Music Monday: This Used to Be Music to My Ears

As the snow started coming down last night, I kept waiting to see if my classes would be canceled for today. I kept checking the news sites that listed school closings, but no sign of Villanova among the dozens of schools listed. My wife found out that her school was closed mid-evening, but I went to bed with no idea whether we would have school or not. Finally, at 5:15 in the morning, I got the text announcing that the University was closed. I’ll admit it, I felt like a little kid again…

It brought back memories of listening to the radio (KYW1060) during a snow storm when I was kid, waiting to see if they would announce my school. Back then, they used to announce your school by number, and while I don’t remember my grade school snow number, my high school number was 472. (Pat B.H., Joe D., Joe G., Kathy K.L. – do you happen to remember what our grade school number was?)

Here’s what it used to sound like, with my school announced at about 30 seconds into the clip:

While this was only a two-hour delay, it was better than no delay.

It was quite a stressful way to start your day, sitting there listening in anticipation of hearing your school’s number. The most painful experience would be when they announce numbers “… 468, 469, 470, 471, 473, 474…”

Wait – WHAT JUST HAPPENED? They didn’t say our number! Was it a mistake? Did the announcer inadvertently skip over it? Had the principal forgot to call it in? Now we would have to wait up to half an hour until they read the list again. And if it was skipped again, well, it was off to school.

Apparently, the use of numbers, instead of school names, started in the 1960s, and continued until 2017. At that point, schools could use technologies like robocalls, the Internet, and text messages to announce their closings. Reading the school numbers took up to 14 minutes of air time each hour, so that freed up the stations to focus on other news.

It just doesn’t have the same feel; I can imagine hundreds of thousands of kids sitting around their radio back in the late 1960s and 1970s, just like me, waiting to see if they had just received one of life’s greatest gifts – an unexpected day off from school.

Here’s an amusing account from a weather reporter at the great Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper of his personal experience with the school closing numbers:

At the outset, I’m on record as saying that I always viewed school as a minimum-security prison with a liberal weekend-furlough policy. And once I discovered that snow could close school, I was hooked on winter for life. No matter what winter would bring, nothing – absolutely nothing – could match the ritual of listening to the radio and waiting for that magic snow number.

Not hearing it on a snowy day was an icy dagger to the heart, especially when it sounded like everyone else was off.

But, oh, what unbounded bliss when your number was called … better than hitting the lottery … better than your horse winning the race… better than anything the devil offered to Dr. Faust.

Our sons inherited this particular passion, and it was the source of a profound family-bonding experience.

On even quasi- snowy mornings, no matter how hopelessly, we would gather in front of the radio and wait for KYW to commute their sentences for a day or deliver the crushing verdict by skipping over our number.

Somehow, seeing the number on the school website or the cable channel just isn’t the same.

I miss those radio days. For I had a particularly personal relationship with snow numbers, and not just for the reasons mentioned above.

Once upon a time, I was responsible for them. It was a dream mission.

As a fresh hire at the United Press International bureau in Philadelphia, one of my tasks was to assemble the school-closing numbers whenever it snowed.

In those days, before KYW, City Hall would transmit the numbers via teletype to the wire services, and we would transcribe them and distribute them to our broadcast subscribers, who would read them on the air.

On the first real snow day that I worked, I was astonished at just how many minimum-security prisons existed in the area.

The snow that day was a surprise. It started right before schools were to open, and superintendents and principals were caught with their boots off.

The numbers from City Hall kept pouring in.

Then the bureau manager, the guy who hired me, gets a call from the manager of a rock station, the one that all the kids listened to, and one that had been threatening to drop UPI.

The radio guy said the superintendent of the Wissahickon School District was all over him because he just heard on his station that all his schools were closed. They were, indeed, very much open. What the hell was going on?

I admit I knew nothing about the Wissahickon School District; I thought maybe it was in the Wissahickon Valley. I didn’t know it had several schools and something like 5,000 pupils.

Well, it turns out that I had transposed a number. Big deal, I say to the boss. What about the hundreds of numbers I got right. Besides, I just gave thousands of kids a day off from school.

He had a volcanic temper that belied a patient heart, and this did nothing to tame the veins evident on his scarlet forehead.

First, you realize we’re about to lose a client, he said. Second, because of the number you got wrong, we’ve got an angry school district on our hands.

Being a compulsive wise guy , I responded that I had just made a round of police checks, and came up with no reports of fatals. I believe I saw a vein pop.

Just to appease him further, a few days later a local paper actually wrote a story about the slip-up. When he saw it, his forehead would have been a mighty efficient snow-removal device.

He told me he called the newpaper’s editor and stood up for me, telling that clown that the story was humiliating to UPI and the reporter.

Wisely declining to push my luck, I suppressed an impulse to say that I didn’t feel that way in the least. I was proud of the accidental misuse of power.

To this day, I have no regrets. My nieces and nephews saw the story and thought I was a god.

