Snow stories and a three-dog night

Published 5:35 pm Saturday, January 25, 2014

Winter weather records. Arctic temperatures. Snow persisting on the ground long after it fell. The Winter Olympics on the way.

Is it just me, or does all this remind anyone else of 1980?

During the recent polar vortex — which as it turned out marked only the first time this year the wind chill factor dropped the perceived temperature in Suffolk below zero — I retold the story of being in Blacksburg on the night of Jan. 21, 1985, just 15 miles or so from Mountain Lake Biological Station, which that night recorded Virginia’s lowest temperature ever, 30 degrees below zero.

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Here’s a good sign that you’re getting old: Your weather stories start out with the line, “Well, when I was your age….”

I believe it is universally true that people never hear the words represented by that ellipsis. Nobody wants to hear Dad drone on about walking to school in the snow — uphill both ways, of course. They sure don’t want to hear about Grandpa melting ice to water the horses so the family could get to church. And when your great aunt Suzie drones on about the family sharing a bed with the dogs to keep from freezing, what can you do but smile politely and dream of someplace far away?

But some experiences are meant to be shared, and anyone who was in Tidewater during the Great Blizzard of 1980 will understand my point. The rest of you will just have to listen politely.

Since the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus was in Norfolk when the storm came — and because a couple of thousand people got stranded at Norfolk Scope after the city declared a state of emergency and forbade them from leaving when the afternoon performance was over — the storm has often been called the Circus Blizzard of 1980.

I remember it as the most snow I’d ever seen in one place to that point — and surely the most I’ve ever seen in Suffolk, before or since.

Various news sources put the total snowfall during the storm March 1 and 2 at about 14 inches. But gale-force winds piled it into drifts that reached six and eight feet in height.

It was a storm folks would never forget, made all the more memorable by the fact that Hampton Roads already had received a record amount of snow for the year before the Circus Blizzard ever came to town. By the time Mother Nature was done throwing snow at us that season, Norfolk’s National Weather Service station had registered 41.9 inches of accumulation.

The Winter Olympics were held in Lake Placid, N.Y., in 1980, and organizers were forced to use artificial snow to supplement their insufficient natural snowfall. I remember thinking that if we only had a good hill or two, Tidewater could have hosted the games.

This year’s snowfall doesn’t look set to reach the epic proportions of the Circus Blizzard of 1980, and we’ll be blessed never to experience -30-degree temperatures again in Virginia.

But you can bet that some grandfather in Suffolk in the year 2048 will be regaling his poor grandchildren with stories of the year that he got caught in the polar vortex, when it felt colder than a January night in Sochi.