A polar vortex has hovered over Madison for a month or more. Last week it sagged south enough to humiliate the Lone Star State. Blasted with snow, ice, and temperatures in the 20s and 30s, the Texas power grid collapsed, causing several days of misery and danger for some three million Texans, including friends and relatives of mine. I hope and pray for their safety.
There is, believe me, no gloat in it when I say: Our snow is deeper, and our temperatures are colder. We in Wisconsin are better prepared for winter, that’s all, since we are blessed with so much of it every year. Still, the past month has been a trial, even for us.
We’ve been continuously below freezing, below zero much of the time—rivaling the record winter of 1978-79. We’ve had forty inches of snow, which is only a little above average for this time of year. But most of it came in January and February, and during this long cold stretch practically none has melted. It towers up to four or five feet on both sides of every street and sidewalk. Even in the dead center of our yard, it’s probably two feet deep.
With day and night temperatures clustered around zero, I’ve chosen to huddle indoors. Even in my house it’s cold. But yesterday the mercury rose to nineteen degrees Fahrenheit, and the sun shone. It was past time to exercise my new hip, so I walked all the way around the block.
A neighbor’s window sign exhorted me: FIND JOY.
My friend Bill Martinez once told me: “Even if an experience is not particularly enjoyable, or even if it’s perfectly miserable, we can still enjoy it.” I’ve thought about that for more than fifty and have concluded he is right.
We enjoy something by taking joy in it. And the only way to take joy in something is to put joy into it. Joy comes from us, from within. It’s already there, a free gift from God. Use it or lose it. If you don’t exercise your joy muscle, it goes to flab.
So my neighbor’s sign reminded me to work on that as I walked. I’ll admit there are circumstances under which it might be harder to find joy. But strolling yesterday through a snowcape with my face turning red from the cold was a piece of cake. Joy enough for anyone.
My neighbors had shoveled their sidewalks, making my trek easy. The new hip limbered up well. With my Duluth Trading Company jacket, my scarf, gloves, stocking cap, and my sunglasses against the snow-glare, I was the perfect neighborhood tourist. The scenes through which I passed made me proud to be a Madisonian.
Southerners see photos of snow-covered landscapes and marvel at the beauty. Northerners know that a day or two after it falls, the snow is gray-brown, dingy, slushy—befouled by man, machine, and pet. This month, however, is an exception. Our neighborhood really is beautiful.
Forty inches of snow has fallen two or four inches at a time, once or twice a week. With continuously low temperatures it does not melt. A weekly or semi-weekly dusting of new snow keeps our city decked out like a New England Christmas card.
I saw neither hide nor hair of my old school chum, Milo Bung. Too cold for him, no doubt.
A neighbor has a nifty black Ford F-150 pickup truck. It sits outdoors in his driveway. I suppose other things occupy his two-car garage. Still, no worries. An orange heavy-duty drop cord ran from under the garage door to the front of the truck. He has what we all had in the old days: An electric tank heater, dipstick heater, or lower radiator hose heater to make sure that warm water or oil circulates through the engine block and keeps the engine primed for a trouble-free winter start. Good man.
I rounded the corner near home, and boy, was it good to get back inside. Baby, it’s cold outside.
Swept up in the mad whirl of life, I did not see this coming.
It was Milo Bung who informed me.
He stood on my front stoop in casual clothes and formal mask. Even Milo has learned to mask up. He shivered in the pool of arctic air we have lately inherited from the Canadians. “Well? You just going to stand there and let me freeze to death?”
“Oops, sorry.” I opened the door and let him slip inside.
He stamped his feet and adjusted his mask. That is to say, he took it off. He’s been in a bubble for months and so have I. We’re both of an age where we’ll be next in line for the vaccine.
“What’s got into you?” Milo demanded. “Did you actually not know last night was New Year’s Eve?”
“I slept through it, like most other things. To tell you the truth, I was preparing to suck the remaining joy out of 2020, but now you tell me the chance is gone.”
“Wake up and smell the coffee, pardner.” That was a hint.
“Come on, I’ll make some.” I led him into the kitchen and sat him down. “The years go by too fast.Où, I ask you, sont les neiges d’antan?” This was a bit of Gallic ju-jitsu, intended to trap him into a long-winded discussion of an irrelevant subject.
