After decade of wimpy, winter restores Big Shoulders rep

We're back.

Just when it looked as if Chicago's tough guy image would melt away like so many plans for a Bears' Super Bowl party, we get our weather cred re-established by a snow-dumping, wind-whipping blizzard that propels Chicago back into the national weather spotlight.

National TV news coverage features footage of flinching visiting weather reporters showing us sturdy Chicagoans trudging through snow drifts taller than the city's next mayor. The whirling winds with gusts of up to 70 mph whip up blankets of white that swallow up the shadows of any groundhog brave enough to attempt a Groundhog's Day celebration.

But Chicago's city hall opens for business Wednesday and the suburbs boast stories of people heading to work, spending the day helping neighbors, using a shovel instead of the health club for their morning workout or just having fun.

This storm couldn't have come at a better time for our egos.

After a decade of winters that came in on little cat feet, this storm once again proves Chicago is the city of big shoulders. Heading into 2011, we were in danger of becoming Atlanta, y'all, one of those soft cities where residents fret about slick sidewalks. We were relegated to calling relatives on the East Coast for the real weather stories of blizzards and snow drifts.

“Since 2000, New York City has had five Top 10 snow storms. Philly has had four,” says climatologist Jake Crouch, a physical scientist with the climate-monitoring branch of the national climatic data center for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “And Chicago hadn't had one since 1999.”

Our last newsworthy storm came on New Year's Day in 1999 when a Friday blizzard dropped 21.6 inches of snow that seemed more like an icy confetti kickoff to a holiday weekend than one of those life-threatening, character-building challenges that Mother Nature threw at us.

In the first decade of the new millennium, we were out-snowed by New York (five storms of 19 inches or more), Philadelphia (last year's 28.5-inch storm), Boston (two storms of more than 20 inches) and even sat on the sidelines as Washington, D.C., and Baltimore argued about whose airport got the most snow. A “snowiest cities” story on listed Cleveland and Milwaukee ahead of us.

Winter cities tend to measure their manhood in inches of snow, and we kept coming up short. Losing our winter edge is the sort of thing that taints our rough-and-rugged image. Suddenly, out-of-towners were suggesting Chicago had gone soft. They questioned whether our Monsters of the Midway were truly monstrous. They suggested injured Bears quarterback Jay Cutler had all the toughness of a veal cutlet. We countered with stories of his ability to survive more sacks than anybody, and note that in head-to-head competition, our Bears and Cutler beat that Philly team quarterbacked by hardened ex-con Michael Vick.

As the snow totals approach 20 inches around my suburban home, I write this column from the comfort of a house with heat, electricity, cell phone service and even cable TV and high-speed Internet. I also enjoy the luxury of three sons, who will enjoy the first school-free “snow day” of their lives by shoveling the sidewalks that I've already shoveled three times.

They'll find it cold and nasty. But some day they will be grateful that this storm gave them a winter tale to tell the next time anyone questions our winter chops.