

Founded by Charles O. Miller in 1868, it moved through several downtown locations before settling into a bent-wedge-shaped brick building at 15 Bank Street in 1933.

(This photo spread of C.O. Miller’s posted by the Stamford Historical Society provides an interesting glimpse inside what an American department store looked like in 1917, as well as a look at Mr. Miller himself.)

Stamfordites of a certain age remember the store fondly … the walking outside on crisp winter days; the dignified absence of breathless Black Friday geekery; the white-gloved elevator attendants.

People of other ages — like, my age and younger — don’t remember it at all, because the ’60s was the last full decade C.O. Miller’s would survive. It closed in 1973 or ’74 (sources differ), and had been a discount-store shell of its former self under out-of-town owners for a period of time before that.

Although some urban renewal took place in the general vicinity of 15 Bank Street, the distinctively shaped C.O. Miller’s building is still there — a short distance from Mill River Park, former home of the previously explored Pink Tent Festival.

(It’s also a few blocks away from 307 Atlantic St., which I’ve just discovered is where The Jerry Springer Show tapes its episodes. Whaddya know.)

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Mmmmm, falafel. (Yeah, I snagged this from Google Maps. The former C.O. Miller’s building is at left center. I believe there was a nearby warehouse where the giant parking garage is now.)

I couldn’t guess at this juncture what walking cap, scarf, bottle of perfume, or pair of gloves brought my grandpa to C.O. Miller’s. No doubt the store was bedecked in Christmas abundance, or as much as it could muster at that point in its history.

He went shopping in the afternoon, just a few days before the shortest day of the year. Perhaps the sunshine was feeble and the air chilly on Bank and Main streets when he exited with his purchase, whatever it was.

Perhaps he looked around and thought, “I’m not coming back here.” And then, like so many others, he didn’t.

These are the sorts of small decisions, repeated thousands of times over, that turn one-time community pillars into names you only read in obituaries.

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It was pretty bitter this past weekend in Pennsylvania. Not depths-of-January bitter, but colder than one would have hoped for.

It’s been a mild and uneventful winter. Indeed, the biggest storms we’ve had (just a weekend or two ago) were summer-style wind and lightning storms, even a tornado an hour or so north of here.

Still, you wonder just about until April whether winter has one last blast to deliver. Maybe this weekend was it, as far as cold goes. Or, maybe that whopper snowstorm we never did get earlier in the winter is just starting to assemble itself, high above Saskatchewan or someplace.

This week we stop in on my grandpa as he deals, gracefully, with winter as it stomps and kicks its way out the door:

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March 18, 1973. It’s a Sunday.

When I first saw this entry I read “waxes” as a noun, and wondered what he was talking about. Was there some sort of wax you put on your car in the winter for extra protection against road salt? (I knew he wasn’t a skier, so that sort of winter wax wouldn’t have mattered to him.)

But then my mind adjusted and I realized “waxes” was a verb. Things wax and wane; and on this particular Sunday, winter was waxing one more time, in advance of the inevitable wane.

(There is no corresponding “winter wanes” notation on this page of the calendar … but you’ll notice that the temperature reached a sunny 60 degrees exactly a week later. So we know it happened.)

I am looking forward to watching local college baseball games, and running without a hat and gloves, and any number of other signs of spring. So I’m looking forward to the final waning of winter here.

Just wondering how much waxing there’ll have to be first.

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The start of a new year is always a time for hope — whether it has plans and plots behind it (I’ve looked at my budget, and I’ve figured out how I can start saving money for retirement!) or whether it’s simply based on generic optimism (This is going to be my year, I just know it!)

For some portion of us, that hope will be repaid. For others, it will vanish before the month is out.

(I was tempted to write “for most of us, it will vanish before the month is out,” but that seemed exceptionally cynical. Things work out for some people. Who keeps statistics on the pursuance and fulfillment of hope, anyway?)

This installment finds my grandfather at the start of a new year, striking out on a personal project with at least some degree of hope.

Unfortunately, “striking out” seems to have been the operative phrase.

On January 4, 1971, my grandpa made an afternoon visit to the local unemployment office and returned with nothing. (I assume the zero with the dash behind it is a reference to his job search, and not to something else.)