Dear Reader, perhaps I’ve neglected to mention that after his unfortunate stint in the Marine Corps, Milo picked up a master’s degree in French Medieval Literature. So he would know I merely meant to ask, “Where are the snows of yesteryear?” But he would not be able to resist a mini-lecture on François Villon. That was my theory, you see.
Milo surprised me. “Où? I’ll tell you où. They’ve been piling up around our ankles and knees for years. Now we’re up to our ribcages in them, and I can tell you, they’re going for the throat.” I had never seen such intensity from my old school chum. But I shared his concern.
Let me explain, Dear Reader, in case you, through no fault of your own, are among the metaphor-impaired. My old friend the French scholar was referring to years. The separate snowfalls are just harbingers of time. And indeed the years do pile up around one, just as successive snows will eventually swamp the hardiest mountain cabin.
I poured coffee and set it before him. “What do you propose we do about them, Milo—all these neiges?”
He took a sip, made a grateful face, and gave me a canny look. His eyes measured me, from the top of my snowy head to the gnarled hand resting on the curved handle of a cane, and on down to its rubber tip, planted on the linoleum near my questionable legs.
“You’ll be all right,” he said. “You’ve got baggage to throw overboard yet. Go up to the hospital in a couple of weeks, get that hip replaced, and by spring you’ll be good for another fifty thousand miles.”
I smiled. “It’s wonderful what they can do now, isn’t it?”
He frowned. “Me, I got nothing like that left to improve. I’ll just have to get by on sheer force of personality.”
“Gee, Milo, what if you run out?”
He scowled. “I’ll make up something else, you slippered old pantaloon.”
I stared at him through the spectacles on the end of my nose. He had assured me of fifty thousand more miles, but from where I tottered, fifty thousand didn’t seem like all that many.
Nonetheless, when he took his homeward way, I was cheered. After all, I had received encouragement from no less than Milo Bung, direct lineal descendant of Aethelred the Unready, and third cousin to Slats Grobnik.
Sunday, October 25—Here in Madison, we are seeing our first snow shower of the season.
It won’t stick.
A white film may coat the ground like manna tomorrow morning, but it will be gone in 24 hours—melted like manna by the sun, or else sublimated in the gray air of autumn.
Brown leaves have descended from our maple and our neighbor’s walnuts, and small yellow ones from our black locust. Yet plenty of other leaves cling green on trees and bushes. Soon enough, they too shall be crispéd and sere, as Poe would prefer.
How can such frail fingers pluck so loud on the strings of my reverie? Launching this blog, I pledged to resist the charms of mere nostalgia. But October brings a flood of recall, in which I am swept up all too willingly.
Rather than fight it, Dear Reader, I will share a bit with you.
McCutcheon of the Trib
Every October of my youth—indeed every fall from 1912 through 1992—the Chicago Tribune showcased “Injun Summer,” a cartoon drawing, with folksy narrative, by editorial artist John T. McCutcheon. Its two panels showed a boy and his grandfather watching a field of conical corn shocks transform into a tepee village, with smoke-shaped Indians doing a dance in the wispy gloaming.
The old man, in his homey way, explains to the lad that the “sperrits” of “Injuns” now extinct return each year, moved by the autumn haze to haunt their former campgrounds. News readers, even in the darkest parts of the twentieth century, knew that Native Americans were not extinct, but despite that fact, “Injun Summer” became a hallowed tradition over a term of eighty years.
For one thing, it was assumed by white Americans that the traditional Indian way of life was a thing of the past; that those Indians still alive had better act like typical Americans or be swept aside by history. For another, most Midwesterners—the Trib’s main audience—had such warm memories of autumn days that we were suckers for the romantic image of long-dead Indian ghosts dancing in the smoky haze of burning leaves.
I doubt it happens now in very many places—what with the Clean Air Act and all—but in days of yore we would rake dry leaves from our yards into the street and simply set a match to the piles. On a nice October day, whole neighborhoods would come out to chat amid the smoke. Kids ran to and fro, playing tag among the leafy pyres, as grown-ups with metal-tined rakes kept the conflagration confined.
Folks in our neighborhood brought out foil-wrapped potatoes and baked them in the leaves.
