A blizzard brewed over the Keystone state like a steaming bowl of Quaker oats in early January 1968. Farmers reckoned the storm was going to be an intense ‘twig bender’ long before the ground was covered in a blanket of icy porridge. Through acute senses, an inner-knowledge of climatic events, and a peculiar ability to predict the weather by studying caterpillars, citizens of Central Pennsylvania understood what was approaching. An Arctic blast was being overridden by a warm breeze from the South. Orchard growers in particular sensed what was rolling over the Allegheny Highlands. As surely as the moon changed shape through various quarters, fading from a perfect silver dollar into just a sliver of light no larger than a trimmed toenail, the blizzard would serve as the land’s annual twig bender. As cultivators of fertile, ice- aged soil deposits, woodlet gardeners of the Appalachians had prophetic visions generated by the weather and understood how the atmosphere works in cycles. Everyone sensed the impending storm as barometric pressures caused phantom pains in legs and arms to flair. It was a blizzard of a generation, according to the most trusted publication to have ever reached the highlands of the Susquehanna plateau– ‘The Old Farmers Almanac’. The periodical predicted the date of the great 1968 winter storm with near- perfect, literary merit:-
“Deadly storm in the Northeast in early January marks the start an early Spring for West Virginia and Pennsylvania. Twig Bending and branch banishment is good news for apple growers and the lumber industry. A dry, cold January in the Southeast and the Plains…Time to start tomatoes indoors in the Carolinas…Epsom Salt removes the demons of winter backache… ”
Twig benders are nature’s way of pruning trees. Like hurricanes, twig benders are named, although not with an alphabetized eponym, but rather, with terminology that is characteristic of the damage done to forestry by these storms. Without such climatic events, hickory trees would produce flimsy branches, sassafras wouldn’t taste sassy, and evergreens would be less green. Forest limbs would not be strong enough to host baby birds in nests, without occasional cutting back. Without twig benders, hardwood trees would be suitable for nothing but making switches.
The powerful-pruning storms typically develop in the Gulf of Mexico in mid-March and spin in a counter-clockwise rotation; churning along America’s Eastern Seaboard as inverted hurricanes, stroking highlands and mountainous farming villages like Huntingdon with cumulus fingers wrapped in rings of abundant of moisture. The storm was driven by gale force winds out of the East and cracks of thunder harmonized with pelts of freezing rain and sleet, causing even snow bunnies to wish they were brown.
I was born during the Great Twig Bender of ‘68. The blizzard of January 9th created the heaviest accumulation of snow a generation of saplings had endured. Older folks were sure the end of the world had arrived because ‘Nor’ Easters’, like the storm of ‘68, typically only develop in late March and early April. The Old Farmer’s Almanac advised readers to buckle down, because typically, following the annual twig bender, land would soon receive the last frost of the season, and hard work associated with Spring planting was right around the corner. It was too soon for such a storm to strike.
Heavy amounts of snow were unleashed along the Appalachian highlands after the storm gathered moisture from Atlantic waters, just off the Outer Banks of North Carolina. The monster wobbled inland like a drunk stumbling to a bar at closing time, and last rounds had just been called. The Twig Bender of my birth spun endlessly. A barren tapestry of yellow grasses, brown leaves and naked branches of an unwhite Christmas that had just passed suddenly vanished.
“The snow up here is really deep, I’m scared” Lou, my mother gasped on the telephone to her sister, Roxie while holding my head with her hand in her stomach. She placed a pair knitting needles on her inflated stomach, slightly above her bellybutton, where my head still rested.
“I think the baby is coming today. I feel her moving down in me. She wants out. What am I going to do if my water breaks and Barry ain’t here? My little girl is coming today, I just know it. My water ain’t broke yet, but it’s too damn cold for that to happen,” Mom joked as suddenly, I was pulled like a storm riding the jet stream.
“Barry ain’t no damned good! Where is he? Don’t tell me he’s working today. What about Esther, is she home?” Roxie asked. I could hear the faint voice of my aunt on the wire even though Mom had the phone cradled close to her ear with her shoulder. A steady click of metal needles persisted as my ears were flooded with the pound of a nervous heart and a gushing flow of blood all around me.
“Yes. She’s in her trailer. I want Barry to be with me when I deliver this one.”
“I can’t believe Esther gave birth to all her kids without a hospital or a doctor. She was up there on that farm just like you are now–all alone in labor. At least she had a midwife. I told you not to marry Barry Taylor. That Taylor family is ignorant, if you ask me. Where is he, Lou? Out drinking? If you start feeling pains, call Esther. Don’t try to drive yourself into Huntingdon today. You ain’t coming down off that mountain today unless you are on a horse. Just hold her inside you if you can. Keep your legs squeezed shut. Don’t even pee if you can help it. You better hope that baby don’t come out today of all days. Are you sure it’s going to be a girl? Does it feel different this time around?”
“Yes it does, Roxie. This one feels like a girl. Dr. Shively told me it was going to be a girl. He has delivered babies at Huntingdon Hospital for over thirty years and pulled hundreds of them out. He should know what the sex is going to be!”…