This was not his first visit there — the office is mentioned on calendar entries from the end of 1970, as well. But, maybe the start of a new year rekindled his hope that somebody would be looking for an experienced draftsman.

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A week later, the same thing, only at a different time:

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A week after that, the weather turned cold and crappy. My grandfather made the trudge out anyway, and was rewarded for his persistence with nowt. (The big blue temperature marking only seems like another giant goose egg in this context.)

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One more week of Mondays in January, one more week of sloppy weather, one more week of returning home empty-handed:

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The 1971 calendars say my grandpa made one more fruitless expedition on Monday, February 1, and then — miracle of miracles! — landed an interview on Wednesday, February 10, with a company called Sonic Engineering. (Whether the interview arose from the unemployment office or from my grandpa’s own shoe-leather reading of the help-wanted ads is lost to history.)

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I know very little about Sonic Engineering except: (a) it apparently had an office in Norwalk, a community or two over from Stamford; and (b) it didn’t hire my grandpa.

And after that, the visits to the unemployment office disappear from the calendar, as do any additional references to interviews or jobs. (My grandpa’s heart attack in May of that year put paid to any remaining job-search aspirations.)

Am I trying to rain on the hopes of the new year? Definitely not. As I said, some people’s goals and wishes come true.

Maybe the message is that sometimes, if you don’t get what you want, you end up doing just as well or better in the end.

My grandpa was 60 years old in that first week of 1971. He would only have worked a few more years anyway; I don’t perceive that his life was that much worse because he didn’t. Maybe another job would just have been another source of stress.

He might have liked to have a few more years of paychecks in the bank, just on the general principle that you can never have enough money. Whether he would have spent that money or not is another question. As it happened, he got by without it.

So, hold tight to your New Year’s hopes … but if you don’t get what you have in mind, be flexible and wise enough to move with what you do get. Things have a way of working out.

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On Hope Street, the turbulent year of 1967 came in with fire and went out with ice.

(Granted, there were some pleasant moments in between.)

My earlier post about the Connecticut ice storm of December 1973 is one of the most-read installments in the history of this blog.

So when I learned from my grandpa’s calendar that there was another ice storm in Stamford six years earlier, I figured I’d write about that one too.

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December 11, 1967. Later in the week, just two towns over from Stamford, a child is born who will grow up to be a titanic figure of my college and early-twenties years in New England.

 

If you’ve never heard of the Ice Storm of 1967 … well, there’s a good reason; it turns out that it wasn’t that big a deal.

The New York Times dispensed with it in a 10-paragraph article on page 41 of the Dec. 12 issue, summarizing: “Icy rains pelted the suburbs, snapping power lines.” (The city proper was plagued by blowing, heavy mist and rain, but temperatures stayed above freezing.)

The article singled out classic Tri-State sprawl-spots like Mamaroneck, West Nyack, Ramsey and Nanuet for mention, but didn’t say anything about Connecticut. Presumably that meant there was no news fit to print there.

By the following day, ice had been replaced by what the Good Gray Lady called “muddy fog,” in a story noting that New York had received two-and-a-quarter inches of unseasonable rain in two days’ time. (The author of this shoe-leather mood piece? Future two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner J. Anthony Lukas.)

The Chicago Tribune, meanwhile, ran a one-paragraph brief on page 3 noting that “a sleet storm tore down power lines” in the New York suburbs. This item appeared beneath a similar one-graf news brief noting that the Maui Nukupuu — “a small bird with a large down-curving bill and a tubular tongue for extracting nectar from flowers” — had been spotted in Hawaii for the first time in 71 years.

The relative silence of my grandpa’s calendar suggests that the power stayed on and life went on more or less as usual. The calendar also makes no mention of a day off work, which my grandpa would usually note when heavy weather occasioned it. (Dec. 11 was a Monday.)

I guess, then, that the December 1967 ice storm was nothing epochal. It was just a bump in the road … something to be tolerated amidst the ongoing grind of holiday errands, like retrieving college-age kids, buying Christmas trees and putting up home decorations.

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December 16, 1967.

One hopes the people of Fairfield County tolerated it without too much grumbling. Just a few years later, they would see much worse.

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