We could do these things, Fair Reader, because there were half as many of us then as there are now. Such frolics would be ill-advised in the brave new world of now.
Besides our annual festival of burning leaves, we went nutting. We competed with the squirrels. Dad drove us to a place he knew of in the country, where stood an acre or two of shagbark hickories in a park-like setting. We scooped nuts off the ground and tossed them into gunny sacks.
I was not partial to hickory nuts, or any other kind; but Mom, in particular, liked all varieties of nuts. Commonly, we and others left a bowl of unshelled nuts on a coffee table, an end table, or a bookcase-top—with nutcrackers and nutpicks handy to aid in their consumption.
Just so you younger folks will know: Nutcrackers did not dress up in uniforms like palace guards. No; they were simple, functional devices in zinc-plated steel, similar to pliers. They were meant for cracking nuts, not for dancing ballets.
Besides nuts, we ate a lot of fresh apples in the fall and drank quite a bit of cider, which we got from your proverbial roadside stands. Often a glass jug of cider, and perhaps a pumpkin and some gourds, would come home as the byproduct of a simple drive in the country.
In those days, we drove in the country a lot. Just for fun.
With gas at thirty cents a gallon, the Sunday drive was cheap entertainment. It was especially popular in the fall, when the colors were great. Most country roads were two-lane, with top speeds around 50 miles per hour. When you saw a roadside stand with cider and pumpkins, there was a fair chance you could pull off and stop before you had zoomed past it.
Today the country stands are bigger operations, destinations in themselves, at odd ends of county trunk roads. If somebody were to set up a small stand beside the main highway, it would be hard for drivers tunnel-visioning along at 75 mph to fight their way across three or four lanes of traffic and sample the wares.
We celebrated Halloween as children do today, by dressing up in costumes and going down the street to extort candy from the neighbors. Today, small children go under parental escort. Only teenagers go on their own, and then always in groups. You never know who might be lurking.
In our childhood, parents did not go along. Only kids went, usually in fair-sized groups. There might be children as old as twelve or as young as four in a group. A child too young for attachment to such a group was not yet old enough for trick-or-treating. And groups of kids straggling about the neighborhood on Halloween night were ostensibly safe. After all, what could happen?
Besides trick-or-treating, Halloween parties were sometimes arranged at schools, churches, or private homes. As best I can recall, what one did at such a party was bobbing for apples. If you’ve never bobbed for apples, Gentle Reader, then you have missed the fun of sticking your face in a tub of cold water, rooting about aimlessly for an eternity of minutes, likely damaging one or more of your possibly still-emerging teeth, and being laughed at because you were unable to sequester a single globéd fruit.
Less than a month after Halloween comes Thanksgiving. Our modern American holiday is a mashup of traditional harvest festivals such as the one held in Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1621 and a national need, felt strongly during the Civil War, to thank God for his blessings. When the Pilgrims held their feast with Massasoit and his braves in 1621, it was just a party to celebrate the fruits of the harvest. Had they considered it a time of special thanksgiving, they would have fasted and prayed for three days instead. Our Reformed forebears were gravely attentive to the task of thanksgiving.
We modern Americans say “Thank You” best by eating vast quantities of food and falling asleep. When I was young, a new fillip had just been added to that program: You ate, settled down in the living room, and took your nap in front of a televised football game.
I remember watching, with Dad and Grandpa and various uncles, as Ollie Matson of the Chicago Cardinals made an amazing touchdown run that none of us could actually see, on account of snow. Not meteorological snow at Soldier Field, but electronic snow on the television screen. And a vertical roll so persistent that Uncle Richard stood behind the set tweaking the vertical hold knob throughout the game. They don’t make TVs like that anymore.
(Upon checking the Internet, I find that the Chicago Cardinals did not play a Thanksgiving Day game with Ollie Matson in the lineup in any year of my childhood; so I must be remembering a non-Thanksgiving Day game. But you get the idea.)
We have arrived back at the subject of snow. Soon all this fall frivolity will be done, and we’ll be clamped in the grim vise of winter. It’s hard to wax nostalgic when you’re up to your schnozzola in peaceful, downy-white, hexacrystalline flakes. They’re so tiny—how could they possibly amount to anything?
