On Thursday, January 29, with the temperature hovering around freezing, an “intense weather system” dumped several inches of snow mixed with rain on the Chicago area, snarling traffic and delaying flights at Midway and O’Hare airports. The storm featured thunder and lightning, but was not otherwise remarkable. Its effects lingered for a day or two, concluding with a tenth of an inch of snow on Saturday, January 31.

Perhaps the thunder and lightning were meant to be a sign, but they did not prepare the city for what happened next. On Sunday, February 1, Chicagoans rose from their beds, looked to the skies . . . and nothing happened. Not a flake fell anywhere in the city. Even in Chicago in the depths of winter, admittedly, this is not all that uncommon. But the same thing occurred (or didn’t occur, as you prefer) on the second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh.

A trace of snow fell on the eighth, but no measurable precipitation. The first week of the month proved to have been the calm before . . . the calm. There was no snow the second week, or the third, or the fourth. No snow, in fact, for the entire month of February–the first time in memory such a thing had occurred.

The month wasn’t entirely uneventful, meteorologically speaking. It rained a bit. More important, on Sunday, February 8, fierce winds blew the unusually high waters of Lake Michigan onto Lake Shore Drive, forcing authorities to order the road closed. That made a few high-rise dwellers anxious, but the rest of the city was more entertained than alarmed. In other respects, the weather was unusually mild, with temperatures often in the 40s and occasionally in the 50s.

It was an odd month in an odd (which is to say, halfway tolerable) Chicago winter. For the entire season, the temperature averaged 30 degrees–hardly balmy, but still 5 degrees above average. Only 18 inches of snow fell, 10 inches below normal.

Curiously, however, Chicago’s uneventful winter was the exception, considering the nation as a whole–I say curious because the situation is usually reversed. The east coast was pummeled repeatedly by massive snowstorms. In late January, two storms occurring a few days apart left Washington, D.C., buried under 26 inches of snow. The city’s subway system shut down, and government workers were sent home.

On February 15, while warm, wet weather prevailed in the midwest and south, temperatures plummeted to 4 degrees in New York City and 30 below in Watertown, New York. Yet another storm on February 23 dumped 11 inches of snow on the east coast, shutting Washington down for the third time in six weeks. Philadelphia got 23 inches, and, in a scene reminiscent of the Chicago blizzards of 1979, that city’s ineptitude in getting rid of the stuff became a hot issue in the local mayoral race.

The weather was even worse in Europe. During January, prevailing westerly winds unexpectedly reversed direction and arctic cold from Siberia chilled the continent, resulting in the coldest winter in decades. There were panic food buying, power failures, and snarled transport. More than 250 people died.

What was the cause of it all? Talk show hosts and a few scientists thought they knew–El Nino, the mysterious warm ocean current off the coast of Peru that has developed something of a reputation as the guardian angel of the midwest.

El Nino first attracted public notice during the winter of 1982-83. As would happen four years later, the weather was very mild in Chicago that winter, abysmal elsewhere. While Chicago enjoyed record-breaking high temperatures, there were heavy snows on the east coast, unseasonal rains in the southeast, rain and mud slides in southern California, brushfires in Australia, catastrophic floods in Ecuador, and droughts in Malaysia. One estimate blamed El Nino for 1,300 to 2,000 deaths and up to $8 billion in property damage. The event was widely referred to as a disaster. Life had been absolute hell, in other words, just about everywhere but the midwest.

Strictly speaking, El Nino, named for the Christ child, occurs every year around Christmas, when the temperature of the normally cool waters off the Pacific coast of South America increases a few degrees. In some years, however, the warming is more pronounced than others. It is this event that has been linked to the disruption of global weather patterns, and that has come to be known in North America as the Nino.

The warming of the waters is the most obvious manifestation of avast meteorological upheaval collectively known as the El Nino/Southern Oscillation–ENSO for short. I do not propose to describe here how ENSO works. It is a complex phenomenon, and in any case only poorly understood. In general the trade winds die, high- and low-pressure systems do a massive flip-flop, and ultimately there is a change in the characteristic pattern of the jet streams, the global winds in the upper atmosphere that bring us much of our weather. In 1983, for instance, the frigid polar jet stream that often brings us subzero temperatures instead passed harmlessly to the north, while the warm tropical jet stream, which usually passes to the south, brought us warm air from the southwest.

