Gary had a break for the Christmas holiday during his second year of medical school and I had off from work at the City of Pittsburgh Finance Department, so we planned a trip to Buffalo. Where else would one go during Christmas week?
Why Buffalo? In a remarkable turn of events, my two brothers married two sisters who were from Hamburg, a suburb of Buffalo. Consequently, though my brothers and their wives lived in New Jersey and Albany respectively, they frequently spent the holidays with their mutual in-laws. In addition, my closest friend, Merle, was getting her PhD in psychology at the University of Buffalo. So we decided to make the trip for the long weekend. It promised to be fun, especially since I would also get to see my totally adorable almost two year old nephew.
We had a car – barely. I had purchased my uncle’s 1972 Toyota Celica for $100. It had a manual transmission. It rarely started when I turned the key in the ignition. Fortunately Pittsburgh is quite hilly so we would most often push the car to the nearest hill, get it rolling and pop it into gear. Renting a car seemed much more sensible than risking the trip with the Celica, so we did.
December 24 was a cold, partly sunny day in Pittsburgh in 1983. We picked up the rental and started north on route 79. We were enjoying the ride, listening to music and munching on some snacks. About 90 miles out of Pittsburgh some snow started to fall – we were approaching Meadville. We weren’t too concerned and continued on our way.
The snow grew heavier and heavier as we proceeded north. This was the definition of lake effect snow. By the time we got to the turnoff for route 90 East, just outside of Erie, we were in whiteout conditions. I opened my window and leaned my head out and tried to help Gary to stay on the road. We literally could barely see a foot in front of us.
We saw a sign for an upcoming exit and decided we had to get off the road. At the end of the ramp was a Holiday Inn, we pulled into its parking lot and debated what to do. It was still barely past noon. We listened to the weather forecast on the radio. They were reporting blizzard conditions in Erie. No kidding!!! It didn’t sound promising.
Other cars were following us off the road and into the parking lot and we realized that if we didn’t register soon, we might not get a room. Gary parked, we took our suitcases and, as it turned out, got the last room available.
We settled in, turned on the tv, read the newspaper that we brought from Pittsburgh and relaxed. We called Merle and then we called my brothers’ in-laws. While conditions weren’t quite as bad in Buffalo, the New York State Thruway was closed. We agreed that we would wait and see if we could continue the trip the next morning. Meanwhile conditions worsened outside. The wind picked up and the temperature plummeted.
We thought we would venture out for dinner, since there was a restaurant just down the road. We bundled up and left our room to find cots in the hallway and in the conference room near by. We were quite lucky that we got that room. I felt bad for the families that were celebrating their Christmas on cots in the hallway.
We made our way to the car with difficulty, the wind had caused impressive snow drifts. Looking at the accumulated snow, it was still snowing hard, the wind was howling, we realized we weren’t going anywhere. In the short time that we had been outside, my feet were nearly frozen. We hurried back into the Holiday Inn.
The staff set up tomato soup and cheese sandwiches for everyone. That was dinner and we were grateful for it.
We went back to our room and went to sleep.
The next day, Christmas day, was brilliantly sunny. We had gotten over two feet of snow, the wind was still blowing and the temperature, without windchill, was barely above zero. We went out to clear the car off and see if we could go get some breakfast. The car wouldn’t start! I called AAA. It was going to be a while until they could get to the car. We went back to the room.
The day before we had exhausted most of the resources we had with us to entertain ourselves. We got pretty creative (perhaps not the way some people would get creative). Using the chart in the newspaper, we quizzed each other on the high and low temperatures in cities across the United States and world. It was amazing how long we amused ourselves with that! Our room had sliding glass doors that had thick frost on them and we played hangman in the ice. The window would refrost fast so we were able to play multiple rounds!
Now it was Christmas day and since the car wouldn’t start, we flipped through the channels on the television. The options were quite limited. In that day and age, I don’t think the motel had cable, there were only three stations available in a place like Erie. The Yule log was on one channel. Another was off the air for the holiday. The last one featured the local middle school choir singing Christmas carols. While that was on, we saw a commercial advertising an NCAA basketball game coming up at noon. We couldn’t believe our luck, we love college basketball! At least we’d have something to watch for a couple hours.
The appointed time came and the local station announced that they were going to replay the middle school Christmas concert! Gary and I were beside ourselves. I pulled out the telephone book and found the number for the tv station. Gary called and surprisingly someone answered. Gary asked why they were replaying the concert when the network was broadcasting a basketball game. The person on the phone was none too pleased to be bothered and explained, as if Gary was an idiot, that it was Christmas and this is what people would want to watch. Gary responded, “It’s Christmas in Pittsburgh, too, but they’re getting to watch basketball! Why can’t we?!!” Not surprisingly, the guy from the station wasn’t moved by Gary’s argument. Gary slammed the phone down in frustration.
By the time the car got jumped, it was dinner time, too late to leave. We realized that it didn’t make sense to continue on to Buffalo. We decided we would stay another night in the Holiday Inn and go back to Pittsburgh the next morning. Fortunately, we were able to drive to the Ground Round for dinner! We enjoyed a cocktail and took our time eating. At least we were out of the hotel!
To our great relief, the next morning the car started. It was still brutally cold. We got back on route 79 and headed south. We were disappointed in how the weekend turned out, to say the least. Not to mention the money we spent for our trouble. Just to put a cherry on top, a bird dive bombed into the middle of the front windshield as we were driving. I don’t know why the suicidal bird picked our car, but now it was splattered across the windshield. Gary tried using the wipers, but the fluid was frozen and the wipers just smeared the bird’s remains. I had a brilliant idea. I had a cup of diet soda that I thought I could rinse the feathers and blood off. I leaned out the window and poured it on the mess. It froze instantly! Now the bird remains were coated with diet coke – at least if I had been drinking 7up it wouldn’t have looked so awful. We pulled over to clean it enough to see, and then continued on our way, shaking our heads in disbelief.
We made it back to Pittsburgh without further incident. We returned the car and said nothing to the agent about the mess on the window. As we walked away we started laughing. The whole weekend had been so preposterous. We laughed so hard there were tears rolling down our cheeks. At least we survived and had a story to tell.