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.

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