“My husband never even knew about it, so I gave it to him to read,” she said.
Coincidentally, her mother, Rose Carlson, was interviewed the next day at her home in Morris, Minn., about the bus rescue. The Glen and Rose Carlson family had three girls on the stranded bus. They also provided meals and lodging for bus driver Clayton Kolling.
“It was the longest day I ever had,” Rose said of that wild winter day nearly 50 years ago.
Julie recalls mild morning temperatures on that day. “It was very warm. We didn’t want to dress as heavily as we usually did.”
Julie remembers her dad’s concern about the weather that morning before school. “We had a barometer on the TV console. Dad, as a farmer, was also a weatherman.”
She recalls him saying, “The bottom has fallen out of the barometer. You’re going to go to school with everything you own.”
“Mom sewed all of our clothes. She was an excellent seamstress. I had wanted a corduroy suit like I saw in Seventeen Magazine. It had the blazer and a skirt, fully lined,” Julie said, describing the outfit she wore that day.
“As it turned out, Julie was very glad to have [worn] it that day,” Rose said.
“I did not want to wear my coat. I ended up wearing a coat, stocking cap, everything,” Julie remembers.
Not long after school began that day, it was dismissed due to an approaching blizzard.
“They let us out almost immediately. It seemed to me at the time to be unprecedented that the school should put a teacher on each bus. I don’t remember there being a teacher on the bus before. We were probably not paying attention to the route,” Julie said. She believes the last student off the bus on the way home was Kay Wernsing.
“After he drove into the ditch, the first thought I had was that he [Kolling] would just drive back out. He tried that, and it didn’t work,” Julie said. She believes Kolling wasn’t in the process of turning or backing up when the bus got stuck. “There’s no way he could have turned around on those narrow gravel roads,” she said.
Julie recalls how she and her friend Roberta “Bobbie” Zierke, both sophomores, stepped into leadership roles on the bus once the seriousness of the situation became clear.
“I had babysat for Bob Wade – Connie, David and Maria. It wasn’t surprising they listened. We’d been bossing them around forever! We didn’t have kids crying and whining, although I think we all cried when the rescue team arrived,” Julie said.
One of the first challenges of their predicament was how the bus was positioned. The front was lower than the back, and the right side lower than the left.
“You could sit on the left side, but if you tried to stand, it was too slippery, so everyone sat on the right side,” she noted.
Second, the children grew hungrier as the hours passed. “We thought this wouldn’t last long, so we ate our lunches. I don’t remember if everyone had lunches, but I like to think those of us that did shared. I think that was at about 10:30 a.m.,” she said.
Julie doesn’t remember how they passed the time. “It seems like the boys gathered in the back and the girls grouped up toward the front. Sort of the natural order of things.”
After a while, the inevitable happened. The children needed to go to the bathroom.
“We took girls out to the bathroom, a few at a time, four different times,” she said. “Bobbie and I were getting soaked [from fresh snow melting on them inside the bus]. There was some shelter from the wind on that (right) side of the bus, but not much.”
“It didn’t occur to us that our situation was serious until later in the day,” she noted. “Like usual for a winter day, the light started to drop, and then things seemed worse. Hopefully we never let on to the younger children what we were thinking,” she said.
She describes the teacher on board, Arnie Hollen, as a guiding adult figure. “It was a great comfort that he was there, so we weren’t having to be ‘the adults.’ He was calm and reassuring to us.”
Julie’s younger sister Peggy was home with their mother, Rose. “I don’t think she said anything all day,” Rose recalled.
Their father, Glen, also at home, wanted desperately to aid in the rescue.
“He wanted to go out by himself to try to help. Mom said, ‘I’ve got three children out in this blizzard. I’m not going to lose a fourth family member to this!’ Mom was doing a whole lot of cooking and baking. It’s possible that someone told her the stranded students might be brought to their farm. Talk about a sign of the times. Can you imagine today having enough food in your home to cook for 30? I’m sure she had enough,” Julie said.
After three walks in the blizzard to summon help, Clayton was at the Carlsons when news of the successful rescue came via telephone.
“He was so exhausted. We gave him our son’s bed, and Clayton’s feet stuck out over the edge of the bed,” Rose laughed.
Clayton’s life-saving efforts made a strong impression on Laurie. “I was in the third grade. I still have pretty vivid memories of it and will always remember the heroism of our bus driver, Clayton Kolling, who suffered frostbite walking to several farms. He brought back blankets and candy bars.”
What Laurie remembers most is the rescuers, tied together by rope, leading the rescue vehicles between the ditches. “I also remember the image of the men, 13 of them, I believe, who walked out to us, forming a human chain from fence line to fence line.”
“I think there was a type of Caterpillar rig following behind them, and it towed [the rescue bus] back into town. The men had scarves tied around their faces, many of them floral patterned, looking like they were borrowed from their wives. They had icicles on their eyelashes. It was quite an image,” Laurie said.
Julie said the rescue caravan brought the cold and hungry students to the west door of the Chokio school, just north of the sixth-grade classroom.
“I remember I had to go to the restroom. When I got there I looked in the mirror and didn’t know who I was. Ice was frozen in my hair. My hair was wild,” she said. Her boyfriend, the late Brad Munson, had come to the school to see her. “I wouldn’t let him see me.”
Julie is sure Burton Nypen, the superintendent, was at the door as the students filed in. “There must be an awful weight on your heart to have to make these kinds of decisions,” she said. “We used to joke that for a while, if there was a flake of snow in the air, we would be sent home from school.”
In town, Julie and her sister Laurie stayed with good friends, Jim and Pauline Pesek.
Soon after, the Carlsons were among those sought by the media. “I remember the Associated Press called us. It was national news,” Rose said. Julie and Bobbie were interviewed via telephone on NBC’s Today Show.
Julie doesn’t remember much about being interviewed. “We were just glad to be alive,” she said.