1. Life & Culture

In 1989, it snowed in St. Petersburg. It led to a family reunion.

Snow, sleet, whatever you want to call it. It led to a Christmas miracle for one family.
A hamster similar to this one made a great escape in 1989.
A hamster similar to this one made a great escape in 1989. [ Times archives ]
Published Dec. 17, 2020

Everyone knows that it rarely snows in Florida. It is less likely to fall in a place like St. Petersburg with its palm trees and semitropical breezes. But I can tell you that it can snow in St. Pete. I saw it with my own eyes. Some people who were there say it was a miracle. It happened on Dec. 23 or 24 (Christmas Eve, or Christmas Eve Eve), in the year 1989.

The principal characters of this story are members of the Clark family, a cozy group obsessed with snow. They had come to St. Pete from New England and New York, so they were used to cold weather, ice storms and blizzards. Mom and Dad knew how to ice skate, glide down a hill on a sled, make snow angels, gear up for snowball fights and not play in the yellow snow.

They learned to love Florida with its dolphins and pelicans, but when Christmas rolled around, they felt something was missing: that nip in the air, woolen mittens, white flakes falling from the sky. Mr. and Mrs. Clark had three daughters: Alison, who was born in New York, Christmas week of 1972. She had seen snow and loved it and missed it anytime she heard the song White Christmas.

Emily was born in 1976 in Alabama, and had never seen snow, except on television and in the movies. Little Lulu was born in Florida in 1980. By the magical holiday of 1989, Alison was 17, hanging out with her cool theater friends; Emily was 13, sneaking off to the mall; and Lulu was 9.

Lulu’s birthday was in November, and she persuaded her parents to let her adopt two hamsters. One had black fur with a white stripe across its back. She named him Fred — after Fred Flintstone. The other had a reddish fur, so of course, he became Barney. Barney was a bit of a rebel.

Fred and Barney lived, played, worked and slept in a comfortable hamster cage, which contained food, water and one of those wheels for exercise. Some people use the phrase “hamster wheel” as a negative metaphor for someone who works hard but goes round and round while getting nowhere. But I can tell you from experience that hamsters like their wheels.

A treat for the hamsters and the Clark family was to place Fred and Barney into separate clear plastic spheres and put them on the floor where they could explore every corner of the house.

The Clarks had a cat named Voodoo, with dark gray fur, green eyes and a deep musical purr. Outside the house, he was kind of a tough guy, protecting the front and back yards from invaders, and bringing home the gift of an occasional garden snake or fruit rat.

Voodoo was curious about the new hamsters, but was civilized enough to leave them alone. As the hamsters rolled across the orange rug in their plastic spheres, the cat would sit in one place like the Sphinx. If there was mischief in his heart, he did not reveal it.

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Every few days, Lulu had to clean out the hamster cage. She’d reach in, first grab Fred, then Barney, and place them gently in a hard cardboard box, specially designed with breathing holes, so they could stay safe while she tidied up their home.

This happened a number of times without incident. Then, one day, Lulu removed the top of the box. “Mom,” she gasped. “Barney is gone.” And so he was. Hamsters can squeeze into tight places. The evidence indicated that Barney had probably climbed on Fred’s back, scratched or bit one of the air holes to enlarge it, and made his escape. Fred, with no one to climb on, was left behind.

Over the next few days, the Clark family looked everywhere. Obviously, a hamster can’t get very far. But hamsters are small and there are countless places near the house and in the bushes to hide. Lulu missed Barney, but soon had to imagine she would not see him again. She took special care of Fred, especially when she cleaned his cage.

The days and weeks went by, the weather got colder, especially cold for Florida. As the Clarks counted down the days to Christmas, they made their traditional preparations. Stockings were stuffed. Bright-colored presents spread halfway across the rug. Outside, white lights that looked like icicles hung from the roofline.

Historical records show that on Dec. 23, 1989, a cold front descended from the North across Florida, leaving a measurable amount of snow and freezing rain on the city of Jacksonville. Even a little snow or ice can be tricky in a place like Florida.

Reports from 1989 indicate the cold front that brought snow in Jacksonville continued south and covered all of Pinellas County, including the city of St. Petersburg. There the Clarks were in their cozy house, eating cookies, drinking hot chocolate and getting ready to celebrate Christmas. Members of the family now disagree as to whether the miracle occurred on the 23rd or 24th.

It was already dark, time for Dad to put out the trash. He lifted the garage door. He could not have been more shocked at what he saw. Mom and the girls thought there was something terribly wrong. He was jumping up and down and waving his arms. “Come out! Everyone, come out! It’s snowing! It’s snowing in St. Petersburg!”

The weather service report would suggest that what had been sighted was not snow, but sleet. But you could not tell that to the Clarks. They rushed outside, made footprints in the light covering of white that decorated the grass. They scraped off the frosty covering on their cars, rolled it into mini-balls and, with crackling bursts of laughter, flicked them at each other. A snowball fight, Florida style.

Out of breath, they hugged and made their way back into the garage and noticed something peculiar. Oblivious to the snow, Voodoo the cat was pawing his way into a collection of clay flower pots kept under the workbench. The cat’s posture was unusual, his tail up, his head down, as if he wanted to move the pots to get at what was hiding behind them. “Step back,” said Mr. Clark. “It’s either a snake or a rat.” He grabbed Voodoo and handed him to one of the girls.

With a broom, he nudged the clay pots to see what had attracted the cat’s attention. And then he saw it, eyes as wide as when he first saw the snow. Not a rat or a nest of snakes. No, it was a hamster. A hamster with red fur. It was Barney! The prodigal hamster, returned after a two-week stay-cation.

If it had not been for that once-in-a-lifetime dusting of white, which drove the Clarks outside, which tempted the cat into the garage, who sensed something behind the clay pots, Barney would have been lost forever.

It must be said, because we always tell the truth, that Fred the hamster did not seem particularly excited to see the return of Barney. Fred must have liked the extra space and not having a roommate climb up on his back.

But both Fred and Barney got some extra special hamster treats that Christmas and earned a good view of the Christmas tree. Voodoo sat on the rug nearby, looking proud of himself — as if his intention was to rescue Barney and not eat him.

The girls enjoyed their presents. Mom and Dad kissed under the mistletoe. The miracle of the St. Pete Christmas snow was complete.