Hard winters are no stranger in northern Ohio. Artic storms usually sweep down off Lake Erie two or three times a year and the wind howls over the unbroken plains as piercing and pitiless as a distant diesel whistle in the night.
So when Jake Bishop, 47, and his wife, Sylvia, 46, heard the urgent blizzard warnings on national television Jan. 27 they were mostly amused.
Bishop had just dug a foot of snow from the driveway of their rural 12-unit motel after an unheralded snowstorm the day before, Mrs. Bishop remembered, and "we were cracking up at the weather people forecasting a blizzard that had already hit."
Two days later, with five people dead, the wind chill a flesh-freezing 65 degrees below zero, and their home crowded with frightened and shivering refugees, "we weren't laughing any more."
Winds 50 miles an hour had piled snow seven feet to their motel roof and clotted the highway with abandoned cars and trucks.
Bishop was frostbitten and his 12-year-old son exhausted from hauling half-frozen motorists out of snow-bound vehicles to safety on a new snowmobile they had purchased as a toy.
And around the unnamed crossroads north of here where they live and work, the empty, frozen landscape stretched wind-blasted and lifeless as far as the eye could see.
The Bishops' Penwood motel lies a quarter mile south of the intersection of U.S. Rtes. 23 and 224, about 40 miles south of Toledo between Findlay and Tiffin. There's not much at the intersection - just the Starlite drive-in theater (closed for the season), a Sunoco station with a small restaurant, and Flo's Good Food Union 76 Truck Stop. That's about it.
The Bishops, a friendly, farm-bred couple, built the motel 21 years ago with savings from Bishop's work as a milkman. They've prospered modestly since, bought another motel in Bowling Green and added onto their cheerful house attached to the Penwood. When they're not home they leave a note and keys in the door so customers can let themselves in.
Sylvia Bishop said she first began to sense the intensify of the winter of 1977 at about midnight Thursday, Jan. 27.
"I got up to let a customer in," she said. "It was snowing so hard you couldn't see our sign" 10 yards away. "The guest, and another at 2:30 a.m. (Friday), were truckers," she said, "and when they have to stop you know it's pretty bad."
At 8 a.m. Friday, she said, a man straggled in and said he'd been stranded in his drift-blocked car for six hours, idling the engine until daylight to keep alive. By that time, she said, the roads were no longer passable and the Red Cross, monitoring citizens band radio transmissions in Fostoria, six miles to the north, began hearing calls for help.
"We had just bought this snowmobile for Christmas for our son Paul, 12," Mrs. Bishop said. "He's very grown up for his age and works very hard at school and we thought it would be good for him to have something that was just fun."
When the Bishops heard the pleas for help coming over the radio, however, the snowmobile took on another dimension. First Bishop, and then his son, set out in relay into the storm.
"It was so cold they could only stay out about 10 minutes at a time," Mrs. Bishop said. "No one can imagine that kind of cold. They wore a ski mask and two wool scarves wrapped around their faces and Jake eventually got frosbite on his ear and nose anyway. Whenever they brought someone back to the motel it took two people to close the door in that wind."
Guided solely by the dim line of fence posts paralleling in the highway, Bishop would make his way to the stranded car or truck, pull the driver onto the snowmobile and ferry him to the truck stop or the motel, then turn the snowmobile over to his son for a similar mission while he tried to get warm.
The work went on until Friday night, when they were both too exhausted to try any more. Once Jake Bishop happened onto a truck driver staggering aimlessly through the blizzard in the last stage of hypothermia, or acute exposure.
"He had his hands over his eyes and wanted to lie down and go to sleep," Bishop said. He threw the man onto the snowmobile and took him to the truck stop.
By this time the motel, the Sunoco restaurant and the truck stop were all crowded with people talking, eating and worrying in a kind of manic restlessness. One woman sat up in the truck stop for three days. In the truck bay of the Sunoco station, truck drivers huddled around fires in oil drums to leave more room for the people inside.
Saturday morning at daylight, some people set out again, though the winds were just as bad.
"There's something about daylight that makes people think they can make it," Mrs. Bishop said. "The sun was shining beautifully but the snow was blowing so you couldn't see a thing. Most of them got stuck again and we had the same calls again. Jake and Paul went back on the snowmobile. We kept the fire going in the house all the time. You couldn't stay warm."
The Bishops took 37 people into their motel and home for the two days of the storm. Mrs. Bishop feeding them from vast stores of food put up from a summer garden with the seasonal prudence of the rural-born. She had some help: two bread trucks and a milk truck were among the stranded vehicles, and the bakeries donated their loaves to help feed the multitude.
"It was Sunday before we got any of them out," she said.
Those who offered were allowed to donate whatever they wanted for the food they ate at the motel, Mrs. Bishop said, but apparently there was never any question of being charged for rescue. Rooms were rented at the regular $10 a night.
Not all the refugees were long-distance travelers. One was a woman who lived just a few miles away. She stayed five days ("like one of the family," Mrs. Bishop said) before plows could clear the road to her home. Another was a local man who tried to walk through the blizzard to get some cigarettes. Paul Bishop found him on the snowmobile and hauled him home.
Others were not so lucky. Friday night the frozen bodies of five men were found near Fostoria in a drift-buried car. Waiting for help that never came, they died of cold and carbon monoxide poisoning, only yards from a house, where they apparently didn't seek refuge.
They were out of range of the Bishops' snowmobile patrol, but that lessened only slightly the sense of loss Mrs. Bishop feels at their death. Jake Bishop has already purchased some new equipment for the snowmobile, including a helmet and heavier clothing to permit longer driving time at 50 below.
"You don't think much about these things when they're happening," he said today as he scraped still another snowfall from the motel driveway. But the way this winter is going, he figures, he may need the equipment again.