Monday, January 13, 2014

Black Snow


I was never an early riser, so when the phone rings at 5 AM it sets me off a bit. This particular time it was the morning announcer at the radio station I was employed by, telling me that his car wouldn’t start and asking, since I lived as close as I did to the building, if I’d sub for him and put us on the air at dawn. I was doubly unhappy about this request in that not only had he woke me up from what was a recently separated, fairly severely depressed and therefore abbreviated sleep, but even in my pre-dawn stupor I remembered talk of this scheduled to be the coldest day of the year, perhaps of the decade; in fact, likely of our collective lifetimes.

I said yes of course without hesitation, as I knew if I gave the question even a millisecond of consideration I’d say no and that two letters would certainly not help my budding career one bit. But once he’d thanked me and hung up, leaving me to the howl of the outside wind nearly eradicating the hum of the dial tone, I began to curse myself, my luck, my choices, my birth and my mother and father for ever having coupled; in spite of the fact that they were for the most part really nice folks and not at all to blame for my troubles.

I knew I had to hurry if I were to hit the transmitter switch just as the incredibly weak sun’s first rays broke the plane of the horizon and refused to go any further as it’s just too damn cold where we are and even the sun doesn’t want to live here. So I slammed on some random clothing and woolen socks, emulating the polar adventurers like Peary and Shackleton no doubt, skipped the tooth brushing as I sometimes would do, opting for gum instead, (a bad habit that has finally caught up to me in my dotage) slammed down a half cup of lukewarm microwaved coffee and lumbered outside and toward the door of my rental home’s detached garage.

I knew, naturally, that my car wouldn’t start either; but I had to try. Red Fred, a 1965 Chevy station wagon had been with me for five years by that point; had survived a two thousand mile round trip to armpit Montana where I’d worked and been jettisoned from my last big time DJ job, and had generally been a reliable ride for an old, peeling rust blob. But he did have one character flaw; he just hated the cold. Fine thing for a Minnesota vehicle, I hear you, but there it is. He was a whiny beyatch when the real Northwest Territories skin scrapers came to call, and this morning he didn’t even grunt in indignation.
 

After gently kicking him, as I liked to do when I felt the need, I hunkered into my cold weather coat, presenting as thin a profile as I could, pulled my face mask tight around that lovely space between one’s shoulders and face which seems to enjoy freedom from coverage, and stepped out into the street; or at least what I assumed was the street but only because I could recall the distance between my house and the road and this seemed about the right distance.

It was cold. I’d love to say it would have been tolerable had the wind not been blowing hard enough to now and then knock me and my 250 pound ass to the ground, but the fact was, even had the wind stopped entirely it would have been colder than I’d known for a long, long time; since I was a kid and forced to deliver 135 huge Sunday papers on the last coldest day of the century. The wind? The wind just made it cold plus death, though as I passed to the leeward shore of the occasional country home, it slowed the breeze to make it only cold plus NEAR death; and while you might not think it could possibly be, one can actually tell the difference.

The station was under a mile from my house, and while I now can hardly make it a block without falling down and praying that what I’m feeling is not actually congestive heart failure but simply a light hyperventilation, in the seventies I was actually fit, and had lungs and everything. I’d not even imagined I would have trouble walking a few thousand feet, even in a blizzard, even on the coldest day ever recorded… until I got about halfway, when I started to wonder if I should give up this impossible task and turn back.

My target was just outside of town, a small complex carved out of a farm’s untillable acreage. Half of the distance between my house and the station was flanked by homes; houses on largish lots to be sure, but some minor windbreak. The rest of the way was past a cornfield; flat as a pancake, with not so much as a mogul between the road I was on and Fargo North Dakota, 45 miles upwind. The full force of Santa’s fury hit me like Thor’s hammer, a condition as insidious and foul as the mixed metaphor I’ve here used in its honor. I was forced to “crab into the gale” as a pilot would while landing in a heavy cross wind, walking not straight ahead, but facing west northwest while moving north, fighting to keep my internal compass from leading me into an invisible ditch and my inevitable demise.

Here again my propensity to never let indecision stand in the way of a really stupid move nearly ended me. I continued on while I internally debated; go back and get some nice cocoa and a peanut butter sandwich? Go forward and be the hero of the radio world, and the farmers who are milking a hundred Bessies and wishing for the morning chat and music to cheer them up. Forward until I sleep the deep sleep of hypothermic coma? Go back and look through the paper for a new job as I’ve surely lost the one I had.
 

By the time I figured maybe I should go back, it was far too late; “back” had disappeared in a blinding swirl of gray sky and grayer snow. I started moving slower and slower, my face would freeze, I would put my hands to my face and blow, my hands would freeze, I’d pocket them again, leaving rime ice on my eyelashes and moustache. It couldn’t be much further; it really couldn’t, though there was no way to tell as it was nothing but cloud in all directions.

