Just how cold was it?

How many times have you played a leading role in a real-life winter pageant? You need to gas up your car on a December night, to have it ready for a trip to warmer climes, like Albuquerque, and rather than waiting till morning, you head out to a station at night.

You insert your debit card, punch the necessary buttons and wait for the pump to read your card. You’re greeted by some commercials, right on the screen, when the first of many arctic blasts hits you, loosening all your back teeth. Then, as another gust arrives, you struggle to thread the pump into your tank while debating whether to wait in the car, despite the chance the pump won’t shut off automatically and you’ll flood the pavement. And pay for the spilled gas.

It seems that Mother Nature holds back her icy gusts until the precise moment that you realize you’ve forgotten to pop open the gas tank. That’s common. But becoming just as common is having to wait for a long time just to complete your transaction at an ATM. Here’s what I’ve noticed only recently.

Somehow, the ATM I use has begun to provide commercials. Rather than 1) Insert card, 2) a list of possible tasks I need help with, like withdrawals, one gets treated to a series of repetitious commercials in which a president of some bank apologizes for some mortal sin committed years ago and vows that it’ll never happen again.

Then, as you begin to shed a tear over the multi-millionaire banker’s lachrymose demeanor, up comes yet ANOTHER, almost identical lament with the words: “We will never do that again.

But the most unpleasant part of this ordeal is that after the banker has apologized a half dozen times, Mom Nature has kicked up, sending a wintry blast your way and not showing any signs of quitting.

I don’t believe freezing at an ATM is makes customers feel all warm and runny inside. Do the providers of these animated apologies realize the repetitious-ness of their mea culpas?

All of this came to me today as I visited with family in the warmth of our living room. Our visitors from out of town were discussing their trek up Kilimanjaro, a couple of years ago. We brought up the topic of “What’s the coldest you’ve ever been?” I resisted the temptation to provide an easy answer: “The coldest I’ve ever been was imagining the icy glares of the Republican-majority House members when they realize Alabama’s senatorial winner is a DEMOCRAT.

But I didn’t mention that. Instead, I recalled a winter in suburban Chicago. THAT reference should have been enough to convince my family that it was really cold.
But I want to give more details here:

In the early ‘60s, I was new to a little town called Warrenville. I arrived there in October to take a job with a newspaper, shortly before Midwestern temps began to plummet.
I’d arranged with a friendly granny to buy my suppers at her house, especially during the coldest nights.

Mrs. Pothin lived less than a mile from my apartment, and as I headed to her house, I debated: If I drive to her house, the car will still be icy by the time I get there. So, what the heck? I’ll walk. The temperature gauge at Ruzicka Drugs, on the way, read 18 below, but I figured I could make it without too much misery. But just like that, gusty, frigid winds that accompany any of today’s bank or gas transactions, stirred up. I’d been warned that “The coldest place on the planet is downtown Chicago, when the wind blows off Lake Michigan.

I wasn’t exactly in Chicago, but close enough and realized I was almost halfway between my apartment and Mrs. Pothin’s house.

The dilemma: Going back home or hoofing it all the way and asking for a ride back home left no desirable choice. So I walked to Mrs. Pothin’s house only to get a lecture: “Why didn’t you just call me for a ride?” As a young man from New Mexico, used to wearing a light sports jacket — what did I know about really frigid temps? At the halfway point, I realized I could soon be in real trouble.

What started as a simple walk of less then a mile each direction conjured up a lot of scary thoughts:

What if I slip, break a leg and freeze to death? What if a car whizzes by, splashes slush on me and I REALLY get cold?

What if I simply pass out and fail to wake up alive?

Even as a fairly robust young man, I couldn’t purge my thoughts of doom. I began to obsess over something I’d heard in high school: Midwestern winters are much more humid than other places, and the cold goes right through you.

When my head started aching, my ears got numb and my nostrils became icy, I counted each painful step.

The next day, Mom sent me a fairly bulky package that contained the heaviest coat I’d ever worn. It worked well for the duration of that winter and a couple more snowy seasons that followed.

And after leaving Warrenville for the last time, I discovered that I never again needed that coat.

New Mexico winters are NOTHING like what I experienced in Illinois.

And that made me thankful.

• • •

And how were summers like in Illinois those years?
Hot, windless, muggy, gray.

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