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#52 Ancestors – Winter: The Blizzard of ‘47

The United States Weather Bureau forecast for Friday, Dec. 26, said: “New York City and vicinity, cloudy with occasional snow ending during the afternoon.” It probably was the greatest understatement in Weather Bureau history. The New York Times Archives[1]

Snow began falling early in the morning the day after Christmas in 1947. My mother was in her last month of pregnancy. The phone rang all day with concerned friends suggesting she should call her doctor to see if she could go to the hospital, just in case the baby (me) came early. “No,” she insisted. The baby wasn’t due until the 6th of January (1948). She was fine.

There was no let-up, the skies continued to dump white, cold, heavy precipitation all day and night, continuing into the day on Saturday, the 27th. Roads were impassible, public transportation came to a halt, including New York’s famed Subway and elevated trains, with snow levels mounting and frozen rails. The City restricted all travel to emergency vehicles only. No travel across the various bridges that linked four of the five boroughs to each other (Queens, Brooklyn, Bronx, and Manhattan; Staten Island could only be reached by ferry) was permitted. My parents lived in Queens, just two blocks from LaGuardia Airport, overlooking Grand Central Parkway. My mother’s doctor was in Manhattan. The hospital where she was to deliver was in Manhattan. My parents didn’t own a car, but it didn’t matter. The roads were closed. The bridges were closed. They were stranded. About midday, my mother’s water broke. Now what?

Blizzard of ’47 (Associated Press Image)

My parents were frantic. They began calling everyone they could, but it didn’t matter. Even if people had cars (most of their friends did not), the roads were closed. More to the point, the snow was so high, cars couldn’t move. Even emergency vehicles were experiencing difficulties getting around. One of my parent’s friends suggested that they call a nearby bar and grill, known to be frequented by truckers. Perhaps someone there could help. They called. Most people at the bar were stranded themselves. However, one young man and a friend had a pickup truck. They felt that if they weighted the back of truck with snow and ice, they might be able to make the trip. They agreed to try, feeling concerned about the young pregnant woman.

The two young men arrived at the house and helped my father get my mother down the front steps and into the truck. The young man who was not driving rode in the back of pickup. I can’t imagine how cold he must have been. Upon arriving at the toll booth for the Triboro Bridge (now called Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Bridge), which they needed to cross to get to the hospital in Manhattan, the policeman, incredulous that they were able to drive at all on the nearly impassable roads, told them the bridge was closed and they could not cross. I’m not sure if my mother was screaming or not, but the driver explained he had a pregnant woman who was in labor, about to give birth right there in the truck and he needed to get her to her designated hospital, Wadsworth Hospital, on the upper West Side of Manhattan. The policeman peered in the truck window and apparently was sufficiently shocked by my mother’s demeanor that he allowed them to pass. Somehow, they made it to the hospital. In all the excitement and relief that they made it, my parents said a hasty thank you and were whisked away into the hospital, by hospital attendants, neglecting to obtain the names of their kind transporters. They made it in time. My mother was in labor for several more hours. I was not born until 12:47 am, on Sunday morning, the 28th. The snow also ended sometime overnight, having deposited 26.4 inches. It was the most snow since the Blizzard of 1888. Moreover, this blizzard was called a “mesoscale” storm because it snowed on one more centralized spot(rather than a region) with “a concentrated force.”[2]

Post-delivery was not then what it is today. My mother and I were kept in the hospital for eight days after I was born. Meanwhile, my father had to negotiate the aftermath of the blizzard. He worked at the Customs House in lower Manhattan, on the waterfront, near the ferry for Staten Island (and Ground Zero). Getting to work each day, and home again, required herculean effort. Although the Subway stop near the Customs House that he used was underground and was now functional, getting to and from the Subway in Queens was another matter. The bus he normally took was unable to negotiate the snow-packed streets. He had to walk 2.5 miles each way from the Subway at 74th St. and Roosevelt Avenue in Jackson Heights to our home on Ditmars Blvd. in East Elmhurst. In addition, after work, he would take the Subway uptown to visit my mother and me, his new baby girl, in the hospital, before heading home. Frankly, I wouldn’t want to walk from the Subway at 74th St. to our house on a sunny, Spring day, much less trudging through nearly hip-high snow.


My Parents: Herbert and Margaret (Lee) Williams and me (Margo Lee Williams), circa April 1948

About 12 years later, the snow was falling; school closed early. My mother was on the phone talking with our neighbor, Thelma. My mother was explaining the snow was falling much like the day before I was born. She went on to tell the story of the young men who came and helped her and my father get to the hospital in time to be born. She credited them with saving our lives, since it was a somewhat difficult birth and one or both of us might have died without proper medical care. Thelma began to explain that her then fiancé, “Buster,” was supposed to come to her apartment to have dinner. He was late because he said he and his friend helped a young woman in labor and her husband get to the hospital in Manhattan. He lamented that in all the excitement he didn’t get their names. She went on to say that ever since they bought their house next door to us, Buster would comment from time to time that he was sure that young couple lived nearby, but he just couldn’t remember which house. He wondered if the baby and mother had survived and what became of them. It didn’t take too many more comparisons of the details to realize that my mother was that young pregnant woman in labor and that I was the baby. How amazing to realize the man who helped my mother get to the hospital and almost certainly saved our lives, was my much loved “Uncle Buster,” next door!

I can never experience a snowfall, much less a blizzard without thinking about my dramatic entrance or Uncle Buster.

References

[1] “Disasters, NYC: Blizzard of ’47,” NYCdata, It’s All Here! Retrieved from: https://www.baruch.cuny.edu/nycdata/disasters/blizzards-1947.html#:~:text=The%20blizzard%20of%201947%20was%20known%20as%20a%20mesoscale%20storm,of%20up%20to%2012%20hours.

[2] “Blizzard’ of ’47; New York Showed [sic] Under: December 28, 1947,” The New York Times Archives, Retrieved from: https://www.nytimes.com/1947/12/28/archives/blizzard-of-47-new-york-showed-under.html?auth=login-google1tap&login=google1tap

15 thoughts on “#52 Ancestors – Winter: The Blizzard of ‘47

  1. A heartwarming story indeed!

  2. Another wonderful story, Margo. I enjoyed it very much.

  3. Uncle Buster must have been thrilled to find you and your mother after twelve years!

    1. Shocked, considering they had already lived there 5 years, but no one ever brought up the story to the other before. Yes, very happy. He is dead now, but Aunt Thelma is about to turn 101, living on her own. Doesn’t look a day over 75. We still laugh about it to this day, especially when it starts to snow.

  4. Oh wow Margo what an incredible story!! One of the most amazing stories that I have read in a long time. What an incredible journey and start in life, the battle through all that was truly incredible. Even more remarkable was to find your saviours again after all that time, what a truly heart warming story, actually brought a tear to my eye. Thank you so much for sharing this with us.

    1. Oh, how sweet of you! Thank you.

      1. Amazing and heart warming at the same time, somebody made sure that they were you’re Guardian Angel that day

  5. That’s a fantastic story Margo! (I might have suspected you were a fellow Capricorn😉). I love how it turned out to be your next door neighbor years later who saved you and your mother. It also reminds me to be grateful for our much more reliable weather forecasting that is constantly updated.

    1. Thank you Eilene! Yes, our improved forecasting is a blessing, but Mother Nature still manages to get the last word.

      Cappies Rule!!!

  6. Now, that’s a family story for the ages! I thoroughly enjoyed it.

      1. You’re welcome, Margo!

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