Cold? Why this is nothing. Let me tell you about the winter of ’94. I remember it clearly…
Monday, January 17, 1994 8:50 A.M. -20 below zero
The cold weather we are having came down from the North Pole last Thursday, and promises to stay through next Thursday. For months now, the pole has been shrouded in darkness. No sunlight comes, only stars, and winds that sweep across that frozen sea looking for a jet stream gate left open for them to spill their contents down around the globe. At last, just such an opening was found, and air made heavy by -100 below zero temperatures poured out of the Arctic Circle, down across Canada, and headed straight for us. The winter sun down here has warmed this mass of air to thirty below. It has settled in across our region and daytime highs creep up to seventeen and twelve below.
Yesterday night, just past midnight, the snow began to fall. Eight inches of fluffy, crystalline-white snow had accumulated by dawn, filling doorsteps and covering driveways. By sunrise, the normal activity on Idaho Avenue was found wanting. The plows had moved through long before. Their heavy metal blades were heard rumbling along in the dark like thunder in the distance. Behind them, they left long, white canyons of banked snow piled high on each side of the street. Cars parked at the curb unawares were left barricaded in. The only wildlife that could be seen stirring were these snowbirds, and their owners, who could be spotted if you were quick enough to glimpse them, as they dropped out of sight behind the banks, and reappeared suddenly, pitching a shovelful of snow up and over their shoulders. They disappeared as quickly again, and the sound of aluminum shovels scraping on the pavement was the only other sign that that anyone was about.
They worked quickly. No one could stay out long in this venomous cold. I would see them abandoning their snow shovels, stabbing them into the snow banks as they ran for their houses, thrashing themselves with their arms as they went. No signs of life anywhere except for one or two cars left running at the curb, enormous plumes of hot exhaust billowing straight up into the sky to signal the absence of wind. Nothing moves. No one stirs. It is as if everything is locked down solid and will not move again until a thaw comes.
I step back from my picture window and feel the icy air cascading down across my stockinged feet. Picking up the log poker, I punch at the glowing embers there, dying in the fireplace, and I wonder how much longer my dwindling supply of firewood can hold out.
Monday, January 17 6:10 P.M. -20 below zero
The wind chill is now at fifty-eight below, and warnings have been issued all across the state. The lows tonight will be thirty below.
Kate, my nine-year-old, has been playing all day with her friend Laura, and her mother has just arrived to pick her up. With her, she has brought the happy news that school has been cancelled for tomorrow. It is difficult to concentrate as I write. The children are bouncing up and down, dancing all around the kitchen, singing out, “Yes! Yes! Yes!” I’m doing my very best to look like a disappointed parent as I know this will add to their joy, but in my heart I am very happy for them indeed. What a windfall. No school today—a legal holiday—Martin Luther King Day, and now, no school tomorrow.
Monday, January 17 11:15 P.M. -25 below
Our dog Casey had just now indicated to me that she needed to go out. I opened the back door and a blast of icy, dense air hit her in the face. Steam suddenly filled the kitchen air and danced across the floor. At first, she jerked her head back quickly, and then she shot out the door heading straight for the spot where she goes to pee. I pushed the door closed behind her and then scraped clear a patch of frost from the glass to watch her go. She was in a real hurry and hit the snow already urinating before she could come to a full squat. She finished quickly, a land speed record, and I put my hand on the cold knob to let her in but she stopped and looked around. She moved off to that area she uses to poop. There in the dark, in the bitter-cold dark, she sniffed around looking for the scent of her last deposit. The pressure in her bowels was building and she moved furtively in the dark. It is so cold out there that no sentinel turd could yet be giving off a smell signaling the marker where to go.
“Give it up, girl. Poop don’t smell at twenty-five below,” I muttered under my breath.
She looked hurried and confused and then went where she has never gone before. Her last turd was still falling when she shot for the house. Body slamming the door she signaled, “Let me in!” I let her in, but I’m sure not fast enough.
She is sitting by the hot air register now, shivering and looking queerly at me as I laugh and write.
Tuesday, January 18 6:34 A.M. -32 below zero
I’m going to work now. The cars are warming up in the driveway left running. Jan’s car almost didn’t start. I had to crank on it a long time, and then, when it did start to catch, I had to crank on it some more as it coughed and sputtered until at last, a fire bloomed inside the pistons. Slowly, slowly it started to run, building speed until it had come to full ignition. This is a brand-new automobile with fuel injection and fancy electronics and all, and this shouldn’t happen. It’s that cold out there.
Wind chill is what counts. The temperature be damned. At thirty-two below zero, the wind chill is minus seventy. Wind chill is how it feels on flesh, and since I am covered with this soft, pink stuff, wind chill is all that concerns me. At this very moment, it is seven times warmer inside our freezer than it is outside our door. It’s a good thing that the children are being kept home from school today. It’s too cold to go out, too dangerous to travel—only a moron would do so.
