A blizzard’s the idea

A friend was supposed to visit Monday and Tuesday this week, but those plans were cancelled due to the weather, which reminded me that Mark Twain had a similar problem a while back – March 1888 to be precise. Olivia, his wife, was to have joined him for a week in New York City, but it was not to be. From his letter to her dated 10 March 1888:

And so, after all my labor and persuasion to get you to at last promise to take a week’s holiday and go off with me on a lark, this is what Providence has gone and done about it. It does seem to me the oddest thing – the way Providence manages. A mere simple request to you to stay at home would have been entirely sufficient; but no, that is not big enough, picturesque enough – a blizzard’s the idea; pour down all the snow in stock, turn loose all the winds, bring a whole continent to a stand-still: that is Providence’s idea of the correct way to trump a person’s trick. If I had known it was going to make all this trouble and cost all these millions, I never would have said anything about your going. Now in the light of this revelation of the methods of Providence, consider Noah’s flood – I wish I knew the real reason for playing that cataclysm on the public: likely enough, somebody who liked dry weather wanted to take a walk. That is probably the whole thing – and nothing more to it.

The blizzard he refers to was the Great Blizzard of 1888, which paralysed the Northeast US, sank or grounded 200 ships, blanketed the countryside with 20-60 inches of snow, and killed 400 people – 200 of them in New York City. The supremely annoying “Weather predictions must be perfect! You made me stay off the roads and I didn’t have to! What about my Taco Bell dinner! Call 9-1-1! Waaaa!” people in that area would be well-advised to stick that in their collective pipe and smoke it. Those ubiquitous “Me, me, me! Outrage, outrage, outrage!” chowderheads regretfully now fully enabled by antisocial media remind me of the Italian government trying to jail earthquake scientists a few years ago. I’m happy to report that their manslaughter convictions were finally overturned last November.

The GOES-EAST satellite – GOES-13 at the moment – captured the genesis and follow-through of this week’s blizzard in exquisite detail:

GOES-13, known as GOES-N before launch, was built by Boeing Satellite Systems [PDF of GOES-N databook] and contains several other instruments in addition to its imager:

GOES-N

It’s about the size and weight of a large SUV:

GOES-N prep

The operational infrastructure behind – or perhaps I should say underneath – the satellite is rather breathtaking. Presented in both org chart and geographic styles here:

GOES-N org

GOES-N geo

And now for the other Twain bookend. I’ve read dozens of his speeches, but his talk on New England weather is my favourite. His part begins several paragraphs into this article, at the subhead SPEECH OF MR. SAMUEL L. CLEMENS.

From The New York Times, 23 December 1876

FOREFATHERS’ DAY.
NEW-ENGLANDERS AT DINNER.

THE ANNUAL FESTIVAL OF THE NEW-ENGLAND SOCIETY – SPEECHES BY HON. GEORGE WILLIAM CURTIS, ‘MARK TWAIN,’ REV. EDWARD EVERETT HALE, REV. DR. JOHN COTTON SMITH, REV. DR. TAYLOR, AND OTHERS – INTERESTING LETTER FROM GEN. SHERMAN.

The New England Society’s annual dinner at Delmonico’s last night was one of the most brilliant celebrations of the kind that has ever been held in this City. The preparations were made with great thoroughness, and the addresses by the respondents to the several toasts were full of earnestness, good feeling, good sense, and good wit. The dining-hall was filled with seven tables, the President’s table overlooking six others arranged opposite to it at right angles. Above the head of the President was suspended against the wall the banner of the New England Society, flanked by silken national ensigns, and on the opposite side of the hall, before the orchestra balcony, was a national shield also draped with United States flags. the tables were elegantly and tastefully decorated with baskets and set pieces of flowers. Before the President was a design, in flowers of delicate hues, representing Plymouth Rock, and there were many viands in the feast that recalled to genuine New Englanders the plain and beauty fare of the land of steady habits. The guests entered the dining room just before 7 o’clock, and at that hour Rev. Dr. John Cotton Smith, at the invitation of President Borden, said grace. Among those present were Rev. Edward Everett Hale, ex-Gov. Edwin D. Morgan, Hon. George William Curtis, Rev. John Cotton Smith, Rev. Richard S. Storrs, Samuel L. Clemens (Mark Twain,) Mayor Wickham, Joseph H. Choate, Rev. Dr. William M. Taylor, Hon. Elliot C. Cowdin, Hon. Salem H. Wales, Commodore J. W. A. Nicholson, G. B. Loring, Hon. Isaac H. Bailey, Dexter A. Hawkins, Prof. Bartholdt, (sculptor of the colossal Statue of Liberty), District Attorney Benjamin K. Phelps, Prof. F. B. Sanborn of Dartmouth College, representatives of St. George’s, St. Andrew’s and St. Patrick’s Societies, Assistant District Attorneys Bell, Russell and Rollins, Parke Godwin, Clark Bell, Police Commissioners, Wheeler and Erbardt, and Prof. W. E. Chandler, the whole company numbering more than two hundred. More than two hours were spent at dinner, when, at 9:30 o’clock, Rev. Mr. Courtenay gave thanks. President Borden then rose, and having called the company to order, he announced that Gen. William T. Sherman had written a letter of regret, saying that in the present condition of affairs at Washington he was unable to leave that city, and William M. Evarts was also detained in Washington and was unable to attend, and that letters of regret had been received from ex-Speaker James G. Blaine, Gov. Tilden, Gov. Chamberlain, of South Carolina, Robert C. Winthrop, and Gen. John C. Newton.

