Blizzard, 1984

Happy Polar Vortex 2019!

If you’re in the cold’s path, reader, stay safe. Protect yourself; you’ll want those fingers and toes when the world thaws.

Let’s look back together to a blizzard long, long ago. Enjoy the following story I wrote (first published on December 31, 2015):

The February wind sliced through our coats as we hustled into the mall in Fargo, North Dakota. 1984 had rushed in with punishing sub-zero temperatures, and the packed snow squeaked like Styrofoam under our feet. My nervousness from the MMTA (Minnesota Music Teachers Association) district piano contests had eased off an hour earlier. In front of the judges, my memory had led my fingers through the motions, but my nerves quashed any passion I could have layered into the song. And so it came out bland but mostly accurate. Oh well. Done for another year. And now was the time for shopping. What more could a thirteen-year-old girl want?

My sisters—nine-year-old Olive and six-year-old Flo—and I milled around to my favorite stores: Lerner, Claire’s Boutique, Stevensons, Vanity, Contempo. As we walked, I tossed a furtive glance at Spencer’s Gifts; I could never go there because Mom thought the place was raunchy—especially the posters and other items in the back of the store. We passed by, and she zipped in to B. Dalton to browse through some books. Later, Flo tugged her sleeve as we neared the Orange Julius. Mom pulled out some cash, and while we slurped the creamy goodness through straws, we looked out the mall’s glass doors at the end of the corridor.

“The snow’s really coming down.” Mom shook her head, wide-eyed. “I should call Dad and see what he knows about the roads.”

She rummaged through her purse for change and then made a beeline for the pay phones. Olive, Flo, and I listened while she discussed the weather with Dad. Terms like black ice and whiteout peppered her end of the conversation. After some minutes, she hung up, and the pay phone gulped down her coins.

“Dad thinks it might clear up if we wait a little longer before heading home.” But Mom’s mouth was a straight line, her brow furrowed.

As we continued to roam from store to store, a voice boomed out an announcement over the mall’s loudspeakers:

“This is the West Acres Mall Management. We are closing the mall due to dangerous weather conditions. For safety reasons, everyone must remain inside. We will keep our restaurants open to serve you, and for those with diabetes or other medical conditions, Walgreens will help you with insulin or other medications. Thank you.”

We girls tittered with excitement. For a 1980s teenager like me, being locked into a shopping mall was like Brer Rabbit being thrown into a briar patch.

“I guess I won’t be driving home on glare ice after all.” Mom’s face softened. “I’ll call and tell Dad the news.”

In the evening, employees tugged their store grates shut, locking them for the night. But one store rigged up a TV and VCR and played Black Stallion for the captive masses.

Finally, it was time to sleep. We curled up on a small carpeted area on the floor in front of Foxmoor. Our stocking caps stuffed with scarves served as pillows, our coats as blankets.

The thrill of the adventure staved off the chill of the hard floor. But we awakened early the next morning anyway, along with the other confined shoppers who were rousing in storefronts near ours. The voice on the loudspeaker invited us to breakfast at a restaurant which fed us the only sustenance it had left: pancakes and water.

At last, the mall management unlocked the doors, and we were free to leave. The morning air stung our faces as we trudged through the drifted parking lot. Our car’s engine sputtered to life, and the stiff seats under us warmed. But the sight of vehicles stuck in the lot and strewn about in ditches and on roadways jarred us as we rolled out of town.

At home later that evening, we watched the news and learned that after that storm on February 4, 1984, authorities found Fargo’s 19th Avenue full of cars—most of them covered in drifts. Drifts as high as speed limit signs. And just outside West Acres Mall—where we had taken shelter—a number of people had lost their lives.

All these years later, I think of our story and shiver. Shopping malls: saving teenage girls from social embarrassment since forever. Who knew they could save lives too?

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*Names in this blog have been changed to protect my family, neighbors, and friends in the neighborhood, and in a nod of appreciation to the beloved Swedish author Maj Lindman, I’ve renamed my three blondies Flicka, Ricka, and Dicka.