Everybody, I suppose, has heard the story about the guy who would hit himself with a hammer and, when asked why, say it felt so good when he stopped.
That’s as good an explanation as any for why so many of us – well, 880,000 of us. I guess that isn’t so many in comparison with most states, but still – choose to live through winters here on the northern plains. We get a long, cold snap like that vicious one earlier this month, we somehow manage to survive it, and it feels so good when it stops. There’s something almost euphoric about walking out of the house on that first warmish day after a long spell of having the thermometer hover halfway between zero and the temperature of one of those vats they use to store the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine. It can’t be just me, can it?
It has been my experience over seven decades that those of us who live here in South Dakota take some obnoxious pride in being tough enough to take it — whatever “it’’ is. We’re hardy souls. That’s what we tell ourselves, and it’s what we tell anyone else who will listen, no matter what part of the country they call home. We can stand a little arctic air now and then, we say. We can laugh in the face of a polar vortex, even if our laughter freezes solid in mid “Ha’’ and drops with a thud to the snow-covered earth next to our insulated boots.
My generation, along with several before and one or two after, grew up understanding that nothing could be done about the weather except to endure it. We adapted to it as best we could. I had one sweet Army surplus parka back in junior high. It was filled with some kind of down, had half a dozen pockets for extra mittens and gloves and an oversized, fur-trimmed hood that engulfed my head and face. If that weren’t enough, it had drawstrings on the hood so I could pull it tighter and tighter until only a little peephole showed through. Sometimes I could hardly breathe in that fabric igloo of mine, but I was living through whatever weather winter brought my way.
I knew better than to ask for a ride to school during cold weather. A ride? What’s that?
For one thing, by the time I was ready to head out the door, my dad probably had already been well on his way to the farm. I might face some chilly walking in the five or so blocks between our house and school, but my dad would be outside a lot longer on the frozen prairie, and he wouldn’t have companionship during most of his day. I always had one or two classmates to share the misery of my walk. Dad would face colder conditions outside for a lot longer than it would take me to walk the five or so blocks to school.
For another thing, if I had wimped out and asked for a ride, our old station wagon likely wouldn’t have started, like it or not. I’d have had to mess around under the hood while my mom shivered behind the wheel, waiting for the signal to “try it now.’’ After Dad died, my mom always had engine heaters in her Chevies and electrical cords as big around as my forearm.
A week ago Sunday morning, I looked out and saw a guy putting up an ice shack on the river’s ice. I double-checked the temperature. Yup, minus 15 degrees. Well, I thought, at least his pickup started.
To escape cold weather, Nancy’s older brother moved a few years ago from the Denver area to a small town near some mountains in New Mexico. I’m pretty sure we’ll never see him back here again in the winter, although in his younger days in Los Angeles, he sometimes liked to shovel snow when he visited for Christmas.
Recently, a guy asked me if I ever thought of moving south. I have, I confessed. But then I’d forget how good it feels when a cold snap ends here on the plains.