When I was a kid in Chicago, it never occurred to me to think I could skip school -- with official sanction, yet -- just because a foot or two of snow had fallen overnight and the temperature was stuck near zero and the winds were gusting.
No, I would trudge to school, and my father would put chains on his car and go to work. Some things were normal: big snows in the winter, the collapse of the Cubs in the spring, scandals in any season. The City of the Big Shoulders would just shrug.
Oh, sure, there were those rare snows that throttled the city, but I mean Old Man Winter took years to work himself into a rage of that magnitude. It happened in '67, and it happened again in '79, and the city lay immobile for weeks and the mayor at the time, Michael Bilandic, was thrown out of office because of it. Imagine letting even a rare super storm shut down the city that works.
So, like many other natives of northern climes who have taken up residence in the Federal City and its environs, I was flabbergasted when I came here in 1977 and discovered that Washington is a Winter Wonderland. Make that a Winter Alice-in-Wonderland. Snow -- not a foot or two, but even a dusting of the stuff -- produces cultural hysteria, a fright-and-flight syndrome.
A thick frost descends, and radio announcers drone on and on listing school closings, meeting cancellations, motorist advisories. It's almost embarrassing. What, I wondered that first winter, do visiting Swedes or Russians, never mind Minnesotans, think about the Most Powerful City in the World collapsing under an inch or two of snow?
I soon found out what my sons thought. After one winter here, they became enraged if a predicted snow failed to materialize and they had to go to school.
There are all kinds of explanations for the region's inability to cope with a little snow, and I suppose some are true: there are sloping streets; motorists without snow tires who clog the streets; too many motorists who learned to drive in the Sun Belt; a tight salt budget; too few plows, deployed too late in the game; too many pointy- headed bureaucrats (they must be at least partly to blame).
Once, at a winter meeting here, Richard Snelling, then the governor of Vermont, expressed his astonishment at the effect a little snow has on the city. The road in from the airport had resembed the Ho Chi Minh trail after a bombing raid, with vehicles in ditches, left and right. Extraordinary.
Not that Snelling had the ideal answer for Washington, you understand. What you need to do, he said, is get heavy plow trucks, load them down with sand and send them down the roads at 60 miles an hour. That'll take care of the snow. Yes, I observed, and thousands of cars too.
The other day, I found out what the Russians think. A Soviet journalist wryly observed that Moscow -- whose winters took care of Napoleon and Hitler -- had taken note of Washington's inability to cope with snow. "It'll make the invasion easier," he said.
But what Russian general could maneuver his tanks through Washington's streets after a snowfall? Especially today's Russian general. I mean, times change. A couple of years ago, another Russian journalist -- a burly, dour fellow nicknamed Boris by U.S. journalists -- said Moscow's winters have been getting milder, partly because the city has grown so big and thus generates so much heat in winter.
Where, he asked, was the American journalist from? Chicago, I replied. The Russian shivered. "Oh, yes, Chicago," he said. "I've been there. A nice city, but sooo cold."
So, you see, I couldn't help feeling a bit superior the other day when once again I heard some Washingtonians bewail a dusting of snow. I come from hardier stock, I thought, and was pleased to recall the late Herman Kahn's observation: "People say New York isn't America, and they're right. And they say Los Angeles isn't America, and they're right. And they say Washington isn't America, and they're right. But nobody ever said Chicago isn't America."
You got it, pal, I thought. Then, looking out the window, I saw that the snow had begun to fall thickly. Good grief, I thought, maybe I'd better go home early . . .