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Capital rarely 'blessed' by the best thing about winter

By James Healy | China Daily | Updated: 2024-01-23 06:24
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James Healy [Photo provided to China Daily]

Over the recent holidays, my home state of Nebraska in the United States was "blessed" with a blizzard that dumped around 25 centimeters of snow and caused a whiteout, a dangerous condition in which visibility is so hampered, motorists lose all sense of direction.

Now that's heavy snow. And even more of it — from 9 to 30 centimeters — menaced the region in recent days as part of a huge storm system that hit huge sections of the US.

So it's with amusement that I recall how Beijing's first snowfall of this winter, on Dec 11, was widely described as "heavy". Remnants lingered for a full month, but only because of the ensuing cold snap, not the paltry amount that accumulated.

After all, while other parts of China have seen more than their share of snow, the roughly 4 centimeters that fell on the main parts of the capital amounted, where I come from, to a mere dusting.

Yet classes were suspended, people stayed indoors, and a great hullabaloo was made about the hard work needed to clear the streets and sidewalks.

When I was a boy growing up in the harsh winters (and summers, for that matter) in the Midwest, snowfall would lead to a "snow day" — the cancellation of classes — only if the white stuff on the sidewalks and roads reached knee-deep, or higher.

Snow days would be spent outdoors, either sledding or making snow houses. These were built by shoveling snow into one big pile and, layer by layer, packing it down with the back of the shovel. Once this makeshift abode was about 2 meters high, it would be hollowed out via what eventually served as the door.

I remember one snowy Christmas as a child when my siblings and I were playing with other neighborhood kids in our newly built snow house. Our mother called us in for dinner, but we were so cozy inside the wind-protected shelter, playing with our new Christmas toys, that we were reluctant to go back into the much warmer real house nearby.

The heaviest snow I have ever witnessed firsthand was the 48 centimeters left by the Great Blizzard of 1975 in Omaha, Nebraska. Real effort was needed to clear the streets, with an army of snowplows working loudly into the night.

Their enormous steel scoops piled the snow ever higher on the roadsides, until the streets were deep canyons winding through man-made drifts that generally stood at least 4 meters high. It was truly surreal, with almost nothing visible beyond the massive heaps of snow.

Snowplow deposits can pose hazards beyond the obvious ones, too. Years after the great storm of 1975, the massive roadside drifts left by another Omaha blizzard provided concealment early one morning for John Joubert, the serial killer whose horrendous deeds terrorized my hometown for months.

As Joubert scouted out the person who presumably was to be his next victim, he parked his car well out of sight behind an enormous drift at a church school, from where he could observe the children as they arrived without being detected.

But an alert teacher — the only other person there at the time — spotted Joubert sitting in his car. The two, hidden from the outside world by walls of snow, suddenly came face to face. The ensuing flurry of activity — including what the teacher described as intervention by an angel — led to Joubert's eventual capture.

That was the only time in my memory that a huge snowdrift seemed sinister.

In general, however, snow — especially truly heavy snow — creates a wonderland of delight for adults and children alike, as an increasing number of Chinese are discovering. There is nothing like venturing outside before anyone else following a fresh snowfall, hearing the crunch underfoot as you make the first prints in the white blanket spread out before you.

But for anyone whose exposure to winter is so limited that they actually thought Beijing's recent sprinkling was heavy, I'd recommend experiencing for yourself the pure joy of powdery flakes piled high.

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