It takes a snowstorm to make a village

'Mais où sont les neiges d'antan?" Just last week I was mispronouncing the classic line to a man who once took French.

"But where are the snows of yesteryear?" Suddenly they were here.

Boston had hardly finished wallowing in the 25th anniversary of the Blizzard of '78 (27.1 inches) when the Presidents' Day Blizzard of 2003 outsnowed it (27.5 inches). Even more fell elsewhere. Citing technical characteristics, forecasters began likening it to "the perfect storm."

No picnic, and sympathy must go to those with losses beyond shared inconvenience. But recovery in Boston seemed quicker than in '78, despite much selfless effort at that time. Better preparation perhaps. Hard work certainly by the road crews out all night and the unseen network of support deserving the whole community's cheers. Also, it was a holiday.

In '78 I gave up on public transportation and started walking the five miles home from work. After less than a mile I was picked up by a jolly family dashing through the snow in a four-wheel drive (not so familiar then as now, when one company advertises all its new cars are four-wheel drive).They were deliberately out being good Samaritans. Later, they happened to read a Monitor article on the storm in which they recognized their anonymous selves. The parents said that for the children it seemed like a good deed instantly rewarded.

Fair warning that the nameless below are real people too, though I didn't have to walk a mile to find them.

How bad was it, Johnny? (As people said of many things in '78.) In Washington President Bush canceled a Presidents' Day speech at the National Museum of American History, not far from the White House, noting that the museum had closed anyway.

In New York, with its fourth-largest storm on record, Mayor Michael Bloomberg advised patience plus a little humor and warned against cross-country skiing in the streets. In Cambridge, I recalled that so many skiers were out in '78 that street skiing was banned.

Now in '03 a woman and two girls skied in the street along the sidewalk I had almost finished shoveling. My track of a snail between thigh-high walls was nearing a neighbor's roomy professionally snow-blown throughway.

"Are you making a comment on our sidewalk?" I asked them, trying a little humor.

"No, it's just that they're not good enough skiers for such a narrow path."

Was that a little humor too? I do use a narrower shovel when the snow is deep. But usually only my spouse takes note. She offered a choice to the mother of a growing family who came over and said, "We have three shovelers now but only two shovels." Mom borrowed the wide one.

On the phone, a farm couple in Pennsylvania said a neighbor plows their road when he sees they haven't gotten the horses out to do it themselves. It was like our neighbor admitting he cleared our driveway when we were away most of Presidents' Day. Next morning, he offered to do it again when his snow blower was returned from another neighbor. Then it wouldn't start, so they both insisted on helping to shovel the drive. Soon there were shovelers at every house.

"Isn't it beautiful, isn't it great to all be out here together," said one of us as the snow banks rose all around. (He's from Canada.)

May we say it takes a snowstorm to make a village? Or a common problem to unite a world?

At this writing it's still possible that 2003 will be remembered for the Presidents' Day Blizzard instead of a president's war.

Roderick Nordell was a longtime Monitor editor.

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