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OPINION: A blast from winters past

When the latest winter storm on Monday closed down the university campus in Vermillion, it reminded me that I enjoyed just one snow day during my entire higher-education career in Brookings.

That isn't to say there weren't several storms that should have resulted in classes being cancelled for a day or two. There were. But Hilton M. Briggs was president in those days. A hardy soul, he expected his students to be equally so. A trek in near-blizzard conditions from Brown Hall all the way across campus to what I think was then-called the Dairy-Bacteriology Building certainly made a body feel South Dakota hardy. (Hardy, by the way, in one definition I found, is "able to survive outside during winter. Well, OK, then.)

The actual snow day I remember, when classes were called off, came my senior year, and I wasn't even living on campus by then. Four of us, all seniors, shared a house way south of campus off Medary Avenue next to the railroad tracks. We should have hunkered down to ride out the storm, but we hadn't stored up provisions for a long winter's hibernation. We had to get downtown for chow. We bundled up, tossed a couple of scoop shovels in my '57 Chevy and pushed, pulled and shoveled our way through the wind and drifting snow to a food place, probably Nick's Hamburgers.

Looking back, I guess it would have been quicker and more efficient if we'd left the car and simply walked. We used the Chevy as a warming house, though, with a couple of guys outside in the storm pushing and shoveling, one guy driving and one guy warming. It all made sense back then, and we were, after all, seniors in our final semesters of classes before graduation. You have to figure we were pretty smart.

(Smart is relative, because that same foursome living in that same house once left the kitchen door open and woke to a two-foot snowdrift that stretched across the tile to the face of the stove. Book learning isn't quite the same as, you know, knowledge of how the world works.)

I don't know if we ever had a snow day during my years in the Chamberlain school system. The district didn't run buses, and nearly every kid I knew walked to school. A few high-school kids drove in from the country out around Pukwana and down toward Academy, but if they couldn't make it to town through the storm, they just missed classes and made up the assignments when the county plowed the roads.

In town, we wore sturdy parkas, the kind I liked to imagine were worn by the Marines who fought the Chinese up around the Chosin Reservoir in 1950. We had thick mittens and wool scarves and heavy snow pants, and every kid I knew had a pair of overshoes. You see many different types of snow boots these days, but it isn't so often that you see somebody wearing the old-style overshoes, the rubber boots with buckles. When I was a kid, there was no more common style of footwear in winter. Most kids I knew wore three-buckle overshoes, and we all envied the few of our friends who were lucky enough to have the four-buckle style.

An aside: My dad sometimes used difference between three- and four-buckle overshoes when he wanted to suggest that his middle son perhaps hadn't made the smartest choice in handling a task or chore around the farm. "You'd wade into a four-buckle mud hole in three-buckle overshoes,'' he'd tell me, shaking his head sadly.

Speaking of the farm, we seldom had snow days when I went to early grade school in Reliance. Eight miles from town over gravel and dirt roads, if a bad storm hit, we had a snow week, sometimes several weeks. Nobody told us the roads were closed. We knew by looking out the window.

I talked the other day with a guy whose dad used to fly over and drop flour, coffee, sugar and cigarettes to us during big snowstorms. That's all we needed. We weren't going anywhere.

Boy, those were the days, huh?