(This was first published on Feb. 23, 2003, when I lived in Philadelphia. I was also more sentimental back then. I have since lost all feeling about most things.)
Having just gotten through the heaviest snowfall of my life, I am reminded of the lightest snowfall of my life. That would be in 1967. Our third-grade teacher, Mrs. Plato, stopped whatever she was doing, stared out the classroom window and said, “I don’t want you to get excited, but I think it’s snowing.”
But let me back up for a second. This was in Diamond Bar, Calif., a dusty and very new suburb 28 miles east of Los Angeles. The area had been nothing but grazing land until the first tract homes went up in 1960. So in 1967, the town was only 7-years-old, as was I.
Much has changed in Diamond Bar since then. But one thing apparently hasn’t. According to weather.com, the average low temperature in the coldest month of the year is 41 degrees. That sounds about right.
Oh, just because we didn’t have seasons doesn’t mean we didn’t know what they were — in theory. Our textbooks were written in New York, so we learned that in spring, everything bloomed; in summer, it was hot; in autumn, the leaves turned dazzling reds and golds. And in the winter, there was snow. But as for our own lives:
Things bloomed in winter, so spring really never stood out. Summer was indeed hot — 100 degrees was normal. All the leaves turned dull brown in late April and stayed brown through summer, autumn, winter, the following spring and pretty much until people grew up and moved away. And as for snow: It snowed on the TV shows. It snowed in the comic books. But this was the first time in my life — and therefore the life of the town — that it ever snowed in Diamond Bar.
Hordes of us swirled out of every classroom and around the playground, with one swarming, communal yell of “Aaaaaaaaa!” — as if this had proven something we had been told wasn’t true. Snow was real. We were going to do everything with it that we’d always heard about.
Now let me back up again. This is what the snow looked like: Suppose you took three handfuls of very light corn starch and scattered it so high in the air that it drifted down over a space of 25 acres.
It was less than dust. Most of it vanished before it reached the ground.
Nonetheless, we attempted snowballs. We’d catch two or three snowflakes, crimp them together and try to hurl them at each other. We tried to examine the snowflakes, since no two were supposed to be alike. But they were too tiny — not like those big paper snowflakes we’d make in arts classes. We tried to catch snow in our mouths — which required chasing flakes halfway across the playground, running in unpredictable zigzags with our heads craned up and our mouths wide open, an ingeniously effective way to develop permanent spinal trauma. Someone even said they were building a snowman. In retrospect, with the materials actually available, a snowman could only have been made of grass and lunch meat. But it seemed reasonable at the time.
And then, after about five minutes, the flakes disappeared as subtly as they had arrived. Still, it had snowed for us. Just like it did for everybody else. Just like in the books.
I’ve thought about this a lot over the last week, as I tried and failed to dig my car out of the parking lot Monday, and as ice water soaked into my socks and caused the pneumonia that led to my death early Thursday. This is my seventh winter on the East Coast, and I have acquired an ice chipper, a shovel and contempt for anyone who won’t drive a couple of doughnuts on the black ice. But snow still amazes me — the way it crunches in your hands and explodes into powder. I still play with snow. It’s still new.
And I keep thinking about our teacher, Mrs. Plato. I didn’t appreciate this at the time, but Mrs. Plato was from Minnesota. The temperature in Minneapolis as I write this is 17 degrees, and 50 inches of snow there is a normal winter. So in 1967, when it snowed for the first time in Diamond Bar and she watched all these desert kids engineer snowscapes out of two or three melting specks of ice, Mrs. Plato must have had a pretty good day.