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Clinton, Sex and Local Weather
Clinton says farewell in Dover, NH

What do ice storms and sex
scandals have in common?

1886 Ice Storm Trapped in the plodding march of time, it's easy to mistake history for a long straight line that extends backwards to some distant Point A, and thrusts forward toward a dot on the horizon labeled Point B. Seen from above, however, history may look more like one of those snappy animated graphics off the Weather Channel. It probably has swirling high and low pressure zones, smiling sunny faces and teary clouds with lots of repetitious tide charts that rise and fall hypnotically.

"This week," the TV history-forecaster might say, "look for a continued national obsession with presidential genitalia, followed by a tepid front of extreme social embarrassment."

We are, as a species, more predictable than weather and, if I have to listen to one more PBS special on the repressed sexual cravings of former President Grover Cleveland, I may be forced to turn off my radio and stick to Larry King. With Jennifer Flowers currently in charge of American domestic affairs, I think it's time we all admit that our collective Puritan upbringing might have a downside. Americans may be able to avert their gaze from a world of violence and human suffering, but we can't keep our eyes off the peephole in the locker room.

Fortunately, those of us who live in Dover received a welcome news blackout last weekend when an ice storm temporarily disconnected us from the Information Age. My new picture-in-picture stereo television just stopped dead. Two hours later, when my laptop battery died, I was totally unable to download the latest Clinton jokes off AOL. It was a tragic moment. Suddenly the phone rang in the cold silent darkness.

"Hello, mom! No we're fine. Ya, we've got candles and canned food. Look, mom, can you hold the phone up to your TV set and switch to CNN?"

But slowly, inexorably, the effects of the plugged-in drug began to fade. By evening, after hours of Scrabble and cold cuts by flashlight, there was even a drifting sense of hope, family values and self-worth hovering in the icy air. When the power clicked back on, for a moment, there was a tinge of nostalgia, as if something long lost had almost been rediscovered. When it went out again the next morning, we cheered.

Despite the blackout and the downed trees, the Sunday paper arrived on schedule. It might have read like this:

"Never within our recollection were the trees throughout the city so completely and heavily coated with ice, from ground to tips of the smallest twigs."

The report on the ice storm of 1998 could have continued this way:

"The aggregate weight of all this, on a large tree was immense, and all through the day and all over the city the crashing of falling branches could be heard, dead and living trees alike yielding to the unusual strain put upon them."

But that report, instead, was published in the Portsmouth Chronicle on January 28, 1886, when the biggest ice storm of that century hit the Seacoast. The pictures still exist thanks to Lewis and Charles Davis, two entrepreneurial photographers who captured the effects of the ice storm on film, then sold the images to the public on maroon-backed "studio cards" for 35 cents apiece. This was before newspapers could print photos effectively, and cameras were costly clunky affairs made of brass and wood and leatherette bellows. No TV, no radio, no electricity, just the Davis Brothers to entertain and inform. Their shop on Pleasant Street in Portsmouth was near where my office sits today. When they hit the snowy roads in 1886, their competitors from L.V. Newell & Co. on High Street where out there too, capturing the devastation and turning it into history, then turning the history into cash.

Newspaper reporters braved the treacherous unpaved passages as well, condensing the frozen images into the kind of prose we never see in newspapers today. Take this report from the Portsmouth Evening Tribune on the day after the 1886 storm:

"Those who happened to walk our streets last night at the midnight hour, can best appreciate the strange, weird beauty of the scenes. The glittering trees reflecting the gas lights, presented the effect of bowers of diamonds, rivaling the beauties of the far-famed Alhambra, or the most startling productions of Alladin's lamp. Every object was brilliant with reflected light; the telegraph wires drooping in graceful festoons, were decorated with deep fingers that fashionable ladies might be proud to wear; the heavy tassels of the evergreens swung down over the pavements in rich profusion. From the street lanterns hung pendants of silver, and ordinary fences were radiant with nature's silver varnish."

While one reporter waxed rhapsodic about the "destructive beauty" of the ice, another took a more practical route, explaining in scientific detail how tiny ice crystals gained the combined power to break off giant tree limbs "that overhang the sidewalks like the sword of Damocles."

One local man, the writer notes, recorded the weight of an ice-covered branch at 40 ounces. Then he melted off the frozen water, and found a one-ounce twig at the center. The writer made a meek guestimate at the dollars the 1886 storm may have cost the city, and projected the number of people affected across New England -- but he really didn't know. Generally, century-old news coverage appears more concerned with description and understanding than with the cold hard facts and sharp psychological analyses we get from our hypermedia coverage today.

I'm not trying to make a direct connection here between that 40-ounce twig and the president's libido, but let's melt off the icy coating and see what's really inside. In 1886 we had a real natural catastrophe, a winter storm that pulled New England up short. In 1998 we got the same ice storm in Technicolor with Surroundsound. All that changed was our reaction.

What we have in the White House, is nothing much at all -- so far. We have alleged misconduct, alleged perjury, alleged DNA on an alleged dress leaked from a rumored transcript of an illegal tape recording. We have, if I can extend the weather metaphor, a few thousand reporters covering the arrival of a single snowflake landing on a tiny twig. Yes, granted, there may be more on the way. The worst storm in American political history may be just over the horizon. Then again, it may not.

Whichever way it goes, billions of people across the planet are fixated on the intense reportage of one crystal on one twig. OK, throw in Paula and Jennifer and you've got more ice crystals. There is the threat of a pattern here. Still, the resulting coverage of the coverage of the coverage has all the appearance of a full-blown anxiety attack. We're feeding on adrenaline here as the ice around the twig grows thick, heavy and more difficult to see through. We're cutting short the process of history by drawing conclusions before the events have a chance to occur. Eventually, the laws of physics tell us, something has to snap. Will it be the President? Will it be our faith in the presidency? Stay tuned for an update in 3-2-1.

For me, comparing the great ice storms of 1886 and 1998, show how little things have actually changed. In the pictures, Victorian Portsmouth blanketed in snow looks identical to the streets I walked all week. The old reporters mention sleighs and gas lights and telegraph poles, but Market Square then looks like Market Square today as a horse drawn livery still carries tourists though the streets.

"Get outdoors and play," my mother used to tell us back in the 1950s, as we sat with our Jiffypop and Kool-Aid gazing at the test pattern on the black and white 10-inch Emerson television screen.

"But ma," we cried. "It's snowing out!"

"So put on your snowsuits," she told us. "Snow won't kill you, and too much TV rots your brain."

"But ma!" we cried, with earnest indignation, "You don't understand. It's almost on. We might miss something!"

By J. Dennis Robinson
© 1998 SeacoastNH.com
All rights reserved. Attribute all use.

For more on the 1886 Ice Storm:

Don't miss Dennis Robinson's new column "Seacoast Rambles" every other week in Foster's Sunday Citizen at your local newsstand.

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