Committing the Big Freeze to Lore

While North America creaks in the throes of a seeping, penetrating cold snap rare in its intensity, sights like a frozen pond in North Carolina push me down the zip line of memory to my childhood playing hockey on ponds in Wisconsin.

Every culture has rites of passage and one of them for me was opening a gift to find my first pair of ice skates on a Christmas morning. I couldn’t wait to slip on my coat and boots, slosh through the snow, slide under the fence and slog over to the wide spot in the creek to teach myself to skate. How hard could it be?

My parents stayed in the warm house and simply urged me to be sure the ice was thick enough to support my sisters and me. Well, how thick is safe?

And how do I determine thickness?

With an ax we chopped a hole close enough to the edge that we could leap to solid ground if the ice was too thin. Hmm, seemed safe. After a few tentative steps toward the middle, listening for ominous cracking, then some cautious jumps up and down without falling through, we were certain.

I discovered it is very difficult to stand up on ice skates. But my ankles lasted long enough to encourage me and we later frequented a much larger pond. Some winters it would snow during the first deep freeze, leaving the surface crunchy and worthless for skating.

On good years my buddies Dennis, Jay and I would shovel off a large area, tie magazines around our shins to protect them from whacks and play some hockey. Usually we were so tired from shoveling that the eventual hockey game was short.

When other kids found our snow-free patch of pond, they quickly gathered to take advantage, a theft of our labor we greatly resented.

If the ice was really thick we could use a tractor and blade to clear rink space. One winter our neighbor took us onto the pond in his car. We spun around totally out of control – but relatively safe – sliding effortless and quietly across the flat, clear ice.

In the winter of the really big freeze, it was far too cold to be outside for anything other than emergencies. My dad drove a fuel truck then for the local farmer’s cooperative. Of course, people were running out of heating fuel faster than normal and way ahead of schedule. So dad suffered through enormously long days in -50 degree wind chill.

I’m amazed his truck would start on those mornings. He kept it sheltered between sheds but the engine still screeched and complained when asked to turn over. Lubrication hardened in the oil pan, so metal rubbed metal briefly, creating the ruckus.

Temperatures like that freeze your nose hairs and crystallize your breath into icicles on your eyelashes. It’s literally too cold to snow.

But when it did snow we wrapped chains around the tires for traction. Snowplows shoved snow off the roads, filling up ditches. When the ditches were full snow blowers spewed snow over the top creating walls of heavy drifts. Driving was as if through a tunnel and intersections became exercises in risk management.

Of course the snow of memories is always deeper; the temperatures always colder; circumstances always more dire. My dad remembers working for a dairyman who could not afford a milk bucket. So dad had to ferry milk from the barn to the dairy one handful at a time; uphill; both ways.

I suspect our children’s eventual memories of how they survived the deep freeze of 2015 will grow with time and fill their children with awe over how they foiled fear and fate and survived in the face of all odds.

Living and Dying Alone

When a man who bought a house for the value of its unpaid taxes noticed that the previous owner’s car remained on the property, he asked Sandy Run, SC deputies to investigate.

Inside, they discovered the body of Mary Sue Merchant, 74. She had died of natural causes – 18 months earlier.

Civic and utility workers had done their duty. They’d cut off her electricity for non-payment. I’m sure they sent her a notice before they did so. Then, they sold her property at auction when her taxes went unpaid.

But no one talked to her.

Merchant was a widow, had no children and had lost touch with her sister long before. Her husband – who died years earlier – was a retired prison guard who feared retribution from prisoners, so they lived quietly and reclusively.

The awful sadness is, as the sheriff said in a 2009 Associated Press story, “This lady had absolutely nobody who cared enough to check on her.”

Earlier that same year a 93-year-old man froze to death inside his Bay City, MI home. Bay City Electric Light & Power had recently installed a device to restrict Marvin Schur’s electricity use because the chronically late payer owed about $1,000. The device would shut off electricity when the bill reached a certain point and could only be reset by the homeowner. No one told Schur it had been installed and he slowly froze to death in his unheated home.

A neighbor who found Schur dead said his windows were covered with ice – on the inside.

Investigation later showed he had money to pay the bills. He just hadn’t.

A surveillance camera video a few years ago became a YouTube hit when it showed 78-year-old pedestrian Angel Torres struck by a car and flipped upside down while trying to cross a street in Hartford, Conn. He was left severely injured and motionless in the middle of the road as cars passed and bystanders watched. One motorcycle driver circled, looked, and drove off. A few drivers called 911, but no one stopped to help.

Have we become so calloused, so self-absorbed that people live and die in quiet desperation all around us with no one even knowing if they’re dead? Or if they ever lived?

You cannot be responsible for the world. But you can take the initiative to know your neighbors, their names, their situations, whether or not they have someone who cares if they live or die.

That could be a good senior adult ministry for your church: to create a daily calling circle for people who live alone, to check in on them, let them know someone cares, to help if the utilities get cut off or the cupboard is bare.

One day you will call and no one will answer. But your friend will have lived every day knowing she was not alone.

Find the story to move people

My route to work for several years took me down the same road at about the same time every morning. And, more often than not, I would see the same woman, power walking down the sidewalk in my direction.

I knew she was out there to exercise, so I didn’t offer her a ride.

When Blake Pollock of Rochester, MI kept seeing the same man walking along the road on which Pollack was commuting to his bank job – no matter the weather – he eventually offered him a ride. He learned that James Robertson was walking to work – a commute of 21 miles each way. Daily.

Pollack took Robertson’s story to the Detroit Free Press, which published it front page. Here’s a man working for just over $10 an hour, who hasn’t missed a day of work in years, even after his car gasped its last years ago. He could not afford to replace it so he walks, catches a bus, and walks to work 21 miles each way, five days a week from areas that no metro Detroit bus serves.

When his 2 p.m. to 10 p.m. shift is over, he hikes seven miles to catch the last bus for a ways, then walks the last five miles home in the dark.

After the story of Robertson’s grueling commute appeared in the newspaper, a 19-year-old Wayne State University student started a crowd-funding site to raise $5,000 to get Robertson a car. Within three days donors inspired by Robertson’s dedication contributed more than $210,000. Plus two dealers each offered a new car.

Now, instead of saving money for a new pair of work boots, Robertson is weighing car options, and he has money for maintenance and insurance as long as he’ll need it.

This is a rich story on many levels.

First, it demonstrates the power of a story. We may think people are getting harder and more isolated and tribal. And we are. But a powerful story still moves us.

Use stories to communicate. Whether you’re preaching, disciplining a child, giving a speech, training an employee, extract a story from your experience or reading, or listening, to demonstrate your point.

If you are leading an annual giving campaign, put a person up front to tell her story of sacrificial giving and the blessings that follow. I still remember a couple at my church who told of selling their dream house so they could lower their cost of living and be more generous. Our annual giving reached an all time high after that.

Second, this story illustrates that money follows the information flow. Robertson’s could still be walking for the next ten years if no one knew his situation. What are you doing to tell your story? It doesn’t just happen.

Third, the story of James Robertson illustrates the importance of having and supporting the mediums through which we receive our stories; be they the newspaper, NPR, publications of your favorite organizations or reader supported web sites like my favorite

Fourth, Robertson’s story is a heart-warming reminder that our self absorbed, insular, tribal society can still respond with a generous heart.

If you have a project to get done, money to raise, people to help – tell their story.