Little Ellie Matuissi. Photo by her father David.

I don’t think of myself as a “writer.” At even the suggestion of that, my high school English teachers would be spinning in their graves. Late in life, I’ve labeled myself a “storyteller.” For the last several weeks, I have been suffering from “storyteller’s block.” That has led me to take a detour down a road where I am not comfortable, but have been unable to avoid.

What is going on in our country is tiring and depressing, but then last week the good news I had been waiting on for nine months arrived from halfway around the world. In Newcastle, NSW, Australia, a baby girl was born–my first grandchild. Thanks to FaceTime, we met when she was barely twenty- four-hours old. I am resolved to the fact, thanks to COVID-19, that for too long, internet visits will have to do. Lord, I wish I could hold her and wonder what she is thinking as we make eye contact. I know she will have no recollection, but I sure will.

Thanks to this event, I seem to have found a good memory or two that hopefully will get me back on the right storytelling road.

Twenty-eight years ago this March, marks the anniversary of the “Blizzard of ‘93.” A few days that were hard for many, but from my view, produced a lot of memories, mostly good.

I was living in Highlands, NC, with my wife and two young children when the “Blizzard” dumped over two feet of snow on our small mountain-top town.

At the time, there was an old hospital that was literally falling down serving Highlands and the even smaller town of Cashiers, ten miles away . A new hospital between the two towns was weeks away from opening.

There were 4 doctors serving the same 2 towns. Of the 4 doctors, 2 were a couple that were in Sylvia, NC, at the closest hospital with a maternity ward, having their first child. It was only 36 miles to Sylvia, but 2400 feet in elevation and lower down, a very curvy road made it an hour’s trip by car on a good day. Deep snow makes it impossible to come up a mountain.

That left Highlands with two doctors. One of the two lived so far back in the mountains that it took the National Guard two days to get to him.

A snowy mountain road. Source:

This left us with one doctor, an old hospital and few ways for the people from Cashiers and the surrounding mountains to get to a hospital. The remaining doctor, Dr. John as he was known, had made it to the old hospital, which not only served the ill, but had a few nursing-home beds.

At the height of the storm, in the middle of the night, the entire area lost electricity. The hospital’s ancient gas generator had kept the heat and most lights on there; however, the bigger problem soon became obvious–no power?–no filling station gas pumps! The generator’s gas tank was running low. At the same time two women arrived–already in labor. There had not been a baby delivered at our hospital in years and Dr. John later said he could not remember the last time he delivered one.

Outside, the two policemen who lived in town were busy siphoning gas out of any car they could get to. Five- and ten-gallon gas cans were being brought to the hospital by anyone who could get there and may have had some lawn-mower gas left from the summer.

It had snowed–and snowed hard–from just after midnight on March 12th to just before sunrise on the 14th–over twenty-four hours. The old-timers say they remember storms like this one, but not for many years. They also remember being prepared. Filled Mason jars in the cellar, firewood to last the winter, mules to get around, and neighbors who looked out for each other.

With this storm, the mason jars had been replaced with a few canned goods in the pantry, but most people only had electric can openers. Those with fireplaces or wood stoves were lucky if they had more than a few days’ wood on hand. Mules were long forgotten, but privately-owned heavy equipment was out and working long before the highway department got up the mountain.

Neighbors were looking out for neighbors and people they didn’t even know. House-to-house searches were made. People were found with snow piled so deep that they couldn’t open their doors.

The decision was made to open the new hospital–ready or not. It had a new large diesel generator with a huge fuel tank. However, when it was powered up and the heat turned on, frozen pipes began to thaw and leak from the ceilings. The contractor was on-site, and soon had the flow stopped. The call went out for volunteers to help with the mopping. The pipes were repaired, beds made and meals were soon being prepared. Supplies were being transferred from the old hospital to the new in four- wheel drive pickup trucks.

On the 15th, roads were deemed safe enough to start moving in patients. Most of the staff, including three of the four doctors, were back on duty. The storm was over, the new hospital opened, and there were enough stories to last for years. Those two babies that were born during the storm are now 28 years old, and I bet the snow in their stories now being told is well over three feet deep.