The last time I was in Atlanta, except perhaps to change planes, was a little more than ten years ago. It was an American Historical Association Annual Meeting and Saturday night, as everyone was making the rounds of the various smokers and publisher’s parties (“I’m not going anywhere that the drinks aren’t free!” my friend Ethel, who now works at Harvard, said to me that night) a rumor arose that there would be three or four inches of snow the next day. Eh, what-evah, we from New England shrugged, as we shoved our way through the Oxford Press reception (chardonnay.)
By the time I was throwing elbows at the Penn smoker (foreign beer and two colors of wine), I was hearing rumours that there would not only be snow in Atanta, there would be snow up North too. A lot. And that anyone who had her wits about her would consider booking an earlier flight. Maybe that night. However, this was not an option for Dr. Radical, since I was chairing a panel full of graduate students who had been re-drafting their papers for weeks getting ready for our 9:00 A.M. panel. It was their professional debut, you see. And I was close enough to my own professional debut to be sensitive to that, and not walk out on them.
Little did I know that the decision to act like a professional would doom me to four days of hideous frozen travel.
Now this was before cell phones, and before everyone had email everywhere they went. Today, instead of going on to the Potemkin University smoker (full bar, as befits les universites nouveaux) and then the queer party at John Howard’s apartment (I just don’t recall what was served, except that along with the drinks was something dinner-ish) I would have emailed to the BlackBerry of a local colleague, gotten him/her to stand in for me, rebooked my flight, and hightailed it out of there on a late flight. But no. That was then, everything was lo-tech, and the best I could have done was leave a post-it on John Howard’s toothbrush: “By the way — can you do a panel in the Jefferson Room, 9 a.m.? There’s a good fellow. Toodle-oo.”
So instead I went back to my hotel room, got up the next day nursing a roaring hangover, and chaired and commented for the panel as the first little flakes started to fall. I remember sitting there in the hermetically sealed conference room, looking at the six or seven people from Ottumwa C.C. and University of Nebraska — Pothole, whose idea of a good time was to hit the nine o’clock panels. I had that creeping sensation you get at the beginning of “The Poseiden Adventure,” when you know it is a matter of time before Ernest Borgnine and Shelley Winters are shinnying up a smokestack.
Most of the historians who will read this blog aren’t old enough to remember the next few days, but there were no good choices if you lived anywhere on the east coast, and really as far west as Chicago. Snow blanketed half the nation, and it kept snowing for days in the northeast. Every single airport was closed by 2:00 and stayed closed well into the following week. Those who had been smart enough to have booked a direct flight before ten got home; everyone else did not. My sprightly elderly colleague, Professor Chips, and I went to the airport together on the MARTA: he had a direct flight and made it as far as Regional airport, thirty miles from Zenith, but could not get to his house because it was illegal to drive in our state. He spent the next few days in the Regional airport motel. Some people just stayed at the Atlanta Hilton, which kept them on at the conference rate, but since six inches of snow is as bad as three feet in the south, I am told that over the next few days, the hotel gradually ran out of food. There were unconfirmed reports that a few graduate students were — well, consumed. But I stress– these reports are unconfirmed.
I made it as far as Charlotte, NC, where flights closed down as soon as I landed. I went to a cash machine and maxed out, and bought a Very Long Book (since it was an airport in the days before they sold real books in airports, and it was the Charlotte airport, I suspect it was a W.E.B. Griffin novel.) I then went to a seedy motel, which had an even seedier diner attached to it. Two days later I got a flight out to Albany, which was open for about three hours before the storm turned around and it shut again. Then I took an Amtrak train, eventually making it to Shoreline, twelve hours later.
And you ask why I have not been back to Atlanta since. Oy. To this day I remember clicking the heels of my ruby slippers at the USAir desk in Charlotte.