Hon. George William Curtis was called upon to respond to the toast of “Forefathers’ Day.” He was received with prolonged applause, and by many of the company rising to their feet with waving handkerchiefs and loud cheers. His remarks were frequently interrupted by hearty expressions of approval, and his allusion to Abraham Lincoln as the development of the seed sown here two centuries ago by the coming of the Mayflower, was followed by vehement applause. His suggestions for the conduct of the Senate and the House of Representatives in the settlement of the political difficulties threatening the nation roused is hearers to the highest pitch of excitement, and evoked unanimous and prolonged applause.

As Mr. Curtis sat down, he was greeted with the heartiest cheers, which subsided only to be renewed with greater vigor. Cheers followed the announcement of the sentiment, “The President of the United States.” In reply to the “City of New York,” Mayor Wickham humorously arraigned a large number of City officers for alleged shortcomings, charging them with being New Englanders, and succeeding in finding so many against whom the charges were applicable, and indicated them so plainly, as to cause unbounded merriment.

Rev. Edward Everett Hale, in responding to the toast, “New England Culture,” made an address in which wit and wisdom were happily blended. Commodore Nicholson responded to the toast, “The Army and Navy.” Mark Twain provoked a storm of laughter by his rambling talk about “New England Weather.” Rev. John Cotton Smith commanded the fullest attention of the company by his response to the toast set down for him. Responses were made by Rev. Dr. William M. Taylor, Prof. Sanborn, and others.

THE PROCEEDINGS

The proceedings were begun by the President, Mr. William Borden, who said:

Gentlemen, will you give your reverent attention for a moment while I call upon Rev. Mr. Courtenay to return thanks?

Rev. Mr. Courtenay responding to the suggestion of the Chairman, offered prayer as follows:

“Most merciful God, and Father, in whom we live and move and have our being; Thou who can satisfy the desire of every living thing, we render Thee our thanks for the satisfaction of our bodily appetites, and pray Thee that what we shall now hear may be for the satisfaction of the higher appetite of our intellects and our reason for the sake of Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.

SPEECH OF MR. SAMUEL L. CLEMENS.

The Oldest Inhabitant – The Weather –

Who hath lost and doth forget it?

Who hath it still and doth regret it?

“Interpose betwixt us Twain.”

– Merchant of Venice

“I reverently believe that the Maker who made us all, makes everything in New England – but the weather. I don’t know who makes that, but I think it must be raw apprentices in the Weather Clerk’s factory, who experiment and learn how in New England, for board and clothes, and then are promoted to make weather for countries that require a good article, and will take their custom elsewhere if they don’t get it. [Laughter.] There is a sumptuous variety about the New England weather that compels the stranger’s admiration – and regret. The weather is always doing something there; always attending strictly to business; always getting up new designs and trying them on the people to see how they will go. [Laughter.] But it gets through more business in spring than in any other season. In the spring I have counted one hundred and thirty-six different kinds of weather inside of four and twenty hours. [Laughter.] It was I that made the fame and fortune of that man that had that marvelous collection of weather on exhibition at the Centennial that so astounded the foreigners. He was going to travel all over the world and get specimens from all the climes. I said, “Don’t you do it; you come to New England on a favorable spring day.” I told him what we could do, in the way of style, variety, and quantity. [Laughter.] Well, he came, and he made his collection in four days. As to variety – why, he confessed that he got hundreds of kinds of weather that he had never heard of before. And as to quantity – well, after he had picked out and discarded all that was blemished in any way, he not only had weather enough, but weather to spare; weather to hire out; weather to sell; to deposit; weather to invest; weather to give to the poor. [Laughter.] The people of New England are by nature patient and forbearing; but there are some things which they will not stand. Every year they kill a lot of poets for writing about “Beautiful Spring.” [Laughter.] These are generally casual visitors, who bring their notions of spring from somewhere else, and cannot, of course, know how the natives feel about spring. And so, the first thing they know, the opportunity to inquire how they feel has permanently gone by. [Laughter.]

