I grew up in Southern California. Wait. Let me rephrase that. I was raised in Southern California. Not sure I ever grew up…
Okay. So. SoCal boy. Near-perfect climate. Almost always lovely weather. In fact, Christmastime in SoCal is almost always under high-pressure and blindingly blue skies. To us, a White Christmas was something we saw on TV or greeting cards. Yes, the surrounding mountains get some snow each winter, but we lowlanders could only see it from afar.
The town in which I lived was named Corona. That means crown in Spanish. And, if you took a moment to look around, you could see that there were mountains on every horizon forming that crown and, in the winter, they were often capped in snow.
One time my parents packed us up for a drive up to the neighboring mountains and we got to play in some snow. It was a fun day but to actually experience snow falling and have a White Christmas at our house wasn’t even something we considered.
But then, one amazing and glorious day, it snowed! And the timing couldn’t have been better.
It was the last day of school before our Christmas vacation. It was a Friday. December 20, 1968. I was in 8th grade. We had no forewarning. I didn’t watch the news for a weather report. Obviously there were no cell phones (I think our home phone was still rotary dial!) to check the 10-day forecast. If it was cold out, I wore a jacket.
It was cold that day but I’m not sure I even noticed that it was overcast. At lunchtime I was hanging out with some buddies in the Circle in the center of my jr. high school campus. As the bell rang to go to our next class, a few snowflakes fluttered down. We all smiled with amazement. This was unprecedented in our lifetimes! As we walked to our respective classrooms, we tried to get one of the few scattered flakes to alight on our hand, knowing that this atmospheric phenomenon wouldn’t last for more than a moment.
However, as that class proceeded, the flurries continued. When we passed to the last class of the day the flakes had grown in size and intensity. It seemed that in no time at all, the flakes began to cover the ground and the lawn outside our next classroom quickly turned white.
We entered the classroom but gathered around the window to watch as the falling flakes continued to grow in number. We were soon admonished to take our seats so Mr. Elkins could begin class. His lecture proceeded but we students couldn’t concentrate. Our attention was drawn to the small window by the door and the unprecedented weather outside. Try as he might to continue, his lecture became even more difficult when kids burst from the classrooms on either side of us and began to frolic and screech joyfully; many immediately bending to scoop up snow to pack into balls to fling at one another.
One student said, “Mr. Elkins! Can we go out, too!”
“No, you may not.”
That was followed by a chorus of laments. “Aw, come on! Where’s your Christmas spirit?! Mr. Scrooge!” If I remember correctly, I think he was Jewish, but that didn’t seem to stop the whining. Heck, it seemed like the whole school was outside having fun while we weren’t allowed out.
Our whining continued for a few moments and then Mr. Elkins’ face grew stern and with that look, silenced the grumbling. We all froze, knowing we had pushed him too far.
“Close your books. Put down your pencils. Get out!”
We leapt from our seats, the joy on our tongues confirming the lightness of our feet. We raced to the door and out into the cold. Now, I’m sure those of you in the north and east who suffer through snowplows and salted roads year after year will think us crazy. But the majority of us had never experienced a snowfall, especially at school!
The school P.A. system crackled to life. “Attention teachers. Please keep your students inside your classrooms until the end of school.” The announcement was repeated a few times and, though our cheeks were beginning to sting from the unusual cold, we grudgingly moved towards our classroom and Mr. Elkins who was encouraging us to hurry up with broad sweeps of his outstretched arm.
Most of us plopped back into our seats, still breathing heavily from the eruption of physical activity. A few openly thanked Mr. Elkins for allowing us the chance and he said, “Don’t worry. You’ll be free in about a half hour…”
He tried to teach and we tried to learn. But most every student kept an occasional eye cocked towards the ever-whitening landscape outside the window. When class was finally over, we jostled to get out of the room as quickly as possible and everywhere you looked, kids made snowballs and tried to fling them at another. Luckily, the snow was quite dry and powdery so no one was subjected to a real snowball to their temple or groin.
When my mother pulled to the curb to pick us up, our excited buzz continued. During the trip home, our eyes darted from window to window, not wanting to miss a thing as we marveled at the snowy blanket which was transforming our all-to-familiar streetscape into a different world. I clearly remember orange trees in neighborhood groves, their ripe oranges and green leaves topped with snow; they and their adjacent palm trees forming stark, incongruous images.
Normally there would have been quiet excitement in each of us as this trip home marked the beginning of Christmas vacation; and Christmas Day itself was a mere five days away! But this seemingly-once-in-a-lifetime snowfall at our Southern California home forced our unobtrusive exuberance to burst from our lips in a stream of non-stop chatter.
All of this was immediately quashed when my mother announced that one of my sisters had a doctor’s appointment and the rest of us were to remain indoors until she returned. What a letdown! All we could do was look out of the windows and marvel at our snow-covered yard. We’d arrived home from school at about 3:00 and, being winter, the sun set by 5:00. When is the last time you spent less than two hours waiting for a doctor? So, when she finally returned, she wouldn’t let us out because it was dark.
My father arrived home soon after, but a bit later than normal. When he came in the front door he carried two large grocery bags. “The closer I got to home, the whiter it became,” he said. “It reminded me of home (his childhood in Illinois) and I got sentimental…” The bags contained some wine and liquor and plenty of holiday treats and goodies for us. Looking back, that was one of the few times I remember my father being happy during the holidays.
The next morning couldn’t arrive soon enough. We bounded down the stairs as if Christmas morning had already arrived. We bundled up as well as Southern Californians could, and poured into our back yard. The powdery flakes of the day before were even icier. We couldn’t even make snowballs. Of course, we still tried but soon gave up that pursuit as it was nothing more than throwing handfuls of powder.
I recalled my mother telling us about how, when she was a child in Detroit, she skated down the tire tracks in the road and how she and her siblings slid on snowy and icy driveways. Somewhere there’s an old 8mm home movie of me attempting to dive and slide across the lawn that morning. The captured image does not depict a happy glide across a slick surface. For years, whenever we watched home movies, my ego would loudly explain how my mother had encouraged me to try to slide across the snowy lawn that morning. But that was not the case. She had nothing to do with it. I just suddenly recalled her recounted childhood memories and spontaneously—and having no real experience with snow—tried to dive and slide… and ended up looking like a walrus suffering a heart attack.
But what a way to begin a Christmas vacation! The snow had melted by Christmas Day, but that winter, back in 1968, we came as close to a White Christmas as we ever would.