SIOUX CITY | In the 1950s, I often sneaked into a small basement room at great Aunt Isobel and Uncle Herman Schatz's house at 29th and Jennings streets in Sioux City.
Behind an old creaky metal door held a secret room with black residue caking the cement walls and a few black bricks hugging the corners.
The room once held the coal that ran the furnace to keep the Schatz family warm during the winter. A glass window provided the egress to allow the coal vendor to dump the product into the room
A similar room was located in the house owned by Aunt Isobel's sister and brother -- my great Aunt Kathleen and great Uncle Walter Webb, Jr., who lived a block south of the Schatzes.
The aunts and uncles told the younger generation stories of how the children in most families were designated to shovel the coal into the furnace early every morning and again at night. The coal was dirty, but it worked. In fact, Uncle Walter and his father, Walter Webb, Sr., once owned Webb Brothers Coal Co. in Sioux City. They started delivering the coal in wagons pulled by horses.
Families who owned horses in town had to make sure they had plenty of hay and a protected place to stay during the Arctic blasts, similar to what farmers and ranchers do today for their horses and livestock. It still is hard, brutally cold work.
This gigantic Arctic blast has impacted the lives of millions across the country. My cousin, Jan Schatz Easterly, and her husband, Tom, remain stuck in Florida because flights to their home in Indianapolis were grounded. (Ah, too bad -- stuck in balmy Florida.)
As I pulled on another sweatshirt Sunday, I thought of our pioneer ancestors who moved to the prairies, dug sod huts and burned corn husks for fuel to try to keep warm during the blizzards and subzero blasts. I wouldn't have made it back then. I am not sure how they did, except they had no choice. It was find a way to keep warm or die.
One of the worse blizzards I recall as a teenager started on an early March morning in 1962. By 8 a.m., the snow was blowing sideways with a vengeance in the wild wind, as Dad loaded his Oldsmobile to drive to Washington, D.C. He had to be there in six days to start his three-month training at the FBI National Police Academy for law enforcement officers, a tough course that saw some men drop out.
I think he only was the second or third Sioux City police officer invited to attend the academy at that time. (Police Lt. Rex Mueller attended the FBI academy's three-month course last summer in Quantico, Va.)
Mom urged Dad to delay his start a day because she feared he would end up in a ditch. He called the weather bureau and discovered the storm could last three days. Dad was a good driver and took a shovel and sand with him, plus some extra blankets and food. He promised to call us several times from truck stops along Interstate 29 and then I-80.
I think it took him two-plus hours to reach Onawa, Iowa, only 40 miles from Sioux City. That night he reached Des Moines, calling us from a pay phone to report he had gotten stuck a few times along I-80. He dug himself out.
Sioux City and surrounding school districts called off classes for two days.
Mom, Jim and I shoveled the heavy snow several times as Dad continued trekking toward his rendezvous with FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and his minions. Dad roomed with the police chief from Walla Walla, Wash., and they didn't encounter any more storms while in Washington.
Incidentally, the four Zs got to shake J. Edgar's hand at Dad's graduation in June of 1962.
(A side note on Hoover: Even at the age of 15, I could tell he was a man with power and authority in spite of his short stature. And the man looked bored. I know my brother Jim and I were in awe of Hoover -- years before his reputation was tarnished with revelations of his spying activities.)
If you don't recall how hard pioneers worked to keep warm, you can shiver as you read Laura Ingalls Wilder's book, 'The Long Winter," set in DeSmet, S.D., during the severe winter of 1880-1881. As my grandma Penny Zerschling, who grew up on a farm in central South Dakota, always said, "The weather can always be worse!"