If we were paying attention 22 years ago, this is how we heard the news: "Between 6 and 7 this morning (Friday, Jan. 28, 1977), Indianapolis had a temperature drop of almost 25 degrees. A wall of snow moved into the city and they couldn't see anything. And those are the conditions which are moving east," from a weather report on WKBW Radio.
That was, of course, the birth of the Blizzard of '77, as hurricane-force winds then swept over 10,000 square miles of a frozen Lake Erie, scooping up the nearly four feet of powdery snow that rested on its surface. Then, for four days, those ferocious winds blew the snow onto Western New York and southern Ontario, which caught the snow much as a giant snow fence would.
I was reminded this week of the magnitude and the uniqueness of that blizzard when I talked to Erno Rossi, 62. He's the Port Colborne author of "White Death: Blizzard of '77," a self-published book that sold 15,000 copies in its first run and has continued selling since it was published in 1978.
"Parents bought it for their children and now grandparents are buying it for grandchildren," said Rossi, a former high school history teacher who once taught a disaster survival course at school.
Though it's hard to imagine, Rossi says the blizzard could have been much worse. He says an ice storm the previous March had cut power for many days in some areas. "It took out everything weak," he said. "The utility poles, the limbs, weak power lines, the old trees."
As Rossi looked out his window onto the lake -- "like looking into a milk bottle" -- on that fateful Friday in 1977, he knew there was a book in the making. He immediately started taping both Buffalo and Ontario radio stations. Later, he interviewed Mayor Stanley Makowski, Civil Defense officials, police officers, hotel desk clerks, restaurant owners, medical and morgue personnel, compiling an oral history.
He talked to a drug addict who was going squirrelly without his fix, to women who gave birth and to others who had run out of birth control pills, to a hunter lost in the woods who held onto his dog's tail as the dog led them to a pile of snow-buried manure, which they burrowed into -- a lifesaving maneuver, the man believes.
Everything about human nature was magnified in that storm. People looted and vandalized. Some merchants overcharged for necessary items. Mostly, though, it was a time when we pushed cars and pulled together. When neighbors looked out for each other and invited strangers in.
In one account, Raul Russi, a former Buffalo police officer, tells what it was like on the streets that night. He recounts delivering insulin to one woman and answering a domestic abuse call for a woman with a broken leg and a broken arm. When the car could only get within three blocks of Columbus Hospital, he carried her the rest of the way.
Then he answered a call he says he'll never forget.
It was to an apartment on Niagara Street where an old man had died.
Russi explained to the man's wife, as she made coffee for him, that they were in the midst of the worst storm in the city's history and they wouldn't be able to remove the body immediately.
"Son," she said, "I've lived with this man for over 40 years. A couple days more, dead or alive, is all right with me. I loved him then and I love him now. When this storm is over and things calm down, then you can tell someone that I'm here with my husband."
Nothing coalesced the community as that blizzard did. Nothing set us apart from the rest of the country, which now uses Buffalo -- always -- as the barometer for dealing with snow. Just this week a Seattle newspaper headline told its readers: "Snow too much, even for Buffalo."
And nothing told us as much about ourselves, either.
We were willing and able to dig in and hold fast, to shovel out, to look out for each other.
Any of us who were here 22 years ago now know that it doesn't hurt to have an extra loaf of bread, some videos and a few shovels on hand.