I warn you that the following contains elements of many of my least-favorite things, including nostalgia, crotchetiness and mountains-from-molehills. But some things need to be said.
A story on the WashPost website used the word “astonishing” to describe the subzero temperatures that are expected to last two days, tops, in much of the country. That just goes to show you who took the buyouts — anyone with a memory from before 1980, or even later than that. Granted, subzero has become a rare thing, even in southeast Michigan, but the idea that it’s astonishing is silly.
By my recollection, growing up in Columbus, Ohio, every winter contained at least one bitter cold snap. Columbus didn’t get a ton of snow, but I learned the phrase “Alberta clipper” early in life, and a 10-below night or two, or three or four, was simply part of a typical winter. I remember an early meteorological observation, when they would finally pass: Jeez, 25 degrees feels practically balmy. And it did.
Then came the mid-’70s. Two of my three college winters were some of the worst in Ohio history — ’76-’77 and ’77-’78. Everyone remembers the big blizzard of 1978, and it was certainly memorable, but it bigfooted recollections of the prior year, which should not fade so quickly.
Athens is in southeast Ohio, in the Appalachian foothills, and typically features winters that are more about chilly rain than heaps of snow. Spring comes early; forsythia sometimes bloom in late February. But these two years, the conditions, day after day, were more like you’d find in Minnesota. Snow fell in heaps, but mostly, it was cold.
My early warning was sometime in November. I’d slept over at my boyfriend’s, arose woefully underdressed for the overnight snow, and arrived in my first class shivering in a cardigan sweater and clogs, of all things. But the real fun came after Christmas break. My winter-quarter schedule arrived, and I made the mistake of lamenting that the late-morning and early-afternoon classes I’d requested had all been switched to 8 a.m. sections. My father mocked me for thinking this counted as a hardship. He had no idea.
The subfreezing cold settled in by early January and didn’t let up for weeks. And merely subfreezing were the good days. Many days dawned with the temperature well below zero, right around the time I was, yes, walking to those 8 a.m. classes. I recall that was the year I gave up what was then the standard Ohio University student winter protection — hooded sweatshirt, Levi’s jacket, down vest — for a full-on parka. Everybody wore the same footwear, hiking boots from the Rocky boot company in nearby Nelsonville. You could get a pair at the factory for about $20; they came with bright-red laces. Their Vibram-sole prints were what you saw as you trudged around the freezing landscape, head down to keep the latest snowfall out of your eyes.
I have many memories of the trials of those two winters, which have become misty and water-colored, the way memories do. Here’s one: The public-works staff in Athens were stretched thin. This was highly unusual weather, and over time, snow and ice built up thick on the brick streets, like a layer of asphalt. Working late at the student paper one night, we heard heavy equipment and came outside to find backhoes and front-end loaders taking advantage of the car-free streets to break up the ice. It was a pushback of brute strength against a winter that felt like it was doing the same. The grave-size pieces were dropped into waiting dump trucks, which trundled down to the river to deposit it onto the frozen riverbed. I was taking Russian at the time, and wondered if this was how they did it in Moscow.
Here’s another: Walking up Jeff Hill, the steepest on campus, on a brilliant morning when the temperature was somewhere around 20 below. Breathing was painful, but the very air itself seemed to sparkle, a phenomenon pointed out to me by Peter King, now the big-shot sportswriter, who gamboled by huffing out great gusts of air and watching the condensation shatter into crystals.
Somewhere around that time, Frank Reynolds took to ABC’s evening news to report that some scientists feared we were entering a new ice age. Yep. I saw it with my own eyes.
All of this was endured without the many conveniences of more recent years. Cars with front-wheel drive were a novelty, and four-wheel drive was confined to specialty vehicles. Even the rear-window defroster was rare. I pushed so many stuck cars, I can’t tell you. Those were also the years I learned to attach jumper cables and how to rock a car out of a parking place. Miracle fabrics like polypropylene and Thinsulate were unheard-of, and fashion went by the wayside. It was hardly a haute couture era among college students anyway, but the weather did away with any impulse toward individuality. We plodded around campus in our red-laced boots and puffy parkas, as uniform as North Koreans.
And this, I remind you, all happened in southern Ohio. Alan, who went to school in the northwest corner of the state, recalls those winters as the ones in which his father nearly lost his feet to frostbite when his diesel Rabbit gelled up out in the country, and as the time when he had to explain (to an el ed major, ha ha ha) that no, putting a blanket on a car battery wouldn’t keep it warm overnight. A friend remembered a girl in her dorm who raced to the health center with frostbite on her earlobes, and was told that while not wearing a hat or earmuffs had probably contributed to it, her biggest mistake was wearing 14K-gold earrings in 20-below weather — gold is an excellent thermal conductor, after all.
Climate change has accustomed us to superstorms, tornados half a mile wide, a hurricane season from hell, but it has blunted the common experience of winter at this latitude. Two years ago, I saw the first daffodils starting to push through the soil in January, a phenomenon I find far freakier than a couple days of bitter cold. People my age around Detroit talk about skating to Canada when they were children. Henry Ford drove one of his cars around a racecourse on the Detroit River ice. Bootleggers routinely ran trucks back and forth across the frozen waterway. All of these things would be exceedingly rare today.
So when you’re enduring the misery of the next few days, think back to those two tough years, when the Ohio River froze (and Jerry Springer was mayor of Cincinnati!!) and a coal strike made us wonder if we’d ever see a well-lit room again (at least in coal country). Friends, we used to be stronger. We still can be. Bundle up.