Coping with cold

Back when I was a kid, the wintertime cold was a cruel and unrelenting force of nature, similar to gravity or the “Gilligan’s Island” theme song.

For many years I have opined that winters were longer and colder when I was a youngster. Climate scientists have now borne out my claim with statistics, which prove that what I have been saying isn’t just a figment of my selective memory: the planet is warming and our winters are becoming shorter and less brutal. So there.

This also puts the sting of truth into another of my theories, namely, that today’s youth are mollycoddled. If we, as a species, no longer have to hurl spears through the tree-like ribs of a wooly mammoth in order to eat, even those whose food-gathering skills are limited to pushing a shopping cart can survive and reproduce.

The same is true of coping with the cold. I have personally witnessed a certain demographic (let’s call them “college students”) who habitually ignore weather conditions in the name of fashion. I have seen such people strolling to and from their classes decked out in shorts and sandals amidst subzero temperatures.

What is wrong with those folks? What if they reach their destination and its door is frozen shut? Don’t they realize it would just be a matter of minutes before they turn into people Popsicles?

Some have described the winter we are currently experiencing as “nasty” and “colder than Frosty the Snowman’s heinie.” I, on the other hand, would describe it as “about normal.”

We have been mollycoddled by the last few winters, which were so mild that some were speculating that the winters in Fargo would soon be similar to those in Ft. Lauderdale. This current winter has frozen such speculation in its tracks.

This current winter reminds me of those we routinely experienced when I was growing up on our dairy farm. The cold was our constant companion, and not just because we had to milk cows twice a day. Cows that, inconveniently, were kept outside in our non-heated barn.

Our old farmhouse was chilly and drafty, having been built in an era when insulation was deemed an effete affectation. The homesteaders who constructed our house likely believed that cold air strengthens the respiratory system. They must have had lungs like bulldozers.

The only heat source in our farmhouse was an oil burning stove that squatted in the dining room. On cold winter mornings, my siblings and I would crowd around the oil burner like baby pigs jostling for a spot at their mother’s belly.

The stove’s cast iron door had two small mica windows, one of which was broken. We could peer into the sooty bowels of the stove and see the feeble yellow flame that was preventing us from becoming people popsicles. But we didn’t complain, mainly because we assumed that everyone lived as we did. The thought of a forced-air heating system would have blown our little minds.

One way we coped with the cold was to dress properly, fashion be damned. I would don my unstylish thermal underwear in October and keep it on until April. I do seem to recall that my long johns were a chic shade of gray, but that may have been because I refused to take them off so that Mom could launder them.

Dad had a powerful weapon to battle the cold, a silver bullet called a sheepskin coat.

Dad’s sheepskin coat weighed about 50 pounds and covered him from earlobe to ankle. Its wool faced inward, toward the wearer. Apparently, the sheepskin’s original owner had worn it wrong side out.

We had three-day blizzards four times a week when I was a kid. School was called off for months at a time. My siblings and I staved off cabin fever by playing Monopoly or Battleship, anything to keep us from clashing with each other.

During one such blizzard, a tall, sheepskin-clad figure came sauntering down our driveway. It was our bachelor farmer neighbor, Martin. He had hoofed it for most of a mile into the teeth of the storm. His cabin fever must have been so severe that he felt impelled to walk to our farm, perhaps to borrow our Parcheesi game.

Our parents invited Martin to sit at the kitchen table and gave him a steaming mug of coffee. A tiny icicle dangled from the end of his nose. I had never seen such a thing outside the funny pages.

I asked Martin what it had been like to take a stroll in that snowstorm.

“It wasn’t too bad,” he replied nonchalantly. “Of course this isn’t anything compared to the winters we had when I was a kid!”

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