Dad’s LTD and the Great Blizzard of 1978

Not my dad's car, but one very much like it, photographed at a car show in the summer of 2008.

I called Dad’s ’76 LTD “The Battleship,” and that was not a term of endearment. It was the size of a capital ship, and painted an appropriate shade of gray. Put a couple of aftermarket gun turrets on the hood and a mast on the roof–there was already space enough for the helicopter landing pad on the decklid–and you’d have a fair representation of USS New Jersey as she appeared during the Vietnam war.

The Battleship had a black vinyl landau roof treatment and opera windows. Its interior was festooned with imitation wood and plastic pseudo-chrome. Its engine was an emissions-strangled V-8 mated to a three-speed slushbox, which produced a 0-60 time geologists could relate to. It had no-lateral-support bench seats, soft springs, overboosted power brakes, and steering that employed Ford’s most advanced sensory deprivation technology. The car’s overall build quality reflected the “national malaise” of the 1970s.

In other words, it was exactly the kind of car I hate.

This particular LTD was, however, a car I had to respect. The reason why is because of what that ugly, overweight, underpowered, hulking road barge did for Dad and me on one extraordinary January day 40 years ago, during the  Great Blizzard of 1978.

I was a high school senior, and I was interested in applying to Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, which was about as far as I could go from my home in Youngstown and still get in-state tuition. My father took me down for an admissions interview, which got me out of high school (and him out of work) for a few days. We drove to Columbus and got a motel room at the (long-since demolished) Howard Johnson’s on 161 just off Interstate 71. The next morning, we drove to Oxford for the day-long campus visit. We got back to Columbus in time for dinner. It was the evening of January 25, 1978.

That evening, two low-pressure systems and quite a lot of arctic air converged over the American Midwest. The peculiar way in which they interacted produced a sudden extreme drop in barometric pressure to the lowest levels ever recorded in Ohio, a phenomenon which meteorologists refer to by the colorful term “bombogenisis.” I remember watching weatherman Joe Holbrook on the 11 o’clock newscast on Channel 10 patiently explain all this in layman’s terms–the best TV weather report I have ever watched.

When we woke up the next morning, there was a foot or so of new snow on the ground, with ice underneath, and more snow coming. The snow was said to be even deeper up north toward Cleveland and Youngstown, where the “lake effect” had added to the meteorological fun. The TV told us that the governor had proclaimed a state of emergency, everything was closed, and so on. I figured we were just going to stay in Columbus an extra day.

Dad had other plans. Dad had survived combat as an infantryman in World War II’s “Battle of the Bulge,” served in combat again as a tank commander in the Korean War, and was having a successful career in local politics in Mahoning County, which isn’t called “Little Chicago” for nothing. He had an iron will and laughed at adversity. He was not going to let a little thing like the worst snowstorm in recorded Ohio history make him miss supper at home that night!

The motel parking lot had not been plowed. I never found out if that was because the motel had not called for a plow, the plow truck couldn’t get there because of road conditions, or the plow truck driver, overwhelmed by the enormity of the task before him, had just given up and collapsed in a pathetic sobbing heap. (I suspected the latter.) Whatever the reason, we were not going to get out of there unless we dug ourselves out.

In a gesture of either comic futility or grim irony, the motel management had left a snow shovel leaning against the wall by the office door, in case anyone was crazy enough to actually want to leave. We dug our car out with it. There were three other people trying to get out of the parking lot ahead of us, and we helped dig them out, too. All of us had big old rear wheel drive Detroit dinosaurs. These cars did not have today’s sophisticated traction control. They didn’t even have positraction rear ends. In conditions like these, the only way to get a car like that moving from a dead rest was to have one or more people pushing.

So Dad and I pushed the other cars out. Once the way was clear, we got in the LTD–and promptly spun our wheels, as there was no one left to give us a push. Dad looked at me gravely and said, “Get out and push, but leave your door open ’cause once I get moving I’m not stopping.

Dad was a kind and loving soul, not the sort who would drive off and abandon one of his children to hypothermia in a Columbus parking lot–but he said those last three words with such ruthless certainty that I resolved not to take any chances. I got the passenger door open as wide as it would go.

Dad put it in gear, I heaved mightily on the Ford’s trunk lid, the wheels spun and threw snow on my shoes, and suddenly the car was rolling away from me. I ran after it, caught up to the door before inertia and acceleration could slam it shut on me, and sort of half-stumbled, half-dove, and half-belly-flopped in. I ended up with my nose by the floor heater duct and my knees up near the headrest.

By the time I got myself reoriented into something approximating a normal seated posture, we were charging up the northbound on-ramp, having blown through one red traffic light and taken a very aggressive attitude toward two yellow ones. Dad was quite serious about the “not stopping” part.

The scene on Interstate 71 was surreal. There were abandoned cars and trucks on both sides of the road, and all over the median, some covered in several inches of snow. As for the road itself, it too was covered in snow. It had obviously been plowed, and maybe even salted, but the new snow was coming at least as fast as the plow trucks could clear it. As you might expect, there wasn’t much traffic. There were three kinds of vehicles on the road: the big yellow ODOT plow trucks, a few Jeeps, . . . and us. Our own LTD was the only conventional automobile we saw moving under its own power.

We made it home safely. The LTD stayed on the road, the rear end only fishtailing every once in a while, and never so badly that a little counter-steering didn’t get us right back on track. Dad didn’t stop until we hit the end of the off-ramp at Belle Vista Avenue, five hours after leaving the HoJo.

A lot of that was Dad’s driving skill, but I have to give that old LTD credit. It was a terrible car in snow–but the one time Dad and I really needed it to get us through, it performed like a champ.

–Mike (Cookie the Dog’s Owner)

If you want to learn more about the Great Blizzard of ’78, there’s an article by the National Weather Service here and a Columbus Channel 10 video from last year’s anniversary here.

Originally published at Amazon’s “Car Lust” on January 26, 2009; edited and updated for republication.


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