The schools, apparently run by recent migrants from California or Florida, called off classes Thursday because of a mere little cold spell during which the daytime high reached all the way to 5 degrees fahrenheit. When I was a kid, we lived a half mile from the combination middle/high school on Broadway, and there was never a day missed because of cold weather. I walked to school, carrying a trombone case, (extra hardship), bundled up seriously by a mother who, like the others, knew the dangers of a harsh northern climate. No one was put outdoors without the regulation knit cap that covered the ears, heavy coat, rubber buckle boots, and woolen scarf and mittens (there were no gloves, except what fashionable ladies wore in mild weather). Grade school teachers would lay the mittens out on the radiators along the walls to dry – the smell of hot, wet wool takes me back there like a time machine. I cannot honestly say that it was an uphill climb to school both ways, but the wind was always in your face, and that’s a natural fact.
It was expected that there would be stretches of sub-zero weather that would last about two or three weeks, in total, during which the breath would come into your lungs under sharp and painful protest. (I got a good laugh at the Twin Cities airport last year, overhearing a traveler talking on his cell phone to someone back home. “It’s so cold up here you can’t even breathe,” he said, in a tone of shock and awe.) During these spells the hard-packed snow underfoot and on the street never melted; your feet made a crunching noise with every step, and the wheels of cars squeaked going around corners. When the snow was deep motorists would spear red sponge balls on top of their radio antennas in order to be seen over the snowbanks by other cars at intersections. Even slanting in from the south, there is no brighter sun in all the year than January’s during a snowy cold spell, so that sometimes you are grateful for the clouds of vapor coming from chimneys and cars, even yourself, that mitigate the glare a bit.
I first experienced sloppy, dirty winter weather when Fran and I spent a year in Seattle. Weeks would pass with never a sight of the sun, and it never did shine all day long for a period of nearly four months. The weather didn’t get cold enough for anything but a greasy slush to gather on the roads, which was harder to drive in than a foot of new snow here. And I never remember being colder than in that wet, sunless climate. I would dream towards morning of waking up on the farm in Lewiston where we lived the year before, the sun so bright on the snowy fields that you had to put your visor down driving into town.
Not too long after I got back from Seattle I happened to pick up a copy of “Satori,” a journal of poetry put out by Winona State University. It was mostly forgettable student stuff, with the exception of one bright little gem about a hard winter, written by Carol Slade, who still lives here in Winona:
The pig is dead, God bless his bones,
We put him out to freeze.
We have a winter sweet and cold,
We thank you on our knees.
I am a simple fallow field,
Open to the snow and rain,
My black cold heart with ice is sealed;
I dream of sowing time again.
We read our sins on winter nights,
See the woodpile getting low,
Whatever walks around the house,
Its tracks are in the snow.