Bitter cold snap rekindles memories of winters past
January 08, 2014 11:00 AM
by JULIE MARTIN
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With temperatures expected to (relatively) soar today to highs in the mid-20s, the bitter cold snap that swept into the area Monday and Tuesday should soon be no more than a memory.

But those recent dramatic drops in temperature have inspired some to recall when the mercury dipped even lower in Indiana County.

It was two decades ago that the area saw a drop in temperature that compared to the minus 11 seen early Tuesday. In the latter part of January 1994, temperatures fell even more dramatically, reaching minus 24.

White Township resident Phil Palko remembers that chilly time well, and for good reason. His son, Nicholas, was born Jan. 27 of that year. Palko lived in Indiana Borough at the time.

He recalled that just days before his son was born, on the way to a doctor’s visit, the temperature on a bank’s thermometer read minus 15.

When it was time for the Indiana Area High School teacher to drive his wife, Mary Beth, to Magee-Womens Hospital in Pittsburgh, temperatures were still unusually low.

“I thought I was driving in the Arctic with snow everywhere and it being so cold,” he said.

An ice storm almost prevented the doctor from getting there to deliver the baby.

One fortunate turn did come out of the treacherous weather. School closures due to the weather happened to coincide with his wife’s labor and delivery, so he didn’t have to take any days off.

“I think we were out of school almost as much as we were in that January,” he said.

It’s another cold snap, though, that takes the record for the coldest day in Indiana County’s recent recorded history.

On Feb. 2, 1961, the Indiana Evening Gazette reported that a bone-chilling low of minus 26 was recorded the night before at the Clymer Water Co.’s Two Lick pump station.

Those were the lowest digits that had been seen there since the pump station began recording temperatures for the U.S. Weather Bureau in 1949, according to the Gazette article.

In Indiana Borough, official temperatures on Groundhog Day in 1961 were recorded as minus 12 and reported to be similar throughout the county, the Gazette reported.

Indiana native Paul “Pete” Winger, 64, was 12 years old at the time. As happened with this week’s severe low temperatures, schools were closed.

“But we bundled up and went out and played anyway,” he said. “If we got too cold, we went back in the house.”

And what did “too cold” mean?

From what Winger can recall, while at the playground of the old Thaddeus Stevens school, “it was so cold that walking on the dry snow, it (sounded) like pistol shots when you stepped on it.”

“Just breathing,” he said, “the moisture in your nose would freeze every time you took a breath.”

On Tuesday, the trip down memory lane prompted Winger to ask those on the Facebook page “You know you’re from Indiana, PA if ...” what they could recall about such harsh temps.

It prompted a small flurry of comments, ranging from opinions on the extreme weather hardiness of kids back in the day to reports from those who had moved to warmer climes.

The latter weighed in on the fact that their thermometer had not even reached temperatures such as 50 degrees, a result of the same “polar vortex” that sent temperatures spiraling in Indiana and throughout much of the nation.

Winger had similar figures to report from the Sunshine State, where he and his wife, Joan, live. The couple moved to Florida in August of 1978 to find teaching jobs.

The weather also influenced their decision, he said.

While it wasn’t incredibly cold, their last winter in Pennsylvania included plenty of snow. He recalled times when he had to hack his car free after a sheet of ice formed on the ground beneath it overnight.

Though only vicariously experiencing the bitter cold temperatures of Indiana through social media while he awaited a return to his adopted southern state’s temps (60 or 70 degrees at this time of year), Winger had some advice for those in the area wanting to stay warm.

“Move to Florida,” he said with a chuckle.

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