Slip-Slide Through Winter

Harry Drabik

In the years when I was better able to get out and enjoy the snow my view of winter was without complaint. Cross country and snow shoe treks brought a huge improvement over my childhood view of the season which I associated with damp chill and torture. I blame the old style snowsuit. It took several forevers to get a child into one of those things; after which fluid movement was hardly possible with limbs gripped in layers of forced confinement. The whole rigmarole of suit, boots, mittens with clips, scarf, and head entombing hat weighed more than the kid buried inside all that apparel. It was a sure thing that once I was trussed up ready to waddle out the door I’d have to pee, which of course meant you-know-what all over again. When I was small mother would tell me to hold it. To me this was useless advice. To hold something it had first to be found, impossible wearing snowsuit and mittens. And if I did succeed I never understood how doing so could help. But then, adults often said puzzling things like, “Eat that so you grow up big and strong.” I was of the mind you had to be big and strong before you could stomach a food that was called creamed corn but looked the sort of puddle seen frequently on the grade school floor. With luck I could smuggle some of it to the dog who ate anything I gave him. He’d eat the puke, not me.

But, I’ll go back to a more normal account of snowsuit days. Once cocooned I was expected to stay outdoors until the cold seeped through all layers to turn me blue and stiff from lack of blood flow. Turning into ice-boy could take up to an hour of slow suffering because staying warm was slowed by the inability to move at anything near a heat generating pace. Falling in the snow was fairly easy and once down older children could be relied on to tumble one around like a bawling ball with four limbs. A thorough roll in the snow greatly speeded the ice-boy condition of damp wet to the skin. I had to be quite and undeniably miserable before mother would let me in for the mummy unwrapping. What a joy it was to go from sumo wrestler to little boy again. The hour long need to pee was there and could at last be satisfied though the apparatus for doing so was effectively disappeared. In those years time healed all ills. In these years time is the ill. In cold temps arthritic joints give all the results of trussing up in a snowsuit. Is this one of the things that is called full circle?

Minnesota introduced me to real winter, so unlike the seven forms of slop that passed for winter in Illinois. Real, solid cold instead of wet glop was a vast improvement on winter that for me was made more joyous yet by having outgrown the snowsuit years. Age thirteen I’d rather have died of frozen skull than wear a hat waiting for the bus. Some lament my survival. But, I honestly do not recall suffering, either indoors or out, from cold. This seems strange because clothing choices were not the best; bunny boots and serried levels of wool were state-o’-the-art. I went Boy Scout winter camping using a sleeping bag that would today be considered inadequate for summer use. I happily survived (again to the disappointment of some). Brisk temps around zero beat the penetrating torture of southerly winter. Hooray for winter on the Iron Range. Dad looked less enthused, I realize now because for four months of the year the furnace was seldom idle. Houses in Hoyt Lakes were not brilliantly insulated (Ah, happy the sellers of fuel oil). Being an iron mining town our window frames were good-old American steel that grew indoor frost crystals worthy of the best Arctic setting. None the less, I happily padded the house barefoot or in socks and T shirt (or more if dad caught on and turned the thermostat down from where I’d set it).

There was homemade entertainment, too, because each winter dad tried to perfect a device similar to the gauzy mantle of an Aladdin Lamp that more-or-less causes reburn of combustion gasses. Dad’s was a good and noble idea but terrifically amusing to a male teen who already knew all that could be reasonably known. I knew each of dad’s attempts would end in the same lash of profanity simply because the “whump” of the fuel oil ignition was more than enough to blow to smithers dad’s gauzy creation. A suitable mesh material likely exists in today’s world, but I can assure you that silk, cotton, linen, nylon (melted to a blob), and etc. do not cut it. But it was great fun carefully watching dad diligently setting himself up for another maddening failure. It was like viewing slapstick where you know in advance that soon as the character bends over he’ll be smacked loudly on the rump as happened forty times before, and all hysterically funny, too.

The only thing that beat (entertainment wise) dad’s furnace fantasy was his passion over hot water. God Almighty couldn’t help you if a shower lasted over a minute, the first thirty seconds of which got the first bang on the pipes followed thirty seconds later (the time needed for dad to reach the hot shut off) by the change to a totally cold shower with a traditional history of being able to quell what experience suggested could never be quenched. To beat the system dad went to “tempering tanks” so water entering the heater didn’t have as far to go. With basement at 65 and water coming in at 40 the potential improvement didn’t seem enough to offset the cost of tempering tanks and plumbing. It was amusing to see dad’s pleasure spending two dollars to save a nickel.