Writing conversation: The Great Ice Storm of ’98

In anticipation of the digital version of the scrapbook, here is Neil describing the great ice storm of 1998:

I had never heard the sound before. It was like guns firing in the night. In fact, it was the sound of trees cracking and crashing in the January ice storm, the most spectacular and devastating storm to lash our city and our province in this century.

At the height of the storm I walked at night along Sherbrooke Street, a ribbon of light with army lorries lumbering by and bumper to bumper traffic crawling along like a sluggish caterpillar. Just to the north, the city was enveloped in inky blackness while all over the province power lines collapsed and the lights went out sometimes for weeks.

Dreadful as the experience was, for many, there was also a sense of awesome, almost exhilarating beauty about the storm, like sheet lightning illuminating the sky or the sun glittering on ice.

Not that Catharine or I were inconvenienced much, certainly not compared to many others. By chance, Catharine was out at the Villa Marguerite, a comfortable convent outside the city that never lost electricity so that Catharine was able to work on a writing project that we’re doing with Bob and Patsy Fleming and John and Clare Hallward. We’re calling it “Finding Your Own Voice” and we’re trying to discover from our own stories how each of us found a way of expressing ourselves that is authentic. In other words, we’re asking, “Is our story real and are we comfortable telling it?”

I was at home in Westmount during most of the ice storm. A couple of nights after my lights went out and my temperature dropped, I spent a couple of nights with John and Clare who never totally lost their electricity. Our only casualty was the loss of one of our three tall apple trees in our back garden. It fell in a shower of sparks and ice pellets across the property of two of our neighbours. Were they upset? On the contrary they got out their power saw, cut the tree into little pieces and arranged for most of it to be carted away. I guess that’s the image that most of us will remember, how the ice storm, paradoxically, warmed our hearts and gave our neighbourhood, our city and indeed the whole province a sense of community that we had never felt before. I experienced this in a tangible way when I spent a few hours every day in a shelter at Victoria Hall where many of the temporarily homeless remembered me from my days in radio. There were no strangers in the ice storm.

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