If you’d asked me 40 years ago, as a kid of 11, what I’d always remember about the “Big Snow” of 1967, I’d have instantly told you about climbing the banks of snow piled between the narrowly spaced garages of my south Oak Park block, clambering up onto our garage roof and leaping off, all of about five feet down, into the softest, smooshiest mounds of snow that had dwarfed the lilacs, buried the fences and transformed the backyard into a shimmering moonscape.
And I will tell you as a 51-year-old-guy, who’d never have had the guts to jump off the garage in other circumstances, that that is a very grand memory.
These days, though, when I think back on that magically life-disrupting week, what I remember is the men. The men of my block on 700 South Taylor, and across the alley on Lombard. Shoulder-to-shoulder with their Sears Roebuck shovels, slowly, slowly moving down our alley, clearing away three feet of snow. No snowblowers had yet arrived on this block. The village had hardly managed to clear a street, so there would be no plows coming through. Instead, in an unorganized platoon, they came out to-absurdly, when I look back at it now-shovel their garage aprons and stayed for hours to clear the entire alley.
My dad, Frank Haley, managed warehouses for Brach Candy; Richard Moeller, our next door neighbor, was a laborer with ComEd; Jay Caulfield, a lawyer downtown, who moved to Mt. Prospect a year later. Mr. Hadac, across the alley, drove a beer truck, one of his sons is now the beat cop on Oak Park Avenue; Mr. Williams, two doors up, painted offices in the Loop. Gene Dillon worked at Hotpoint-they lost a daughter just a bit younger than most of us to a heart ailment; Rev. Vasacka always handed out Bible tracts and always interrupted our baseball games to preach to us about Rev. Billy Sunday, the baseball prospect who passed up the money and fame to be an early evangelist. Harold Kruley was an attorney and indoctrinated me into local politics when he gave me my first VMA flyers to pass door to door; Mr. Chrisopoulos ran a grill under the Lake Street el tracks somewhere on the West Side and sold storm windows out of his garage. Mr. Cromwell was an undertaker, drove a nice car, no kids. Mr. Stitch, I can’t remember what he did, except he built his own garage out of cinder block and worked on cars there.
In those Oak Park days, before block parties, when relations were more formal, and hats were worn to be tipped in passing acknowledgement, it was an absolute wonder to watch these men, and the women who brought out coffee and hot cocoa, connect in the face of this great display of nature. We were kids who roughhoused through that neighborhood, knew every shortcut and back gate latch. But we didn’t know adult men and women to be jovial, to swap stories, to talk of where they came from and record tales of the snows of their youths-which would have been tales from the 1920s and ’30s.
Those were a handful of extraordinary days that January. Dead calm and electric still.
My folks stayed in that house another 19 years. Illness and death took some of those neighbors. A few were lost, I’d say, to white flight. Several remained for years after my parents moved five blocks north on Taylor to a two-flat they shared with my family until their passing.
There hasn’t been a snow like that since, and I’d wager there hasn’t been an Oak Park block with an itinerant preacher, a laborer, a couple of lawyers and a beer truck driver, either.