By MARSHA MERCER
On Monday, the nation will celebrate the birthday of George Washington, who was born Feb. 22, 1732.
Dubbed “Presidents Day” by Richard Nixon, the federal holiday also has come to honor Abraham Lincoln and other presidents. Like most holidays in America, Presidents Day typically is observed by shopping.
This year, though, if people in the city named for “the father of our country” want to shop, they may have to do so online, assuming they have electricity. Two back-to-back blizzards have pummeled the mid-Atlantic region this month, turning the powerful into the powerless.
Record-breaking snowfalls paralyzed all methods of transportation – except foot travel. The federal government, including its proud museums and monuments, shut down for days on end at a cost in lost productivity of $100 million per day. After the first February blizzard last weekend, the statesmen and women of the House of Representatives high-tailed it out of town for two weeks.
During the second blizzard, which began Tuesday night and continued Wednesday, even snowplowing was temporarily suspended in Washington, Virginia and Maryland. Officials said conditions were too dangerous for the snowplows to operate.
Alexandria, Va., where George Washington had a townhouse, liked to socialize and attended church, has canceled its annual birthday celebrations, including a 10-K race and a parade through historic Old Town.
The progression of destruction in Old Town and across the mid-Atlantic went something like this. During a December snowstorm, beautiful lamplight shone on the snow that covered trees and softened branches. In the first February storm, lamplight illuminated trees bent double under crippling snow weight. In the second February storm, raging winds carrying snow and ice smashed the lamp.
Some reporters on Snowmageddon 2010, searching for a comparable winter season in America’s history, cited 1772. That was before snow totals were recorded officially, but George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were said to have commented in their diaries about the snow.
Those noble early Americans surely had it so much worse than we do, I thought.
I was grumpy and homebound, a few miles north of Washington’s beloved home, Mount Vernon. Normally open 365 days a year, Mount Vernon also had shut down.
The snow had won.
The weatherman called the furious snow blowing horizontally on Wednesday a white-out condition. My all-wheel-drive car was useless, buried in snow on a street that would not see a snowplow anytime soon. Occasionally, a load of snow and ice roared off someone's roof and fell perilously to the ground.
A prisoner of snow, I started wondering how George Washington had fared in the winter of 1772. The man who later commanded troops during the American Revolutionary War surely wouldn’t have let a little thing like three feet of snow stop him from his surveying and other duties. Washington was accustomed to living with Mother Nature. He never had to worry about losing his electricity or Internet.
I Googled and was surprised to find volumes of Washington’s diaries easily accessible at the American Memory area of the Library of Congress’ Web site. Here, with updated spelling, is what he wrote.
On Feb. 7, 1772: “Attempted to ride to the mill, but the snow was so deep and crusty, even in the track that had been made, that I chose to tie my horse half way and walk there.”
Feb. 8: “At home all day.”
Feb. 9: “Ditto – Ditto.”
Feb. 10: “Ditto – Ditto.”
Feb. 11: “Went out … and was much fatigued by the deepness and toughness of the snow.”
Feb. 12: “Attempted to ride out again but found the roads so disagreeable and unpleasant that I turned back…”
Washington was about to turn 40 when he made those entries. He would become president 17 years later.
It’s reassuring to see that although he persevered the first day and walked half way back, after tying up his horse, the great patriot was forced indoors for several days at Mount Vernon. He, too, found deep snow fatiguing, disagreeable and unpleasant.
Few of us can imagine what life was like in the early days of the Republic, let alone before 1776. Through Washington’s diaries, weather links his days to ours. In 2010, many in the mid-Atlantic share the frustration of his austere notation “Ditto -- Ditto.”
As we celebrate George Washington’s 278th birthday, we may shop online, but we’re walking in his snowy footsteps.
© 2010 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.