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Before daylight Monday morning, with the house cracking like my joints, the wind whirring around the corner and through the trees, I tugged snow pants over flannels, pulled on a ski mask, shrugged a heavy barn coat over my sweatshirt, wedged a pair of gardening gloves under my work gloves, yanked the garage door away from the floor to which it was frozen and headed blindly into cold that apparently was so brutal that no one should have had to face it.
Let me say the chillingly obvious: It was colder than, well, anything you want to interject.
But were the temperatures so extreme that the world should stand still?
Kids were held out of schools despite dry roads. The Shelby County Judicial Center and other government offices – the sheriff’s office, for crying out loud – were closed. Some bankers only had to work bankers’ hours.
Was it too cold for life?
When did we become weather wimps?
When did our modern world of greater comforts and ease – of Gortex and North Face and hand warmers and boot warmers and fleece and down and salt-and-brine mixtures and synthetic insulation for everything – become too difficult for us to venture into the cold and do what our day was designed for us to do? Surely the folks in North Dakota persevere.
We have snow pants and snow blowers, which must be mind-blowing to anyone who has lived more than a few years around these parts.
My dad to me, the other day: “I don’t think they’ll have school Monday, Tuesday and maybe Wednesday.”
Me: “Why in the world?”
Him: “Because of the cold. They can’t ask kids to stand out there and wait for the bus in that cold weather.”
Me: “We did it.”
Him: “But things were different then.”
Yes, they most certainly were, and that must seem particularly crazy to a man who was born before the Depression and enjoyed few comforts in his early life. This must be one of those heartwarming tales, because I can’t see anything else warmer about the old days, when we seemed to endure.
In my youth we piled on two pairs of blue jeans, two pairs of socks, a couple of sweatshirts and whatever else we owned. And that was just to play basketball in the barn. Girls wore long pants under skirts, because they were required to wear skirts to school.
Now, science has provided fabrics that allow me to go outside for a run in a single shirt and not feel cold until temps are lower than 20 degrees. So I could put on two and bake off a few pounds. Girls even can wear pants to school without skirts.
Then, roads would be impassable because there were only one or two trucks to scrape them, and no treatment was done in advance by an armada of vehicles. There were no great chemicals.
Now, there’s a “salt dome” with so much stored solvent that roads have a chance of being passable within hours after a storm.
Then we would drive in the snow if at all possible, with our cars getting special tires or chains to do so.
Now we timidly leave our vehicles, many with 4-wheel and front-wheel drives, in the garages.
Then we had to wait for school buses despite the cold, so we watched out the window for a last-second sprint out the driveway or parked a car near the pickup spot and waited.
Now, we don’t bother to ask a family to find a way to stay warm until the bus comes by. We just don’t send the bus.
Then on a cold day we might have to dress in front of the one heater in our small home to get a little warmth at our foundation.
Now almost every home has central heat and roaring fires.
Then the schools mostly were old, airy, leaky and their furnaces outdated.
Now we have energy-efficient equipment and double-paned windows and climate control.
I could go on, but you have your examples. We simply don’t handle the cold very coolly.
In cases such as Monday, we don’t even seem to try.
In Jefferson County schools had been canceled before the Bengals were out of the NFL playoffs. The clamor began immediately for Shelby to follow, and although that took a couple of hours, there was little doubt it would happen.
Tuesday was scheduled to be colder than Monday, and who would question a rerun? In the snow days of old, we watched reruns. But these weren’t snow days, just cold days.
Thus my predawn excursion was not to confront the climatological calamity that had seized us but to feed the animals on our farm who had endured rain, then snow, then all night in a barn through which the wind swept like a hurricane.
There was ice to be broken, equipment adjustments to be made and, for the animals, warming hay and grain to be served.
My fingers let me know pretty quickly that they didn’t like an absence of insulation in their protection, and pieces of my cheeks that faced the wind said red might become a natural color.
But the rest of me seemed warm enough. My layers were strong, and my boots had been warmed indoors. I endured for the required 20 minutes or so, about as long as most of us are required to be outside on any given day.
Life seemed like any other winter morning, nothing that couldn’t be handled, and I was learning an answer to a question I had mulled for decades.
When I was in college, some fraternity brothers used to humor themselves with a rhetorical query aimed to stop my blabber of inanity:
“Is it colder in the winter or on the farm?”
Monday the answer must have been “in the winter,” because “on the farm,” life continued. It always does.