Storm delivers different type of Halloween chills

AP News
Posted: Oct 31, 2011 11:31 AM
Storm delivers different type of Halloween chills

This was the weekend we were supposed to carve the pumpkins, spread the fake spider webs on the bushes and maybe take in a little football as the trees begin their annual fall explosion into brilliant hues of red, oranges and golds.

Not this year.

A freak fall snowstorm turned my plans for autumn bliss into a nightmare before Halloween, with nearly 6 inches of wet, slushy snow sending leafy branches crashing all around me, slamming into utility lines and leaving me without power for who knows how long.

As I tap this out on my BlackBerry by candlelight, I can't help but think that the one thing I've always loved about this suburb a half hour's train ride from New York City _ the mature, leafy canopy of trees _ has lately caused me nothing but heartache.

Just two months ago, Hurricane Irene's soaking rains and high winds toppled dozens of trees around Maplewood, sending them crashing onto power lines and leaving me and much of the town without electricity for five days.

This time around it was the snow, striking in big, cottony flakes that seemed harmless at first. My neighbors and I marveled at how odd it was that snow was falling so early in the season. But none of us thought it would stick. It won't amount to much, we said. It will be gone before you know it, we said. And we happily went about our Saturday plans _ soccer, football, last-minute preparation of our costumes for our block's annual Halloween party that night. (My wife and I were going as cast members from the reality show "Jerseylicious." Don't ask me why.)

I drove through those first flakes to play an indoor tennis match about 10 minutes away in Chatham. My first indication something was wrong came about two sets in, when the lights on the court flickered, and then went out.

I stepped outside to see a full-scale, raging snowstorm. It seemed like a good 6 inches of heavy mush was already on the ground. The wind was howling. I know I'm a transplanted Southerner, but this is October, right? This can't be happening.

I used the strap from my tennis bag to wipe the snow off the windows, and then I embarked on a harrowing, slow-speed crawl back across the South Mountain Reservation to Maplewood. Twice I saw big, snow-caked limbs crash in front me. My tires were spinning out as I dodged fallen limbs, other cars and dangling power lines just inches above my hood. Still October, right?

I was heading straight from tennis to watch my son's Columbia High School football team take on Montclair High. My faith in the great game I love was intact when my wife called to say kickoff was still very much on schedule.

The game was barely visible through the whiteout snow and gusts that seemed to blow at 40 mph. Officials kept cleaning off the yard lines so we could tell where the field was. Players seemed to like running around in the slop, but the fans were miserable.

I've never seen a football game called because of snow, and the officials didn't seem inclined to blow the whistle on this one, either. Until, that is, the snow and howling wind were joined by booming thunder and the unusual nor'easter snowstorm lightning. That did it.

With Montclair up 6-0 in the first quarter, the game was postponed. Official reason: lightning.

We got back home to a street littered with branches and an awful symphony all around us _ the creak and thwack of more snowy limbs crashing to the ground. Our neighbor's birch tree bowed all the way over, until its highest branches grazed the ground. Utility lines straining under the weight of the slush bowed low enough to touch.

Amazingly, though, we still had power, and cable and Internet and phone service. We settled in to sit back, stare out the window and watch this odd autumn weather anomaly play out. Then it happened.

A massive CRASH, and the power line outside my front window snapped toward the ground like a bungee cord.

A tree had fallen across my street, across the power line and across the yard of the same neighbor who had a tree smash his garage to bits during Irene in August. It was also the same neighbor who was hosting the Halloween party that night.

Power was out to half the street. Instead of preparing for a party, we started preparing for what looked like a long siege without electricity. A neighbor who had power loaned his generator to a neighbor who had lost hers. A neighbor with power let us run a cord from his house to ours, so we could keep a refrigerator and the sump pump working.

Even without power at the host's house, a scaled-down version of the Halloween party went on despite the weather. No costumes, no fancy DJ or elaborate decorations. Just a warm fire, an ice-cold keg, and good friends and neighbors getting together like we always did. For a little while we could forget the freakish weather, the fallen tree, the dangling power line and yellow police tape just outside.

My wife, two sons and our two dogs settled in Sunday to a day in front of the fire. Even with the roaring blaze going, the temperature inside my house hovered at around 55 degrees. My bundled-up boys plinked on their mobile devices and computers until they ran out of battery power. Then we went completely off the grid. No Internet. No music. No TV. No NFL. We would soon learn school was canceled Monday, and so was the train into work in New York.

We all had no choice but to sit in front of the fireplace, chat and read books. My wife heated up some soup and hot chocolate on our still-working gas stove. The dogs curled at our feet. I thought it was one of the nicest Sundays I've spent with my family in years.

"See kids, this is what life was like before television and the Internet," I said.

Without missing a beat, my 12-year-old son Edward looked up from his book and said, "I am sooooo bored."

Happy Halloween, kid. This is one you will never forget.


James Martinez is the deputy national editor for The Associated Press.