Tuesday night, January 18 8:16 P.M. -23 below
It’s going down again tonight. Right now, the temperature is twenty-three below. Man, that’s cold. When I was a kid, they always closed the schools at twenty below, but for some strange reason that won’t be happening tomorrow. The five o’clock television newscast announced that the Minneapolis school system has elected to reopen tomorrow. The children stood by me in the kitchen as we watched and listened. There’s been no word yet about our schools in Roseville staying closed. They do not appear on this evening’s list of tomorrow’s school closings. The children are disappointed, but still they hope. Their little heads are bowed in prayer. I will make arrangements so that tomorrow I may stay home long enough to see Paul off safely. Kate will go later with her mom.
Wednesday, January 19 7:12 A.M. -28 below zero
The dancing and the excitement were equal to the joyous news when it came.
At five P.M. yesterday, it was announced that the Minneapolis schools would reopen today. They have. The governor of the state closed all the schools yesterday, but today, the decision has returned to the individual school districts and many, many of them decided to reopen.
Paul, my fourteen-year-old, and his friend John stood at my side last night as we watched television at five P.M. for further, continued school closings. Record-breaking low temperatures were predicted. An electronic scroll across the bottom of the television picture showed the names of schools that were closing. Alphabetically they were listed. Never before has it taken so long to run through such a list. Anticipation was building, and at last, the “P”s were read. Next would come the “R”s, and Rosemount would precede Roseville, Paul and Kate’s school, if it were on the list. All too fast the “R”s rolled by, no Roseville seen, and then the “S”s appeared.
The children’s glee turned to palpable gloom, and foolishly, I tried to cheer them up by reminding them of what they’d had. Why we adults do this to children is still a mystery to me. In truth, I’d have liked to see them get another day off. When they turned to me to ask if there was still a chance, I told them what I thought. I said that the Minneapolis opening was not a good sign, and that when it came to making such decisions, the little guys usually follow what the big guys do. Still, I said it seemed unusual that they would be predicting record lows without having many more school closings to go along with such a thing. I told them we would watch the news again at ten.
The children have never taken such an interest in a newscast as they did in last night’s ten o’clock news—very civic-minded of them.
“The top story tonight: Earthquakes ravage California. Death toll still rising…” the newscast began.
“Get out of there,” they hissed, sweeping their arms across the screen. “Get to the news.”
“And bitter cold continues to grip the Northland. We’ll show you why retailers are running out of supplies, and we’ll have the latest school closings.”
The children came to full attention, and again, the weatherman told us what we were in for, as across the bottom of the screen the names of school closings rolled by alphabetically. At last, the “P”s arrived, and down the list they went:
Peterson—two hours late..
And then they broke for a commercial.
“Oh!” the kids screamed. They fell back on the bed, writhing in kid-agony, pounding their fists on the bedspread, burying their faces in tortured grief.
No commercials ever lasted longer than those commercials, Then at last, the news was back on, and the scroll continued to roll. Suddenly, the “R”s appeared.
“Richfield—two hours late.
“Ooo,” they clenched their jaws. “That’s not good.”
“Yes!” Katie hissed, fingers crossed, sucking in air through her teeth daring not to breathe.
Those were the last words we saw. The kids leapt from the bed, screaming, “Yes—yes—yes! Closed!” they cried. “Closed! Yes, we’re closed!”
They jumped to the floor and embraced each other. Then they danced in each other’s arms, all the while singing out, “We’re closed! We’re closed!”
Paul grasped his sister by the hands, and they began to turn each other in dizzying circles. The dog got excited and ran into the room barking. She broke into their circle spilling them onto the floor. I got excited, too, and jumped down off the bed and swept Kate up into my arms and bounced her up and down. Then I reached out and pulled Paul close to me, and we all had a big group hug, all the while still shouting with glee.
Mama was on the phone, downstairs. She heard the explosion of joy lift the rafters, and she knew immediately what had happened. Down the stairs we scrambled, and into the living room we came. Mama told her caller that she had to hang up, and she joined us in the living room. Dancing and singing, we celebrated in each other’s arms. What a day, what a night, and what a day to come!
Yes, never in the history of kiddom had such a thing as this happened. First, there was a weekend, and better still, it was followed by a legal holiday. Then, after this three-day weekend came a Snow Day—or a Cold Weather Day, more precisely. Now it became a four-day weekend. This was wonderful. This was grand. Never had such a thing been seen before in all their lives.
They had only heard the stories of when I was kid. The enviable, bittersweet stories of Snow Days and school cancellations when our Conestoga wagons would not start or go through. Yes, things were better when I was a boy, and they said they wished that they lived back then in the olden days, but now it was happening to them. And what could be better? Another day off, that’s what, but it looked like it wouldn’t happen, but then it did! A five-day weekend, a five-day weekend! They all believed. They all believed there was a God, and that he loved them very much.
And is this the end to all this absenteeism and happiness? No. They must return on Thursday and Friday for a two-day school week, but wait, there’s more. After Saturday and Sunday come Teacher’s Conferences and no school Monday!
Another bonus three-day weekend! From the fifteenth of this month to the twenty-fifth, they will have spent only two days in school, and they just got through with Christmas vacation two weeks ago. Why, these kids will be so stupid by the time they get back they won’t be able to remember their own seating assignments.
The dancing and the excitement have not finished yet. I envied them so, and all their good fortune, and then I thought, “What the heck. I’m a grown-up.” So I called work and said I wouldn’t be in today.