Old Probabilities* has a mighty reputation for accurate prophecy, and thoroughly well deserves it. You take up the papers and observe how crisply and confidently he checks off what today’s weather is going to be on the Pacific, down South, in the Middle States, in the Wisconsin region; see him sail along in the joy and pride of his power till he gets to New England, and then – see his tail drop. He doesn’t know what the weather is going to be like in New England. He can’t any more tell than he can tell how many Presidents of the United States there’s going to be next year. [Applause.] Well, he mulls over it, and by and by he gets out something about like this: Probable nor’-east to sou’-west winds, varying to the southard and westard and eastard and points between; high and low barometer, swapping around from place to place; probable areas of rain, snow, hail, and drought, succeeded or preceded by earthquakes, with thunder and lightning. [Loud laughter and applause.] Then he jots down this postscript from his wandering mind, to cover accidents: “But it is possible that the program may be wholly changed in the meantime.” [Loud laughter.]

Yes, one of the brightest gems in the New England weather is the dazzling uncertainty of it. There is only one thing certain about it, you are certain there is going to be plenty of weather. [Laughter.] A perfect grand review; but you never can tell which end of the procession is going to move first. You fix up for the drought; you leave your umbrella in the house and sally out with your sprinkling pot, and ten to one you get drowned. [Applause.] You make up your mind that the earthquake is due; you stand from under, and take hold of something to steady yourself, and the first thing you know, you get struck by lightning. [Laughter.] These are great disappointments. But they can’t be helped. [Laughter.] The lightning there is peculiar; it is so convincing when it strikes a thing, it doesn’t leave enough of that thing behind for you to tell whether – well, you’d think it was something valuable, and a Congressman had been there. [Loud laughter and applause.]

And the thunder. When the thunder commences to merely tune up, and scrape, and saw, and key up the instruments for the performance, strangers say, “Why, what awful thunder you have here!” But when the baton is raised and the real concert begins, you’ll find that stranger down in the cellar, with his head in the ash barrel. [Laughter.]

Now, as to the size of the weather in New England – lengthways, I mean. It is utterly disproportioned to the size of that little country. [Laughter.] Half the time, when it is packed as full as it can stick, you will see that New England weather sticking out beyond the edges and projecting around hundreds and hundreds of miles over the neighboring states. [Laughter.] She can’t hold a tenth part of her weather. You can see cracks all about, where she has strained herself trying to do it. [Laughter.]

I could speak volumes about the inhuman perversity of the New England weather, but I will give but a single specimen. I like to hear rain on a tin roof, so I covered part of my roof with tin, with an eye to that luxury. Well, sir, do you think it ever rains on the tin? No, sir; skips it every time. [Laughter.]

Mind, in this speech I have been trying merely to do honor to the New England weather; no language could do it justice. [Laughter.] But, after all, there are at least one of two things about that weather (or, if you please, effects produced by it) which we residents would not like to part with. [Applause.] If we hadn’t our bewitching autumn foliage, we should still have to credit the weather with one feature which compensates for all its bullying vagaries – the ice storm – when a leafless tree is clothed with ice from the bottom to the top – ice that is as bright and clear as crystal; when every bough and twig is strung with ice beads, frozen dewdrops, and the whole tree sparkles, cold and white, like the Shah of Persia’s diamond plume. [Applause.] Then the wind waves the branches, and the sun comes out and turns all those myriads of beads and drops to prisms, that glow and burn and flash with all manner of colored fires, which change and change again, with inconceivable rapidity, from blue to red, from red to green, and green to gold; the tree becomes a spraying fountain, a very explosion of dazzling jewels; and it stands there the acme, the climax, the supremest possibility in art or nature, of bewildering, intoxicating, intolerable magnificence! One cannot make the words too strong. [Long continued applause.]

Month after month I lay up my hate and grudge against the New England weather; but when the ice storm comes at last, I say: “There, I forgive you, now; the books are square between us; you don’t owe me a cent; go, and sin no more; your little faults and foibles count for nothing; you are the most enchanting weather in the world!”

THE OTHER TOASTS.

The other toasts of the evening were “The Clergy of New England,” responded to by Rev. John Cotton Smith; “Lafayette – who gave us himself and liberty; and Bartholdi – who gives us Liberty and Lafayette.” No. Response. “The Agricultural and Manufacturing Interests of New England,” Dr. George B. Loring, and “Our Sister Societies,” responded to by the Presidents of the Irish, Scotch, and English societies.

The proceedings terminated shortly after midnight.

*At the time of Twain’s speech, Old Probabilities was the widely-used nickname of Cleveland Abbe, first scientist of the American Weather Bureau, predecessor to the National Weather Service.

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