“Bone-Gnawingly Cold”

One reader’s story sparks another:

I couldn’t resist sending a note in response to the reader story you posted last tonight about the ISU Phi Gamma. Seeing that photo was like being transported back in time. I Iowa State Universitywas a 9 year old living on the east side of Des Moines in January 1982 and I was awestruck by the photos in the Des Moines Register showing the aftermath of the fire. It looked like a more refined version of the Wampa’s cave on Hoth and I spent a lot of time imagining how cool it would be to explore it. The memory of that ice encrusted building, simultaneously beautiful and terrible, has lingered with me ever since, as has the memory of that arctic January.

See, back then we didn’t get delays or cancellations for cold weather (insert “these kids today” grumbling here). We got them for blizzards, and that year it seemed like there was one howling in every single week in January. But once the wind had died back and it wasn’t a full on white-out anymore we were expected to be at school at the usual time, no excuses.

My walk to school was a couple of miles long and both of my parents had to leave early in the morning for work – I was one of that era’s latchkey kids, so I’d eat my instant oatmeal in the morning and layer up with extra sweater and a second pair of pants, as well as boots, coat, hat mittens and scarf, and then I’d tromp off to Douglas School. I never minded the walk; it was an adventure, but by the time I got to homeroom my face would be numb and fronts of my legs would, despite the extra pair of pants, be stabbing with cold. Sometimes it would take my entire math class for the feeling to completely return to normal. But as I said, I didn’t mind. It was the way it was. Sometimes it was even fun.

Until one day it wasn’t.

It was within a few days of the Phi Gamma fire. I walked to school as I usually did. (It did seem a little colder that day, but once you’re below 0 the fine gradations are a little harder to discern.) At my locker I shucked off my outer layer, went to my desk in homeroom, and sat down. Then I heard a click and the vision in one eye went blurry. I should mention at this point that I wore glasses. The I heard another click and the vision in my other eye went blurry as well. In addition my face felt strangely light. I looked down and both lenses from my glasses were sitting on my desk rocking gently where they had fallen. The temperature difference between inside and out was so great it had shattered my plastic frames. I was distraught. As any kid who wears glasses will tell you, breaking them is the cardinal sin of childhood. Your glasses are precious extremely expensive things that you guard with your life. And if you do break them you had better have a darn good explanation, a real one, though of course anything short of saving a baby from a pack of wolves wouldn’t be good enough.

“They just broke! Honest they did! I was just sitting there and they broke!” was neither a good explanation or, to most parents’ ears (including, I was convinced, mine) a real one.

Fortunately for me my homeroom teacher saw what had happened, and my distress and wrote a note explaining that my glasses had, indeed, just broken. She tucked the note into an envelope with my lenses and the remains of my frames and gave it to me to take home. I still have the envelope somewhere. My walk home was a little easier, albeit blurry and still bone-gnawingly cold.

Living in Iowa had given me a lot of weather memories, from watching the frontal boundary of a blizzard approach while sitting in my 3rd grade classroom, to, while in grad school, having to sprint from my truck in a storm and hunker down in a rapidly filling ditch to shelter from a tornado, to year before last biking in conditions so hot that the road was literally melting under my tires.

But I think that it’s the bitter cold that’s given me some of my best and most enduring memories. Thanks for letting me revisit them. And thanks to your ISU reader for the chance to see that magical photo again.

Update from a reader:

I grew up in Minnesota, and went to college in Wisconsin. I had schools close a few times growing up for blizzards and one day for cold (-60 windchill) but I always felt that was the norm. My senior year at UW Madison in 2006, I was off to a volunteer gig on a cold Saturday in February. It was -20 real temperature, and the sun was very bright. I wore some sunglasses as I sprinted down the street to the chemistry building for the event. By the time I got inside I realized my sunglasses had broken, on my face, from the cold. I feel for that kid in Iowa, not because they were expensive and I would get in trouble, but because it was quite frightening to think that our usual gadgets were so fragile at what I felt were kind of “normal” winter temperatures.

That same day there was supposed to be a Polar Plunge into one of the lakes in the Madison area. They had to cancel not because of the cold specifically, but because they couldn’t keep a hole in the ice OPEN long enough. People would have been cut on the ice!