My friends among the woollybear caterpillars inform me, and my own 75 years of finely-honed instincts confirm, that this will be a humdinger of a winter. It will both hum and ding.
When geezers gather, the gab gets garrulous. There is boasting value in extremes.
“We were so poor that the patches on our jeans, had patches on their jeans!”
“What! . . . You had jeans?”
Tales of poverty can still score points, but people who remember the Great Depression are mostly gone. So the extremest thing most of us can conjure these days is the weather.
Eco-warriors among us—whippersnappers!—construe any bump in the barometer, any thump in the thermometer, any slump in the sling psychrometer as a harbinger of the woe we are to reap from Global Warming. Well, maybe.
I can say this for sure: Nobody ever weathered weather like the weather we weathered, back in The Old Days. Gathered geezers may tell of the Terrible Winter of 1935-36, the Great Floods of ’93, the Summer That It Rained Alligator Eggs, or the Year With No Summer Atall. You never know, Dear Reader, when you may find yourself swamped in a five-hundred-year flood of such remembrances.
Winter of Purple Snow
When I mention the Winter of the Purple Snow, people look askance. When I claim that, actually, every winter in The Old Days was a winter of purple snow, a ceiling-mounted wide-angle lens would show a frenzy of Brownian motion away from me and toward the exits.
But it’s all true, every word. We did have purple snow, at least in Streator, Illinois, where my boyhood was misspent. Other cities must have had it, too.
Each winter, the snow tumbled down in December—pure, fluffy, altogether white. Over the next three days, the snow on the ground—not the snow in my backyard, but the snow on every city street—became empurpled. The cause of purple snow is easiest to explain in retrospect: Snow tires had not yet been invented.
In these apocalyptic times—even as we face continual peril from CNN-scale floods, hurricanes, earthquakes, volcanoes, tsunamis, and disaster films—one thing we no longer worry about, much, is sideways slippage on winter streets. All our cars wear radial tires. Radial tires slump a bit. This increases the surface that contacts the road, thus improves traction. Those who like to gild the lily may put on special “winter radial tires” in the fall. They have a deeper, more “road-gripping” tread design in addition to the famous radial slump. Most of us don’t feel a need for this. But before radial tires were invented, deep-tread “snow tires” were better than nothing.
However, in the 1950s, we didn’t even have those. There were only regular bias-ply or belted-bias tires. No special deep tread, no radial slump. They just perched on the ice and slid this way or that. In heavy snow, you might put messy, inconvenient “tire chains” on your tires. These were circular cages, made of interlinked chains, that enveloped each tire. They bit into the snow and ice. If you had to climb a long hill in the country, you needed chains. But on city streets that were half snow-covered and half clear, as is often the case, those chains chewed up the pavement, the tires, and themselves. So you didn’t use them any more than you had to.
“Where,” you ask, “is all this headed? Have you forgotten about the purple snow?” Stay with me, Kind Reader.
We needed something short of chains to help tires grip the street—especially at intersections, where most winter crashes occur. Sand would have been dandy. But why use expensive sand, when you can get crunchy, gritty cinders free of charge? This thrifty solution appealed to the city fathers in Streator and, I’ve got to believe, elsewhere.
You see, our houses were heated by coal. In Illinois, Mother Nature, 350 million years ago, had buried a generous layer of bituminous coal not far underground.
There are three forms, or “ranks,” of coal: anthracite, bituminous, and lignite. Lignite is brown, not much harder than the peat burned by poor Irish cottagers and rich Scottish distillers. Anthracite is hard, black, almost-a-diamond coal that’s mined in Pennsylvania. Bituminous is harder lignite but not as hard as anthracite. In other words, it is just right—not too hard, not too soft. Goldilocks would have used it in her furnace, for sure.
One ton of bituminous coal cost about five dollars—1950s dollars, that is. About fifty bucks in today’s money, so it wasn’t as cheap as it sounds. But if you could heat your house halfway through the winter on fifty dollars—that wouldn’t be so bad, would it? Bituminous coal was useful, abundant, and cheap.
But “O! The horror!” Did not all this burning coal cause sulfur dioxide, hydrogen sulfide, toxic metal residues, acid rain, air pollution, and so forth? Why, yes. It did. That is why we have air-quality regulations now, why the coal industry looks for low-sulfur deposits. It’s also why most coal-burning homes converted to gas, oil, or electric in the 1960s and ’70s. Through a combination of governmental action and industry initiatives, air and water in most places is cleaner now than it was in the 1950s.
