Kenmare ND - Upside Down Under

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Upside Down Under

By Marvin Baker, a new weekly column in The Kenmare News


Lamenting a winter past...

Posted 1/30/18 (Tue)

In the fall of 1978, Hazelton had a high school wrestling team with a dedicated group of parents.

Also that fall, I began driving school bus. The written test was tougher than a regular driver’s test, but I passed and was allowed to work for the Hazelton-Moffit School District.

You’re probably asking, so what does that have to do with a wrestling team?

There was a dual in Napoleon early in 1979 and since I signed on to earn extra money, I volunteered to take the team to Napoleon.

We all know what can happen in January in North Dakota, but it didn’t appear this night was going to be any trouble. It was quite cold, but calm, and there was 6 or 8 inches of snow on the ground.

When we got to Napoleon, I was basically off the hook until the match was done and I would fire up the bus and take the kids back to Hazelton.

It didn’t quite work out that way.

Sometime during the match, it started snowing. I went out to look and it was heavy snow but was coming straight down. A second look later in the match revealed progressively heavier snow.

By the time the match was over and the bus was running, the wind came up and visibility was reduced right in Napoleon.

We got everybody loaded up including cheerleaders, statisticians and extra coaches and off we went on our 26-mile journey home. The further west we went, the stronger the wind blew and the visibility was reduced even more.

I had the bus rolling along at a reduced speed for safety reasons. And when we went up a long hill west of Kintyre, visibility dropped to zero and suddenly we had a dire situation on our hands, still 13 miles from home.

I couldn’t see anything and at times stopped the bus to ascertain exactly where I was on the highway. I wanted to make sure I didn’t go in the ditch. I couldn’t see the ditch, so I was looking for shadows to indicate where it might have been.

By now the kids were getting anxious, the coaches were genuinely concerned and I was scared to death because we very well could have frozen to death in those conditions. Ironically, the crest of the hill is where everything went south.

One of the coaches suggested I open the bus door so he could stand on the bottom step and watch for the ditch. He did and we inched along to the west with a caravan of cars behind us.

As we continued, we passed right by the Braddock corner landmark and didn’t even recognize it. It wasn’t realized until we reached Hazelton, nine more miles west.

The interesting thing about that piece of the puzzle was that peripheral vision was gone, there was no sense of time and distance and there was absolutely nothing to judge where we might have been.

But we made it home, not before we hit some gargantuan snow drifts that built up on N.D. Highway 34. The front of the bus was now white instead of yellow. Fuel was also a concern. We were running dangerously low on gas and because it was so cold, there was that chance the fuel line may have frozen shut along the route.

When we got to Hazelton and parked outside the school to drop everyone off, three things became abundantly clear. No. 1, the temperature was 18 below zero and the wind chill was in the 40-below range. No. 2, it took three hours to get home; three hours to travel 26 miles on a highway that I was completely familiar with under normal and even dicey road conditions. No. 3, nobody got hurt. We all made it back to Hazelton without frostbite. It included the coach who was standing on the bottom step with his face peering into the wind for at least half of the trip.

Honestly folks, I didn’t think it was possible to sweat at near 20 below zero, but that’s exactly what happened. It quickly became a harrowing experience and I think I was a basket case when I got to my home from the school.

Most of the parents who took their own vehicles, came on the bus and thanked me for getting everyone home safely. That helped, but it was still a real creepy ride.

Weather reports didn’t indicate anything even remotely close to the conditions we encountered. The only parallel was that a cold night was predicted and it was indeed cold. Regardless, weather reporting wasn’t what it is today, and none of us had a National Weather Service app, but you’d think there would have been some sort of short-term warning that would have tipped us off to what was ahead. There wasn’t. The wrestling team lost, but it was a big victory just getting home that night.