There’s an interesting phenomena that happens in the northern states on a rare day; the sky can produce “black snow”. If there is very little snow cover to the west of you when a squall comes to visit, the winds will scoop up all the topsoil it can get its frozen little fingers on and lift and separate those soon to be tiny particles into the sky where it becomes tied to water droplets which turn to snow and fall back to the earth as a sort of gray brown thing we like to call black snow. The one benefit of black snow, beyond the fact that Minnesota farmers get to steal a butt load of North Dakota topsoil and don’t have to lift a finger, is that I could see my footprints in it cuz the bottom snow was pure like Snow White and footsteps showed up like a disco lights on a dance club floor, so I knew when I got turned around.
 

Obviously I made it to the building, unless I’m writing this as a ghost which is entirely possible and a damn good reason for my feeling crazy 10 days of every dozen. (Wouldn’t it have been funny if I’d forgotten my door key and had to go back for it? That would lend to that feeling crazy thing.) I let myself in with a huge exhale as I’d pretty much been holding my breath for a half mile in hopes I could keep the damp in my lungs a liquid rather than having it become a solid. But wouldn’t you know it; the nice, toasty wafting heat I was expecting didn’t materialize. It was colder than your standard witch’s appendage in there, and I was not amused. It was though above 40 F, and therefore as I soon discovered, 80 degrees warmer than the air I’d just left. It was near time to power up so I didn’t have a lot of time to play detective. The thermostat was set at 70 so that was not the issue. I moved to the furnace room and discovered the device was not lit, but still pumping air with its pet rat exercise wheel. Sure I tried to light it; no dice. I shut the fan off as the circulation would only make things worse quicker.  

I powered up the transmitter, partly to start the radio day and partly because I knew the box would provide a little heat, and then I moved about the station searching for other heat generators. Sadly, all I found were two coffee pots, one of which I would use to actually make coffee as at least I could pour it on myself if I became desperate. I moved the other into the control room and plugged and turned it on, hoping the little carafe warmer would at least melt the frost from my fingers should I need them while broadcasting.

I still had plenty to do; rip the news from the teletype for reading, check the weather devices we owned, make a few calls for help. So the first order of business would be to get a nice long record up and ready for killing some time after sign on. That’s when I noted the turntables (kids, go ask your parents) took a long time to reach proper rotation, and when I’d shut them off, they’d take the same amount of time again upon turn on. This meant the grease in the spindles was extra gloppy, something I couldn’t fix, so I would need to “slip cue” every record I’d be playing until someone came to fix the heat.

I popped up the longest song I had in my arsenal, the “Canadian Railroad Trilogy” by Gordon Lightfoot, cued it and held it with my now ungloved and screaming at me right hand index finger, then switch on the microphone, delivering the standard opening speech to satisfy the feds. The following record cue went perfectly, I was a god among jocks still, and I ran off to take care of my chores. I had six minutes and 22 seconds before the tune would start to wind down, and I’d need to at least give whatever freezing listeners I had the weather stats and warnings.

It was 42 below as I recall, on both our own instruments and in the weather service report on the wire. With the wind, taken from our own anemometer, that made the wind-chill at its peak, 80 degrees below zero. I did waste a minute of my six, standing at the clacking teletype, staring at the numbers with my mouth open to my chest and drool appearing at the corners of my lips. I’d just walked across Antarctica, in a cheap department store winter coat and cotton mesh stocking cap mask. Why I was still alive was anyone’s guess. It surely wasn’t karma; I’d destroyed what I’d had of that during the days following my discovery of my soon to be ex-wife’s cheating on me. Perhaps it was the spirit of the local cows, carrying me along in hopes of hearing a song or two about dairy products.

It was two hours before the general manager showed up to whine about how cold the building was and to ask me whether or not I’d checked the thermostat. It was another hour before a repairman showed up to let us know that the propane that we used for heat wasn’t gasifying from its liquid state in this cold and at the mixture necessary to run the furnace. He did though provide a half dozen electric space heaters that could be used, and the general manager did just that; he used them on the building’s plumbing to keep the pipes from freezing, so while songs would play I’d run to the bathroom or kitchen to bring my fingers to room temperature so I could feel the commercial tape cartridges so I could pick them up to insert them so if nothing else I could keep the engines of small town commerce rolling through hail, sleet, snow and cold like we’d never see again in our lifetimes.

When it was all over and I’d been relieved and gotten a ride home to sleep a few hours before my regular late afternoon shift, I was recognized as a good soldier. I’d done my part for God and country and farmers and cows and all the little creatures that huddled within the sound of my voice that surely outnumbered humans by some insane ratio. I’d even played a few songs that I thought cows would like, just to kinda thank them in case the impossible were true, and a commercial or two for the local co-op which sold dairy stuff and generally celebrated all things bovine.

Luckily there was no permanent damage; though my extremities did scream at me for a few days after and do again now at a much less brutal temperature than I’d experienced that day. But it was an experience, and like all experiences lent itself to my typing fingers for immortalization. A positivist might find that a perfect realization of a “silver lining”. I find it no more than a reasonable payback for a really shitty day.

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