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Reflections February 2015

The Blue Northers

By Don Johnson

The Blue Norther froze the water instantly catching the frogs half in and half out of the water. He would then run his lawn mower over the frozen pond and harvest the legs which were sticking up in the air.

Sometimes in the winter one would venture out into brilliant sunshine and moderate temperatures, but see hanging over the northern horizon a band of deep, dark blue sky. That heralded the approach of the celebrated and much berated Blue Norther in the high plains of northwest Texas. They would loom a little closer then strike with a sudden ferociousness unbelievable to one who'd never witnessed it. Such a phenomenon generated a plethora of tall tales.

It was said that young boys charged with the milking chore had an especially hard time after a Blue Norther had struck. The milk, as soon as it was squeezed out, would freeze into long spears which would punch holes in the bottom of the milk bucket. The problem was solved by some bright lad who laid a piece of cloth on the ground and squirted the milk directly on it. This allowed him to finish milking, gather up the frozen spears of milk like cordwood, and carry it into the house in his arms.

We heard about the farmer who loved fried frog legs. He would head down to the pond whenever he noticed the approach of a Blue Norther. The second it arrived he fired his gun in the air and every frog on the bank dived for the water. The Blue Norther froze the water instantly catching the frogs half in and half out of the water. He would then run his lawn mower over the frozen pond and harvest the legs which were sticking up in the air.

These stories were generally viewed with a considerable amount of skepticism, but the truth of many of these storms was almost as unbelievable.

A few years later I was affected. I owned some irrigated land in the Texas Panhandle. I grew cotton and grain sorghum as well as quite a few livestock.

Late one afternoon in the early spring, I was down at the barn about 100 yards from the house checking on some of my ewes who were just beginning to lamb. They had inexplicably gathered under a new shed I'd just built out of corrugated iron. This was unlike them. They normally stayed in the stubble fields until sundown where they gathered up any stalks that had not been harvested and occasionally snatched up a fallen head of grain.

Busy with my wooly mothers-to-be, I hadn't noticed the telltale darkening of the blue sky as the blizzard swept down on us. When it hit I hesitated to leave the shelter, but then I realized it wasn't going to get any better for several hours, and I had no desire to spend those hours separated from the icy wind and bitter cold of the blizzard by only a thin sheet of corrugated iron.

After a few steps, I realized that I might be making a mistake. I couldn't see the house. I turned around and couldn't see the shed either. The storm had produced a whiteout. I couldn't tell the ground from the sky. An object being covered with snow might be a wheelbarrow or a chicken house. There was no way to tell.

After a few steps in the swirling wind I could no longer tell which direction was which. I was like a blind man trying to feel my way along but had nothing to hold to. I hoped I was pointed toward the house, but I could have been headed back toward the shed, or worse just wandering down in a field somewhere.

After what seemed like hours but could only have been a few minutes, I slammed up against something solid. I felt my way along the side of it until I finally recognized the shape. It was my car.

I was trying to think clearly, which is no easy task when your eyes are being glued shut by tiny droplets of frozen water, driven by a 70-mile-per-hour wind,that constantly pelted your entire body. I remembered that I had parked the car right in front of the house. By feel, I located the front of the car and relinquished my one grasp on proper orientation as I launched myself back into the unknown.

I stumbled on something and almost fell flat. I reached down with my hands and realized it was the picket fence that surrounded my house, but it seemed to have shrunk to no more than a foot tall. It took me a moment to realize I was standing atop a drift that had almost buried the fence.  A few minutes later I had groped my way to the front door of my house. I twisted the knob and hurled myself into the relative warmth and quiet of my own living room.

True to type, the storm was over by midnight. However, morning revealed that we were prisoners on our own land, frozen in a world of snow and ice. I had stacked enough bundled grain sorghum to last my livestock through the winter.

I had not counted on seeing a hundred black specks scattered in the snow of my fields which quickly turned into a herd of Black Angus cattle. Later I was to find that the cattle had been in a feedlot some 30 miles north of me and had walked on the snowdrifts over their fences and drifted with the wind to my place.

The code of the West required that I feed these visitors from my meager supply of stored feed until the owner could get by to claim them. But, I had a more serious problem on my hands. My kids, a boy and a girl, were coming down with the flu, complicated by chest congestion, and our butane tank on which we depended for heat was running dangerously low.

It was three miles of dirt road from my house to the state highway, then five more miles into town from there. I had no idea whether the highway was open or closed. I knew about the dirt road. Huge drifts of snow lay across the road in many places where it collected behind electrical poles, fence posts or any other obstacle.

I saddled up a most reluctant pony and pointed him toward town. Every time we tried to cross a drift he would sink down until the snow hit his belly at which he would come unwound and throw a bucking fit I would have to weather until we could settle down and go on to the next one. Needless to say our progress was slow.

I found that the highway was impassable from a point about where my road intersected the highway. However, back toward town the highway was clear. Several cars were in the process of turning around at that point and heading back to town.

One offered me a ride into town which I gladly accepted. I tied old Dandy to a fence and decided to worry about how I was going to get back to him later.

In town I bought four electric heaters, tied them together, slung them over my shoulder and started trekking back down the highway. I was expecting Dandy to make quite a fuss over my cargo when I tried to climb back on him.

My walk took me right past the butane office where I caught the eye of old Newt Fisher, the owner. 

"Hey," he hollered. "Where you goin' with them things?"

I explained my situation to him. I was just hoping that the butane in my tank would hold out until I could get there with the electrical heaters.

"Oh no, you don't," he said. "We'll get you your butane."

I tried to explain to him that there was no way he was going to get his truck over that blocked road to my house.

He didn't even answer. He just pulled around to the road a brand new tank truck and a brand new pickup. He told me to get in the pickup. He had two men with shovels jump in the back. Another sat beside the driver of the tank truck.

When we reached the road that turned off to my house, I learned the procedure they were going to use. When we came upon a big drift, the driver revved up the engine of the tank truck to high rpm, jumped the clutch and slammed into the drift as hard as he could. When it couldn't go any farther, the men in the pickup would bail out and go to work with their shovels.

When the tank truck cleared the drift, they would tie a long chain to the front of the pickup and pull it through. Progress was slow but steady. It took us about three hours to negotiate that three miles to my house.

They filled my 500-gallon tank and left their bill, which was, as I recall, something like $85.

Later I learned the same butane company had dropped bottles of gas from an airplane to some customers who were running low.

Later that year some people came by who were collecting signatures to get a natural gas pipeline laid across that area. They told me it would be a more dependable source of fuel. I told them "No thanks." the fuel I was getting was plenty dependable.

 

Don Johnson is a nonagenarian who lives in Palestine, Texas. He writes articles that illuminate the human condition and frequently show the contrast between our lifestyle of today with that of yesterday. He welcomes your input at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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