Thursday, January 24, 2013

Bah! What's a little cold to a Midwesterner?

Last winter's warmth seems to have made wusses out of some Minnesotans.  Yesterday we managed to get out of the below-zero temps, but then dropped back into the negative teens overnight.  Tuesday, a bunch of schools closed or were delayed by two hours.  Not my kids' school, I believe because the Superintendent grew up in Minnesota and last Supe'd at a district in Colorado, so he understands cold weather.  However, the weather people are whipping up fear over wind chills in the -40s and temps hovering near zero like this is something new for people in the upper Midwest.  It isn't.

I remember a January back in the mid-'90s when the temps never reached above-0, or if they did, it was only for a day here or there.  I happened to be employed by McDonald's (that lasted about two months and then I had to quit because I couldn't stand it any longer) at the time, and remember the temps vividly because that January, McDonald's decided to run a promotion on Quarter-Pounders: "Buy one Quarter-Pounder, get one for the price of the high temperature that day, if it's below zero, it's free!" We gave away more Quarter-Pounders that month than what McDonald's had planned on. (Who knew that we could have a 31 day stretch of near-to-below zero temps in January in Wisconsin?!)  That was also the month during which I was relegated back to the drive-thru order window.  At that McDonald's, they had decided to make the drive-thru more "personal" by eliminating the microphone from the order menu and having three drive-up windows: order your food, pay, pick-up.  It was quite confusing for most people who were used to speaking into a microphone on the large menu, and frequently I would encounter people screaming at the menu while I hung out the window, waving to them to drive forward.  There was also a newspaper box between the menu and my window at which people would stop and try to talk to someone to order their food (which always cracked me up to see) until I, once again, would hang out the window and wave to them until they realized that they were talking to a newspaper box and pull forward for my "personalized order service".

Being in the drive-thru order window really sucked.  It was placed in the back of the store and isolated from everyone else; the only entertainment was the people coming through the drive-thru.  On nights we were slow, the time dragged so much that I was tempted to sneak a book back there and read.  That probably would have gotten me fired, so I never did it, but it was definitely a temptation.  So, on the nights that dipped below zero, I entertained myself by seeing if it was true that liquid, when thrown into the cold night air, would freeze before it hit the ground (it does - hot coffee works especially well).  Fortunately, the drive-thru was not where anyone would be attempting to walk, otherwise I would have probably gotten into trouble for making an ice-slick right outside my window.  After a month of working the coldest of nights, opening the window to let in freezing air, closing it long enough to regain feeling in my fingers, opening it again, waiting endless minutes for people to decide if they wanted the Number Two or the Number Twelve Value Meal and "could you please make sure that Little Timmy's burger has nothing but a burger and a bun ("You mean 'Plain', right, ma'am?"), oh wait, change that, now he wants Chicken McNuggets and do I pay you?" I ended up with a cold and strep throat and out of work for a week.  It wasn't long after that McDonald's management was presented with my two-weeks notice and uniform.

In the late '80s, I was a high school student who lived seven miles out of town.  Our bus came at 6:50am every day.  Lucky for us, we lived on a dead-end road, giving us two opportunities to catch the bus since it had to turn around at the end of our road and come back.  Most mornings, my mom would be watching for the bus to go by the first time, then yell to my younger sister and I, "The bus went by! Hurry up!" causing us to scramble into jackets and run out the door.  (Our driver, "Igor," was notorious for speeding past our driveway, so unless we were actually at the end of the driveway, he was happy to leave us in a cloud of diesel-fuel exhaust. I'm sure this had nothing to do with the hi-jinx and shenanigans my sister and I engaged in on the 30 minute ride into town...)  I don't remember wearing a hat on any day of the three and a half years of high school (I graduated a semester early and ran off to Nebraska in January of my Senior year), including the days when the temps were below-zero.  Nothing wakes you up more than being the third person on a cold bus and sitting on ice-cold vinyl, your hair frozen from the 30 seconds you spent running from your door to the end of the driveway.  Or if that didn't wake me up, irritation from the non-stop drone of country music ("I've got ocean-front property in Arizona...") usually did the trick.

