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WOSTER: Temps offer a reminder of cold-weather sounds from childhood on farm

Terry Woster, Daily Republic columnist  Back on the farm on below-zero days like the ones we’ve been experiencing, it was amazing how many sounds were linked to the temperature.

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Walking from the barn back toward the house through deep, heavily crusted snow drifts, I could hear the squeak of my boots on the snow. My dad used to tell me the exact temperature based on the pitch of the squeaking of his boots in the snow.

“Listen,” he’d say, “That’s right at 15 below. If it’s up close to zero, the pitch is lower and you don’t get as much noise.”

As soon as I could get to the thermometer by the back door, I’d check the reading. Sure enough, he was always pretty close to what he described. Of course, he kept as close an eye on the thermometer and the western horizon and as clear an ear to WNAX Radio’s weather reports in those days as I do today to sounds and sights on The Weather Channel. He probably looked at the temperature on his way out the door and played it up for his naïve middle child. That’s the likely answer now that I’m an adult. Back on the farm, I just believed he listened and understood the temperature he was hearing in the squeak of his boots.

I had a ratty old parka with a hood I snapped tight under my chin. The parka was a heavy old bearcat, as were most of the cold-weather garments in those days. In a corner of the bunkhouse, I found a greasy old winter cap, the kind with ear-flaps that tied across the top of the cap if the weather was decent but that tied under the chin in the bad days. When I had the flaps tied down and the hood snapped, I could hear myself breathing as I walked through the snowdrifts. Ever since those times, deepest winter has been associated with the sharp rasp of my ragged breathing and the squeak of my boots.

Other deep-winter sounds from my childhood are the hollow thwack of an axe as it bit through ice on the stock pond. When I chopped a fresh drinking hole in the stock dam north of the home place, the sound of the axe echoed back from somewhere — the tree belt, maybe, or the side of the barn, although as I picture it now, the barn was a long, long way from the dam. Maybe it just seemed so because I often was sent on foot to cut a hole in the ice. I suppose folks figured if I didn’t come back, they knew about where I’d last been seen.

You’d be surprised how audible in that setting was the delicate, rainfall sound of wet chips of ice as they sprayed across my the front of my parka and pant legs and how surprisingly loud was the rustling of cowhide as the thirsty Herefords jostled each other around the open water left by the axe blows. Whenever I think of the rustle of cowhide, I immediately recall the explosive snorts from the nostrils of the cattle and the thick clouds of condensed breath that rose from flared nostrils.

I never think of farm chores in winter without remembering how cold I was by the time the work was finished. I bundled into everything I could find, but I never stayed completely warm. I wasn’t freezing or anything, but I was never warm. I suppose it would be easier to stay warm these days, what with the space-age materials that insulate without adding weight.

In those days, if it was designed to be warm, it was made to be heavy. The winter coveralls my dad wore for outdoor chores and sitting in goose pits weighed a ton or so. My parka was about half that heavy. We all must have all been running around like Ralphie in “The Christmas Story.”

Looking back, I don’t know how I was able to raise and lower my arms enough to swing an axe. I’m not even sure how I was able to move enough to take a step and make the snow squeak. I did, though, because I can still hear the squeak.