Even in the Fabulous Fifties, however, pollution from coal was not very bad—in most places. It was quite bad in some heavy industrial corridors. But for most of us, the worst side effect was a thin film of soot on our walls.
“Spring cleaning” in those days meant something very particular. Our mothers each April removed coal dust from every interior wall. This was not a happy task that added joy to Mom’s relentless mission of caring for her family. My mother seemed to regard it as an irksome chore. But it must be done, and done it was.
She bought wall-cleaning putty at the hardware store. She rubbed it over the wall surface, then pulled it out, folded it over to expose clean putty, rubbed again. At the end we had clean walls. Plus many little balls of soiled putty to throw away. When homeowners abandoned coal, the makers of wall-cleaning putty added bright colors to the stuff and called it “Play-Doh.” That’s right, they did. (As Casey Stengel might say if he were alive today, “You could Google it.”)
“BUT WHAT ABOUT THE PURPLE SNOW?”
How to Be a Kid, 1950s Edition
When I was seven, Dad introduced me to my first regular chore—stoking the furnace. The furnace lived in the basement. It was a huge cylinder with ducts about a foot in diameter that sprouted all directions from its head. The main chamber and all the ducts were padded with asbestos insulation. (See “O! The horror!” above.)
Bituminous coal filled a room near the furnace, called “the coal bin.” Two or three times a year, the coal deliverymen would pour a ton of coal down a metal chute into the coal bin through a basement window.
Our coal came in rough lumps the size of a baseball or softball. It was shiny and black. You could break a lump in two with your bare hands. This exposed the striations of the rock. Sometimes it also exposed a fossil—the outline of a small leaf, for example—that had been trapped in the coal back in the Pennsylvanian Age of geology.
Coal was lightweight, for a rock. It was friable; when you handled it, you got greasy black dust on your hands. I scooped it from the coal bin with a giant shovel, set it in the furnace on top of the coal already aflame there. I had to make sure the new coal caught flame, augmented the fire and did not smother it.
Then I shook down the grates. (Purple snow coming up, Gentle Reader!) Two metal handles protruded from the furnace below the coal door. I rattled these handles; dead ashes and cinders fell through the grates into a hopper below. Once a week we shoveled ashes and cinders—also called “clinkers”—out of the furnace. We carried them to the alley behind our house in a five-gallon can. When the garbage men came by to collect our refuse, they dumped our ashes and clinkers into a separate compartment on their truck.
They collected these materials from every alley in the city. The product, as donated by householders, was a mix of fine, white fly ash and dense, iridescent clinkers. The city washed the fly ash away, leaving the clinkers—small, irregular rocks of metallic slag. A single clinker could be round, bulbous, sharp, jagged—all at the same time. They were multi-hued, but dominated by purple, blue, green, and pink.
The Empurplement of Streator, Illinois
When snow blanketed city streets, crews dumped these clinkers on every intersection for traction. Every passing car crushed them into smaller pieces. Periodically the city replenished the clinkers at the intersections.
Numberless bits of cinder got dragged down the street—transferred from interesections to tires, then deposited in mid-street, in driveways, in alleys, even on sidewalks. By mid-winter, all streets were festooned with purple snow, colored by the powdered residued of our furnace clinkers. It ranged from bright purple-pink to a dull brown slush with just a bit of rosiness.
Snow melts; cinders remain. They lay in small, sharp bits, in gutters and on sidewalks. They formed a light coat over asphalt schoolyards and potholed alleys. They lay in wait for innocent childen.
Cinders paved athletic running tracks before the invention of GrassTex, Tartan Track, AstroTurf. Sprinters and middle-distance runners got cinders in their low-cut track shoes, chewing up their feet. Or they fell on the track and embedded tiny chunks of metal under their skin.
The same hazard faced every child who strapped on a pair of roller skates or drove a tricycle pell-mell along uneven sidewalks while clad in short pants and tee shirts. Nobody escaped. Some kids had cinders embedded so deep that years later you could still find the black speck in cheek, knee, or elbow where the projectile had burrowed in.