Bitter cold becomes humbling experience

January 25, 2003|By ROB KASPER

IT WAS so cold this week that instead of merely walking their dogs, shivering pet owners all around town could be seen sprinting with their pooches between fire plugs.

It was so cold that smokers, exiled to puff outside buildings, considered consolidating their breaks, lighting up back-to-back cigarettes to keep their time in the cold to a minimum.

It was so cold that my car whined something that sounded like "Noooooooo" as I turned it over in the morning. This sound of distress probably came from a failing starter. But it could have been the engine's "inner voice" protesting that it had to work in such stinging cold.

Maybe it is because our recent winters have been so mild compared with the prolonged subfreezing temperatures that have descended upon us. Maybe it is because the fierce, cutting wind filled me with not-so-pleasant memories of Chicago winters when "the hawk" sliced through my clothes like a knife through soft butter. Or maybe it is because these bones are getting old. Whatever the reason, like a lot of folks, I spent most of the week battling the elements. By yesterday, there was little doubt that, in my case, the elements had won.

If this had been a boxing match, it would have been stopped in early going, probably on Wednesday night. That was when I made the mistake of leaving my gloves in the car, then putting my bare hands on a grocery cart that had been sitting in subfreezing temperatures blocking a parking spot. Putting your bare hands on a cold metal grocery cart is the equivalent of taking the boyhood dare of putting your tongue on the pump handle. It is extremely stupid and pretty painful. I did it, I think, because I was out of practice. I had forgotten how to behave when dealing with a genuine winter. A prime rule is "expose no skin." If you brave the cold, you should be wrapped up tighter than a mummy.

Another rule is to keep your keys and other "vitals" in an outside pocket of your outer layer of clothing. To dress for intense cold you have to wear multiple layers of clothing. The other day as I was about to venture out of the house, I looked at myself in the mirror and saw that I resembled the Michelin Man, in many unpleasant ways.

While mugging in the mirror inside the (relatively) warm house, I failed to make sure I had placed my keys in my overcoat pocket. That meant that as soon as I stepped out in the cold and began patting myself down, I couldn't find the keys. I had to peel off a glove. As soon as I did, the wind picked up, the back door flew open, and the furnace kicked on. It was winter's sucker punch, and I had led with my chin.

After several tussles with the bitter cold and several unhappy instances of me pawing myself in a bad Emmett Kelly imitation, I have schooled myself. Now before I take a step outside, I place the keys, the credit card for gas, and the card that admits me into a parking garage in my overcoat pocket.

A genuine winter also teaches you not be smug. For example, until this Siberian cold rolled into town, I had been very pleased with the way I had "winterized" the house. The insulation I had tacked around the windows and doors seemed to quell invading drafts. But until a few days ago, we weren't battling real winter weather. Instead, we had been fooling around with much punier stuff. This past week, cold air came down from the Russian steppes, zipped over the North Pole, through Canada and the northern United States and landed on the marble steps at the front of my house. It whistled through the mail slot in my front door and mocked my feeble attempts at insulation.

Until this intense cold relents, I will be stuffing more insulation in the nooks and crannies of my house, pulling seldom-used clothes from storage and trying to remember how to behave in bona fide bad weather.

As I shiver, the one consoling thought I have is the unhappy fate of the garden cutworms. In prior springs when I turned over the garden soil to prepare for another growing season, I would always find scores of cutworms, or moth larva. They had burrowed a short distance under the ground and had spent the mild winter there, fat, happy and ready to emerge in warm weather and devour my vegetable plants.

But not this spring. I may be freezing this winter. But I know I am not alone. Out there in the frozen garden soil, the cutworms are getting theirs.

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