But to describe El Nino in even these vague terms is to say more than we really know. Scientists have cautioned against attempts to use it to make seasonal forecasts. They point out that El Ninos in the past have only rarely coincided with mild midwestern winters. For instance, a Nino in 1977 heralded the first of three bitterly cold winters in Illinois.

But the public has a short memory about these things. In the early summer of 1986, scientists correctly predicted the imminent arrival of another Nino, no small feat in itself. It was accompanied in the midwest by a winter much like the one of ’82-’83. In the minds of most nonexperts, that settled the matter. Midwesterners now take it as an article of faith that when the Nino rides high, they can break out the Coppertone and the beach umbrellas, and when it fades, it is time to head for the bomb shelters.

But while the meteorological importance of El Nino is still a matter of debate, it has already had a profound effect on the collective psyche of midwesterners, and Chicagoans in particular. El Nino confirms everything the native midwesterner has ever suspected about the way the world works. It is compelling evidence, as if any were needed, that we are utterly out of sync with the cosmos, and that Nature itself is conspiring against us.

It is disquieting, to say the least, to realize that for us to enjoy winter weather that by Chicago standards is reasonably pleasant–and by this I merely mean weather that won’t kill you after five minutes’ exposure–the rest of the globe must be plunged into chaos. The reverse is also true. Midwesterners have always felt neglected, but we didn’t know the half of it. We are sacrificial lambs. We freeze our chichibangas off so that others may bask in the sunshine.

El Nino is the perfect metaphor for the midwestern experience of life. It confirms our intuitive understanding that the world is a zero-sum game and that all our happiness comes at another’s expense. It confirms the long-ingrained midwestern belief that we are best off tending our own garden, or to put it more bluntly, that you have to watch out for number one.

I am reminded of a story about Father Arnold Damen, the Jesuit priest who founded Holy Family Catholic Church out on Roosevelt Road. Holy Family is threatened with demolition now, but once it was the center of a thriving Irish parish. Father Damen was the man who made it work. A man of great personal dynamism–Damen Avenue was later named for him–he had raised the money to build the church, which was completed in 1860, and later established Saint Ignatius College, which spawned Saint Ignatius High School and Loyola University.

On the night of October 8, 1871, he was in New York City to raise money for his various projects. It was the night the Great Fire broke out on DeKoven Street, a few blocks to the east of Holy Family. Word reached Father Damen by wire that the church was threatened. He hurried to a nearby church, got down on his knees, and prayed to the Blessed Virgin to spare his parish. Recognizing that in such cases it is often useful to offer a little something on the side, he promised to keep seven candles burning before a picture of Our Lady of Perpetual Help forevermore if his favor were granted.

At that moment, the more rococo version of the legend has it, the wind shifted to the southwest. Holy Family was saved–and the rest of Chicago burned down instead.

Here was a man, I think we can safely say, with a firm view of his priorities. A somewhat narrow view, perhaps, but he was not the first and certainly was not the last Chicagoan of whom that might be said.

Now there are those who believe the story as I have just told it is a little exaggerated, especially the business about the wind shift. Perhaps so. It does not change the essential story. Father Damen knew where his interests lay. He prayed for his church, not his city. He knew that bad things happen in this world, and that at best we can avert or avoid them; we cannot stop them altogether. Nor can we save everyone. We can only draw a circle around the things we hold most dear and defend them as best we can. It is a lesson that comes naturally to Chicagoans, who realize at an early age that sometimes after a blizzard the only way to get the snow out of your driveway is to dump it on your neighbor’s.

The Nino, then, is the story of Father Damen and the Great Fire replicated on a global scale. It confirms what in our hearts we have always known. We are not brothers with all of mankind, but competitors. We must rely on our own devices. In the end we are alone. These are not comforting lessons, but they are useful, and if Chicago endures, in part we will have El Nino and Father Damen to thank.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.