There will always be days when everyone remembers exactly what they were doing at a certain time because something momentous happened. 9-11 is one of those days. The day that John F. Kennedy was shot is another. And for those who were living in the Midwest in the fall of 1940, November 11, Armistice Day (now known as Veteran’s Day), was one they never forgot. Because that was when they were blindsided by the disastrous Armistice Day Blizzard.
My mother, Nina Ostrom, was one of them. Nina, then a 19-year-old college student living in St. Paul, Minnesota, would recall years later that the sun was bright that morning and temperatures had actually eked their way into the high 50s – amazing for that time of the year. She decided to use the holiday to squeeze in some extra studying at the college library, so she pulled on a skirt and blouse, bobby socks, saddle shoes and a calf-length wool coat – certainly a warm enough outfit for that kind of a day. The weather forecast, which the morning paper said was “cloudy, [with] occasional snow, and colder, much colder,” gave no hint of big trouble ahead.
Once Nina got to the library and settled in, she became so engrossed in her trigonometry problems that she barely noticed several hours had slipped by and rain had set in. By the time she looked up from her books, the rain had turned to heavy snow, ice was being hurled to and fro by howling, gale force winds, and the temperature had plummeted to well below freezing. When she cautiously opened the library door and peered outside, she was stunned by a blast of freezing wind and a mass of white, swirling snow that obscured virtually everything. A blizzard! Nina slammed the door and wondered what to do. There were no phones available, and even if she could contact her parents or her boyfriend Lyndon, it wouldn’t do her any good. Nobody had a car. Completely out of options, she decided to button up her coat, pull her books close to her chest, and brave the half-hour walk home straight through the blizzard.
Using the trees that lined the street to keep her on the straight and narrow, Nina slowly began to plow her way through the disorienting, blinding whiteness. Fighting against the driving wind quickly left her exhausted and she had trouble catching her breath, but there was nothing to do but forge ahead. It was certainly no half-hour walk home that day, and with her light clothes and no stockings, Nina was literally freezing. Finally, after what seemed like eternity, she thought she spotted her house up ahead, with the streetlight in the front yard barely glowing through the whiteness. Yes, there was her father, standing out on the front porch despite the high winds and subzero temperatures, anxiously looking up the street for his daughter. When he caught sight of Nina, he sprinted down the front steps and ran through the whirling snow, grabbing her and hustling her into the house. Later he would say, aghast, “There she was, walking through a blizzard with no stockings on!” But the relief he felt once his daughter was safely out of the storm was so extreme that he had to lie down for the rest of the evening.
At the time, no one realized how lucky Nina had been. The Armistice Day Blizzard of 1940 ranks number two of the top five weather events in Minnesota during the 20th century. Cutting a 1,000 mile wide path across the Midwest, the blizzard killed 154 people. In Minnesota alone, 49 people died, many of them motorists who froze to death when huge snowdrifts left them stranded in their cars. In some areas, over two feet of snow fell in just 24 hours. It’s nothing short of a miracle that Nina didn’t get lost in the storm and that her bare legs weren’t frostbitten. Someone was definitely watching out for her that day.