These were the days when there wasn't five buses going through one neighborhood.  Our school district didn't have that many buses nor did it have in the budget to cover the gas all those buses would require, so students of all ages rode the bus, all students got a tour of the various schools' parking lots in our district (we had two grade schools, a Junior High and a High School) either on the way to school or coming home.  My sister appreciated the fact that she had me on the bus with her; if any older kid bullied her, all she had to do was let me know, and I'd send my usual seatmate, John (a large jock-type guy from my class) to take care of the bully.  It usually only took John heading down the aisle toward the offender to make them stop picking on Heidi.  Then she'd flash me her cute grin, big blue eyes twinkling, a little smug with her knowledge of the power to take care of mean kids.

We had no downhill or nordic ski team at my high school, but we did have Ski Club.  There was a limited number of spots in the ski club (corresponding with how many kids could be shoved into a school bus at one time with ski gear in the back), so getting signed up as soon as possible was key to entry.  Then, once the local ski hill was open (sometimes in November, but always by December), every Thursday my friends and I would don our "ski bunny" outfits: cute Columbia jackets, tight but warm (yeah, right) ski pants, a fleece neck-warmer (or a bandana) and matching head-band (placed just so - hopefully covering one's ears - in hair made huge with ratting, a curling-iron, volumizing mousse and half a can of Aqua-Net hairspray), warm socks, and (hopefully) warm gloves (no mittens, thank you). Then we jumped on the waiting bus filled with cute upper-classman boys and our ski chaperon (whom I never once actually saw ski - I'm pretty sure she spent the entire time in the main chalet's bar) and headed to the ice-covered (man-made snow isn't the same as "real snow" and don't ever let anyone tell you differently) ski hill.

I don't remember a ski club trip being canceled due to the weather being too cold.  I do remember skiing down WHIZ-BANG! hills and then the freezing ten minute chairlift rides back up (longer if people fell getting on or off the thing or if we were a little too exuberant in our quest to get the whole thing bouncing by swinging our skis back and forth) to the top.  We became masters at finding the longest runs, made longer by a little creative skating in between runs and lifts.  But keep us off the hills because it was below zero? Not a chance.  We skied until we started to notice patches of exposed facial skin turning white (I was notorious for a patch on one cheek that was in the shape of a heart) and we could no longer feel our fingers or toes.  Only then would we troop to a chalet, where we'd warm up with burn-your-tongue-hot apple cider and french fries, giggling over boys, complaining about the burning pain in our toes as they thawed out, and discovering that frozen Skittle candy turns to powder when stepped on with heavy ski boots.

One of my favorite memories happened Freshman year when an adored by all English teacher decided to join us.  I had the honor of helping him learn to ski, which also gave me entry into the world of the HOT Junior and Senior Male Ski Club membership.  We dragged that poor teacher down hills that a novice skier never should have attempted, but, bless his heart, he was game and tried anyway, frequently ending up in a heap mid-hill, skis, hat, poles scattered fifty feet above and below his landing spot.  (I was accused of being a "stealth skier" by the boys I was trying to impress, due to my ability to "sneak up" on them on the way down a hill, scare them by practically skiing over their skis and laughing when they'd fall down. They threatened to attach bells to my jacket so they could hear me, but never did. Thinking back, that probably wasn't the best way to impress them, but at 14 years old, what did I know?) The teacher always got up, usually with a little help from one of us, gathered his things (or we brought his gear to him), shakily reattached his skis and slowly made his way back down to the chairlift and tried again.  His courage and tenacity only made us love him more, so when he got into trouble for a nasty picture a student drew (and he put up in his classroom, never noticing the dirty picture within the picture) in his class and was threatened with removal, the whole school participated in a walk-out to support him.  (Unfortunately, the power of a walk-out only remains when students do it for First Period and then return to school, which didn't happen that day as most of the Junior and Senior and some of the Sophomore and Freshman classes disappeared for the rest of the day.)  He was allowed to finish out the year and the next, but moved to a new school in another city a year later.

Our school was only canceled once due to the cold, and only then because someone broke into the bus garage and unplugged all the buses in the middle of the night, making them inoperable in the morning.  Whenever my kids start asking "Do you think school will be canceled because of the cold tomorrow?" hope lighting their eyes, I get to smash that with "Not a chance. Get your homework done and go to bed." "Are you sure?" They'll ask, at which point I'll launch into, "What are you whining about a little cold for? You don't have to be at school til 8:30am; back in my day, I had to be on the bus at ten to seven every day and -"
"We know, mom, and you walked to the bus uphill both ways, barefoot and with no jacket, too..."

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