Growing up in North Dakota, I often heard the story of Hazel Miner’s noble death.
Hazel was a 15-year-old girl who attended school with her two younger siblings in a one-room school in rural North Dakota. One March day in 1920, the teacher released the children early from school so they could get home before a growing blizzard trapped them all. Although Hazel’s father had arrived on horseback at the school to guide his children home through the mounting storm, the horse attached to the sleigh Hazel was driving with her younger siblings onboard took off before her father was ready. He headed out into the storm after them, but was unable to locate them through the blinding snow.
According to the account given by her younger brother and sister, Hazel was disoriented and could not see the road. At one point, the sleigh slid into a ditch, throwing Hazel into waist-deep slush, soaking her from the waist down. She continued to try to guide the horse and sleigh toward home, but eventually they left the road again and the sleigh tipped, throwing all three children to the ground. Unable to push the sleigh either up or all the way over, Hazel decided they would have to take cover as best they could.
Still soaking wet from her earlier fall and now surely freezing, Hazel laid blankets on the ground and then placed one atop her brother and sister. She then spread her coat open and also laid herself on top of them in an attempt to keep them warm. Her siblings later recounted that she had kept them singing songs in an effort to stay awake, and she made the two of them promise to continue talking to each other throughout the night, even if she did not respond.
Surely she knew she was freezing to death. And, by the time a search party found them the next afternoon, Hazel was dead. But her siblings survived.
Of course, this story was told to children as a demonstration of self-sacrifice and love. As it was told, Hazel was made into a heroine, sacrificing her own body warmth to save her younger siblings. Although it is admirable the way Hazel tended to her siblings, keeping them warm and comforting them while she was freezing to death, isn’t her story in fact just a horrible tragedy? And the tragedy of it all seems all the more compounded to listeners today because such an accident—losing one’s way during a winter storm—is far more survivable today, thanks in no small part to the advances made in technology since Hazel’s time.
It is so easy to take for granted the advantages we have been afforded as a result of the advances in technology. In fact, we often, as a society, bemoan technology as a destructive force: video games make kids violent, television has destroyed the nuclear family, and central heating has made us fat… or so go the theories. However, the simple fact is that it is technology that enables us to live where we might have otherwise died. And another simple truth that is often neglected is that it is technology that brings us closer together as families and as communities.
In August I traveled from Minnesota, where I now live, to North Dakota to visit my family there. Being the planner she is, my mother was already discussing Christmas. As she was trying to sketch a preliminary list of guests and a schedule of events, she looked to my 89-year-old grandfather and asked him, “What do you remember doing for Christmas as a child?”
Christmas without a family gathering! This seemed shocking to my mother, and to me as well. We had always celebrated the holidays—all of them—as large family gatherings with lots of food and laughter. But as I drove back across the prairie to my Minnesota home, I remembered Hazel Miner, who had died only two years before my grandfather was born. Of course they didn’t have large family gatherings for the holidays! I remember visiting the homestead where my grandfather grew up: it is truly in the middle of nowhere and, according to him, there were no roads when he was a boy. While there were visible horse and buggy trails during the summer months, winter would have been an entirely different story.
We had always celebrated the holidays as large family gatherings with lots of food and laughter.
Actually, another blizzard struck North Dakota in the spring of 1950 when my grandmother was supposed to give birth to her second child. Unable to get their only car through the snow on their unpaved, unplowed road, my grandfather hitched a horse to a sleigh and carted his pregnant wife ten miles to the local sheriff, who was able to drive my grandmother the remaining 30 miles on paved roads to the nearest hospital. Without a car available to the local sheriff and paved roads, my grandmother likely would have faced attempting to deliver her child at home and, without the technologies available at a hospital (even in 1950), she would have faced a higher risk of death, for her and the child, during delivery. Luckily she made it to the hospital and delivered a healthy child; but because they still had no phone, my grandfather only learned of his son’s birth three days later when a postcard from my grandmother arrived in the mail.
Most of us born after 1970 would find it hard to conceive of a long-distance road trip that did not include a paved highway. To drive at a speed of 70 miles-per-hour (depending on the state in which you drive, of course!) on a paved road is clearly safer and faster than driving on a country road. Would I even be able to drive back to North Dakota—a 7-hour trip on the interstate—for a mere four-day weekend if it weren’t for paved roads and the kinds of cars we have today? Absolutely not. Let’s face it, without access to modern-day cars, roadways, and airplanes, most of us would not see our scattered families during the holidays. In fact, I’d probably have to count myself lucky if I were able to make the 7-hour trip one state west only once a year.
But then what if I got to my mother’s house and she did not have electricity? There would certainly be no fancy Jell-O dessert provided by my grandmother. Although now considered a cheap children’s treat, gelatin was at one time a hallmark of the tables of the rich because it requires refrigeration, which, for many years, only the very rich could afford.
Holiday gatherings are often as much about the food as they are about families and friends gathering together. I have been camping on several occasions and, while cooking over an open fire is certainly do-able even for a novice, it is considerably more difficult than cooking with all the conveniences of a modern kitchen. The concept of “the holiday meal” is absent from my grandfather’s recollections of his childhood because it didn’t exist. Although his mother cooked a “nice meal,” as he said, it was not what we have become accustomed to during holiday celebrations today.
When Great-Aunt Edna shows up with her orange Jell-O with banana slices on top, please smile with appreciation.
It is even hard to believe my grandparents lived so long without electricity. They did not have access to electricity until 1948, two years after my mother’s birth. “It was the biggest change in my life,” my grandfather always says. To be able to walk into a room and simply flip a switch to acquire light was amazing enough for my grandfather; but consider the improvement to my grandmother’s life! The ability to cook, bake, can goods and do laundry for a family of five had to be considerably easier than it had been before electricity.
For someone who has never been without electricity, except for those rare occasions when a storm causes some interruption, it is difficult to imagine life without electric lights, transmissions, cooling, and heating. It’s one thing to gather a family of five around the hearth for warmth; but how do you gather an extended family of 15 or 20 around the family hearth? Granted, there were many large families at that time and they would make do any way they could; however, there certainly could not have been any desire to add to the madness and chaos of such situations by inviting another 10-20 bodies!
Quite unlike the days of the past, holiday travel and gatherings have become a staple of American culture. Higher volumes of cars are expected on the roadways every year when Thanksgiving and Christmas roll around and higher volumes of passengers are expected on the airlines. However, such travel and such family gatherings as those to which we’ve become accustomed would be absolutely impossible if it weren’t for the technological advances made during the last 50 years.
So, while so much debate rages around us about the destructive force of technology, perhaps we should take a few moments to be thankful; for, without it, the great family gatherings of the holiday season just wouldn’t be. And when Great-Aunt Edna shows up with her orange Jell-O with banana slices on top, please smile with appreciation. You are not just celebrating family and good cheer. You are celebrating the technology that makes the season joyful and communal rather than fearful and solitary.