And every time snow was in the forecast, a teacher friend would call and say, ‘Couldn’t you make just one little mistake?’ “

So it wasn’t just me that hearing your school number was music to the ears…


43 thoughts on “Music Monday: This Used to Be Music to My Ears

  1. This must have been fun, Jim. We never had snow days or any other days that I can recall resulting in school closing for a day. We did have bomb scares at school and we had to hide under our desks or be evacuated. This was always fun.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Growing up in the Dakotas, it had to be practically blizzard conditions for school to be canceled. Now we live close to the ocean, and the temperatures are moderate. We get snow maybe once every 3-4 years. The funny part is a couple of inches has forced the closure of schools here. One year my school was the only one in the county that stayed open. I had seven kids show up for school that day, and they were not happy about being there. I felt bad for them. I ended up taking them outside for an hour, and we built snowmen and just played together. By noon, the Superintendent sent all the kids home. You never saw so many fired up parents who never thought we should have opened in the first place. She got so much grief for that decision.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. It’s funny how different parts of the country can handle different amounts of snow. I guess to some extent it’s a matter of how much snow removal equipment your town has. It sounds like you made it a memorable day for those kids, and I am sure it is never an easy decision to close down a school…

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  3. Thanks for bringing back those fond childhood memories, Jim! I happily recall those moments around the radio in the morning, with fingers crossed, just hoping to hit the snow day lottery. And I can recall playing outside all day until we were at risk of frostbite, and then just a little bit longer. It is also how I learned that day time TV was not geared to children. No streaming services, no pay-per-view, no on-demand, no DVDs or videos games. Outside was the only entertainment.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. those snow days were special, and we did the same sorts of things. And good point, I wonder if we would have spent as much time outside if we had the sort of indoor entertainment kids have today…

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Most of my compulsory school life, I attended school in California. We never had snow days. I never even knew what a snow day was. But during my senior year, I attended a high school in upstate New York. Way upstate, in Ticonderoga. We had a few snow days that winter, and I loved it. Until I was informed about the makeup days we had to do in June. What a frickin’ outrage!

    But I hope you enjoyed your snow day, yesterday.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. make-up days were the worst. fortunately, I think they used to build in a couple of snow days into the school calendar, so some years there were no make-up days.

      Yesterday was a nice lazy day, and we’ve got another one today!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I don’t think we do make-up days at our college. They either expect us to somehow still cover the same amount of material in fewer days, or to simply drop things out of our syllabus. You can imagine which one the students prefer…

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  5. I don’t recall snow days in my youth. You bundled up you and you went. I was bussed. Sometimes the school bus got stuck in the snow and they sent another to finish the trip. By the time my son went to school, there were cancelling at even the hint of snow. Times have changed for sure.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. it does seem like the standard for cancelling school has gotten much lower, even at our college. I think when I first started teaching at Villanova, I don’t remember any snow days for the first few years. Now we are usually good for at least a couple every year (we are closed again today!)

      It sounds like you went to school in a tough district – sending another bus if the first one got stuck!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I went to school in rural Nova Scotia. Canadian winters can be tough or they used to be. Everything including Canadians are not as tough as they used to be. These days I am happy to watch the snow from my window. It’s so nice not to have to drive in it even with winter tires an an all-wheel drive vehicle.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. I’m glad you have some time off this week! Getting the news of school closings was music to my ears, too. My recollection from growing up in Indiana is at least a couple of snow storms each year that might close schools for a day or two. I think the cutoff for school closings was usually about six inches. Like another comment, snow days were spent outside playing, snowball fights, sledding and just goofing around to the point of frostbite. Then after going indoors for about an hour or so until clothes, gloves and mittens dried out, we’d do it again.

    Our roll call for school closings announced entire school systems rather than individual schools except for private schools. I think private schools tended to declare more snow days. That was another poke in the eye for us public school kids.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Indiana sounds similar to PA in terms of sow day guidelines.

      but those were great days; now that I am older and our kids are grown, snow is a major pain, one I hope to leave behind in the not too distant future…

      and I went to Catholic school for 12 years, and it did seem like we had more snow days than the public schools. You public school kids were just tougher than we were! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Oh my what a memory you brought back!! Yes, I so remember listening groggily and then the surge of joy that would flow when your number was called and my sister and I woild run back to bed! Or the bitter disappointment when it wasn’t! I also remember the hopes of a delay turning into a cancelation which did happen at times!
    LOL at the mistake! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

      1. at least this year we still get snow days; I think COVID fades away, and everyone is familiar with tools like Zoom, snow days could be, sadly, a thing of the past…


  8. That was so funny. I had never heard of such a system, but I can well imagine I would have been thrilled to hear my school number. I wonder if many students told their parents they had heard their number even if they hadnt! Throughout my whole school life in England and Australia my schools were never closed for snow or heat wave or any other reason. I can only recall one snowy episode when my children were at school – we didn’t know till we took them to school which teachers had been able to get in and which classes would be sent home again. But our walk to school was though the local park so it was fun. Modern parents are continually updated by text messages and of course that is more related to Covid than snow in recent times.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. thanks for sharing what it was like in England and Australia; you don’t know what you were missing! 🙂

      We were in London three years ago when the town got hit by one of its biggest snowstorms in decades. It was not too much by our standards back home, but the city of London seemed to shut down and there were so many people out and about enjoying the surprise. It was wonderful to see.

      And that it odd that you wouldn’t know if your kids had school or not until you got there. But as you point out, technology has solved alot of these sorts of problems…

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