In 1979 my Uncle Ted came to visit us for Christmas during his holiday break from Kent State University. To say that Uncle Ted was my idol would be an understatement. He taught me all sorts of things when I was younger… like “Peace Baby Man That Turns Me On” (said while holding up your fingers in a peace sign), he knew magic and how to make farts with your arm pits. He was also “Speed Racer” in his Mach 5 and got in trouble from my grandparents when we came back from the store exclaiming how Uncle Ted drove just like Speed Racer. In those days we lived on the east coast (Ohio, Virginia, New Jersey) and saw my grandparents and my Uncle Ted and Aunt LeAnna every summer.
After we moved west to Colorado we saw them less frequently, but Uncle Ted and Aunt LeAnna visited us once every few years and had many great adventures in Colorado. In the winter of 1979, Uncle Ted came to visit us when we were living in the basement of the house. While we had many fun times during his visit like concocting recipes of a “dubious” nature, drawing, talking late into the night and listening to Uncle Ted’s music – this is the story of Christmas 1979 and the blizzard of a few days before.
Getting a Christmas tree while living on private property in the middle of the Arapahoe National Forest is easy. Pick one out, saw it down with a bow saw and drag it back home on a snowmobile. Decorating it is another matter though. This was our first year out this far in the woods and getting our food home was a higher priority than transporting our decorations from storage to the house. So we improvised…
Garland made of popcorn hand-strung onto string and wrapped around the tree is an obvious one – and we made plenty.
We also created paper snowflakes by folding paper multiple times and cutting circles and triangles into the sides, then unfolding them, putting string through them and then hung them on the tree.
Less obvious was how to make actual decorations to hang from our tree. Well my father said that necessity was the mother of invention so we used what we had. I certainly had my experience with tin snips building the house and we also had an abundance of lids from canned foods (since we didn’t have a garbage collection service). So we improvised by cutting various shapes into the tin lids, punching holes in the top of the shapes with a nail and running string to hang them on the tree. In the end we had stars, crescent moons, diamonds and of course the obvious circles hanging from our tree.
Mom and Dad hadn’t finished Christmas shopping and planned a trip to Denver with Uncle Ted and Charlie (my three-year old baby brother). Any trip to Denver is a day long event, so they left early in the day with instructions to my sister and I to get our chores completed before dark. Duh! Honestly, our chores were “serious chores” like gathering water and cutting wood. If we didn’t do them we would have nothing to cook with and no wood for the stove anyway.
This close to Christmas Jennifer and I were getting along really well and we worked together to get the chores done early in the day. In fact, since Christmas was coming we actually hauled in enough wood and water to last us through Christmas Eve and Christmas so that we didn’t have any big chores on those days. Of course, this was two days before Christmas and the days were as short as they would get, we worked hard early in the day to complete everything we needed to do and then spent the rest of the short day playing games.
Throughout the day we saw the weather looking worse and worse, but didn’t think too much of it. Even when it started to snow we weren’t concerned because we knew that Mom and Dad had taken the six-wheeler with the tank treads and it could make it through the snow. When our parents didn’t get home before dark and the snow become a blizzard with the added wind – we started to worry. Then when it became time for bed and still our parents weren’t home we were definitely concerned. Of course, we didn’t have a phone at the house (since we didn’t have electricity either) and this was a LONG time before cellphones. There really wasn’t much we could do except go to bed listening to the howling wind and plan to walk into town the next morning to search for our parents.
As is often the case, morning dawned with no clouds in the sky and the only reminder of the previous night’s blizzard was the new snow on the ground. Jennifer and I swept off the wood that we gathered the day before and carried enough in for the day and night. Then we put on our heaviest clothes and snowshoes and headed into town. Our family had friends who lived at a place we called “the ranch” (even though it wasn’t) and that’s where Mom and Dad always parked the six-wheeler and got into the 4-wheel drive for trips into Denver – so that is where Jennifer and I headed out to.
We must have been walking doubly fast in our worry about our family because we made it to the ranch in record time. Imagine our parents surprise when the children they had spent all night worrying about snowshoe in just as they were getting ready to try and make it home again!
What happened the night before
While Jennifer and I were spending our day together, the rest of the family had trekked to Denver, completed their shopping and made it back to the ranch – but not before the blizzard set in. Of course, Mom and Dad were worried about Jennifer and I all alone at the house and were bound and determined to make it back to us.
But the elements and luck were against them. As they piled everyone into the six-wheeler and started off through the blizzard, the machine threw a track off. Investigation showed that the track had come loose because an entire tire had come out from the drive train. Even still, they tried to make it with no tracks and only five tires. After making it less than a 1/4 mile through the snow they realized the futility and walked back through the blizzard to the ranch (which must have been a distant and yet welcoming light seen occasionally through the blowing snow).
Uncle Ted was in charge of carrying Charlie held close against his chest while Dad helped Mom back to the ranch through the blinding snow. Uncle Ted said later that he was crying on the way because he just knew that baby Charlie must have frozen to death during the endless walk. The relief must have been astounding as he unbundled his seemingly lifeless, but in fact only sleeping, form in front of the fire in the huge fireplace at the ranch.
They spent the rest of the sleepless night hoping for an end to the blizzard so they could make it back to the house.
Since Jennifer and I showed up early, there were two extra sets of arms to carry things back home. We limped the now five-wheel drive back home walking along side it. The walk was much longer since we had to take the long way around (Jennifer and I went cross-country on our way in).
When we finally got back home (well before dark), we found that the dogs had made it into the house by climbing in through a missing pane in the window (which was only covered up with cardboard). They knocked the Christmas tree over and ate every last bit of popcorn off of it. We were grateful to be home though so we righted the tree, popped more popcorn and made new garland. The dogs stayed in for the night and with full bellies didn’t eat any more of the garland.
Christmas Day dawned just as Christmas Eve did. No sign of snow and the temperature probably rose close to freezing. It was the most memorable Christmas ever – even if all the excitement happened in the days leading up to it.
And yes, Santa did make it out to the Gibbins’ home and surprised us all Christmas morning.