Some friends from the Confederacy came to visit us in St. Paul last week when the temperature was around zero and so we had to haul out electric blankets and crank the thermostat up to 68, but they still felt “chilled” and so I made them go for a walk outdoors, and when they returned, they felt warmer. They only needed to get perspective. Cold is not so cold if you compare it to actual death.
I grew up at a time when you didn’t complain about winter. Blizzards raged across the prairie and that was that. There was no weather forecasting, just a strong sense of foreboding. Old people wrapped in quilts sat by the hearth, gumming their chicken bones, their rheumy eyes turned upward, listening to the wind in the chimney, and they said things like, “The judgment of the Lord shall not be withstood.” That was about it by way of prognostication.
The wind blew and blew. Zero was a mild chill back then. Twenty below was considered cold. At 60 below you had to take precautions. The car froze up, and when you raised the hood it screeched so loud that icicles fell off the eaves, huge 45-pounders like giant daggers of ice. We were a family of eight but we had been a family of 10. Icicles got Timmy and Louise.
I don’t say this by way of complaining, not at all. Winter gave us a sense of purpose, to persevere, to go to school no matter what and to keep shoveling the walk and throw the snow up on the snowbank 15 feet overhead, clearing the narrow canyon of sidewalk with clothesline tied to our belts so that in case of avalanche, they could pull us out in time, watching for incoming icicles that dropped like artillery shells, and also for coyotes that grew daring by late February and would take on a boy, especially one who was immobilized by heavy clothing.
There was no lightweight thermal wear back then — you kept warm by the exertion of carrying heavy clothing: an 80-pound child might wear 30 pounds of clothing. Running was out of the question. You simply had to face the beast and stare it down.
Coyotes. Icicles. And also the danger of voiding the bladder at 60 below when you hear your own bodily fluid turn to ice chips as it hits the ground and you wonder how far up the golden arc this ice might come. Remind me to tell you about that sometime when we’re alone.
My father was a stoic. He believed that if you couldn’t see your breath when you talked, then the furnace was turned up too high, not that we talked — we did not — we knew each other well enough without it, but we respired. We exhaled vaporous clouds as we toiled over homework and then ascended to the cold attic and our frozen beds. Normally heat rises but not when it is that cold. We wore long woolens to bed and there was no thought of bedwetting — we never considered it an option. Nor did we bathe on a daily basis. You just accepted that you were a mammal and didn’t need to smell like citrus fruit.
And that’s just how it was. An alien experience to most Americans and so one has a responsibility to tell the story, just as when your child picks up an LP and asks, “What is this?” and you must try to explain about high-fidelity sound and woofers and tweeters, and how the needle on the tonearm rode in the grooves of a vinyl disc and produced stereophonic sound, which of course your child does not believe for one second, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true.
But there was no phonograph in my childhood home. We arose every morning in silence, pulled on 30 pounds of clothing, and ate our Cream of Wheat and marched out into the storm. The school buses were frozen solid so we were taken to school in a horse-drawn sleigh driven by a man with enormous eyebrows and raced past the ravines where the last tattered remnants of the Army of Northern Virginia were holed up and looking for Yankee children to kidnap for ransom to buy gunpowder from the British so the South could rise again. Which it did not until the Republican Party seceded from the Union in 1968. But that is a story for another time.