Growing up along the Gulf coast has meant that I have very little experience with exceedingly cold weather. Around here ice skating is done in a refrigerated arena and coats last for decades because they are hardly worn from year to year. We’re lucky to get a quick freeze in the thirties now and again and the fireplaces built into all of the newer homes sometimes seem to be a bit of a waste of space.
Go north a bit and things really change. The cold can be brutal on the open prairie of Oklahoma which is only a day’s drive from my hometown. Lots of people from the Houston area are drawn to universities in Oklahoma for various majors like meteorology and, in my brother’s case, fire management. So one December day we followed him and his sons to a graduation ceremony at Oklahoma State University where he would be receiving an advanced degree.
He had warned us to bring warm clothing but we underestimated the bite of the freezing temperature combined with the brutal wind. It literally felt as though sharp icicles were slamming against our faces as we hurried from the warmth of the car into the housing that he had reserved for us for the weekend. I’d never in my life experienced anything quite so harsh.
It was warm and comfortable inside but the sound of the wind was constant. Not even the hurricanes I have experienced made the kind of roaring sound that continued all through the night as I lay huddled under the warmth of multiple blankets. I found myself reliving an episode of Little House on the Prairie when Pa was out of town and Ma was trying to keep the family warm during a deadly blizzard. I truly wondered how the students at the university were able to walk from class to class in such weather without freezing to death.
The morning brought sunshine and reduced velocity for the wind but the temperature had fallen even more. Just walking around was difficult as we literally gasped for breath as the cold seemed to be pushing against our faces and our ears with a constant frigid pressure. We decided to visit the campus bookstore to purchase school gear as souvenirs but also hoped to find some earmuffs and heavier clothing to layer under our sadly insufficient coats.
While we were shopping one of my nephews and his girlfriend decided to explore the campus more outside so that they might get some interesting photos to commemorate the occasion. As we were paying for the items we had chosen my nephew burst into the shop shivering and wet from head to toe. His girlfriend announced that he had walked onto the frozen surface of a manmade pond hoping to get a great picture. At first he only began to slide across the surface but then he became acutely aware that the thin ice was not going to hold his weight. There was a groaning crack and soon he was up to his waist in icy cold water which seemed to almost be freezing onto his body has he waded out of his predicament and scurried to the warmth of the building where we were.
By the time we saw him his lips were turning blue and he looked at though he was going to pass out. We quickly purchased sweatpants, a sweatshirt and a warm jacket for him. Someone else found some hot chocolate for him to drink while his body adjusted to the more gentle temperature. It seemed to take forever for him to finally get warm.
I had always thought that I wanted to live in a place where the winter weather regularly brought ice and snow. I dreamed of bundling up in hats and gloves and mufflers and coats so warm that I would look like a mama bear. It seemed nice to have a real winter season but I had never come close to imagining what real freezing weather is like. Somehow I found myself yearning for the more comfortable climate of my home.
That evening before the graduation ceremony we bundled up in our new layers of warmth and felt a bit more comfortable as we set out for dinner. Somehow it seemed appropriate that the place where we ate was called Eskimo Joe’s because the little college town really did seem to be located in some exotic arctic outpost. As wind sang its triumphant song once again that night I shivered at the mere thought of the cold and went as far down into the nest of blankets as I could without suffocating from lack of oxygen. I liked the feeling but knew that it was not something I would want to endure for weeks and weeks every single year.
On the way back home we stopped in Oklahoma City to visit the memorial dedicated to the victims of the bombing that had so horribly killed innocents. The design of the area was as stark as the incident. There was a single rigid chair made of stone for each person who had died, large ones for the adults and tiny ones for the children. The cold and the snow enhanced the bitter grief that I felt as I walked among the snow covered area. I longed for the life that comes with warmth and as we drove away I knew that deep down inside I am a creature of my own environment no matter how much I complain about the summer heat.
I often think of Oklahoma in the winter and the hardships that the weather must have imposed on the people of long ago whose homes so often let in the in the cold through the chinks. I wonder how well a single fireplace warmed the house and what it was like to care for the livestock and make the trip to the schoolhouse in such conditions. I suspect that those who lived back then and even today are hardy folk who adapt to whatever nature sends their way. As for me, I’ll take my ocean breezes.