Lileks: Sometimes you have to get out of the cold -- and into a cow

  • Article by: JAMES LILEKS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 23, 2014 - 8:12 PM

Everyone knows what they’re supposed to pack for winter emergencies: gravel for traction, flares to signal help, granola bars for sustenance, hand warmers to fend off finger loss, lightweight blankets and so on. And that’s just for the kid’s walk to the bus stop.

Unless it’s cold and school’s canceled. This is when I tell my daughter about her ancestor who spent a night in a cow.

But back up a moment. When cold like this strikes, you hear the old-timers tell tales of hardy youth of yore who went to school during total whiteouts, pulling themselves along a rope hand over hand, faithful St. Bernards with small casks of brandy hanging from their collars waiting to revive the weak who fell.

Why, I remember Dad slippin’ a flask of Sno-Shoe Grog in my pocket before I went off, and slapping my face hard twice just to get the blood goin’. We got cold, we’d set ourselves on fire. But parents today are all like, “Oh, months of skin grafts will interfere with little Buffy’s soccer practice.” Raising a generation of cream puffs, that’s what they’re doing.

Bah. I remember nothing of the sort. When it was cold, I was bundled into a stiff, rust-colored snowsuit made of some miracle fabric that went skrrr skirrr skirrr when you walked and had some artificial fur whose sole purpose was to get wet when the snow melted and stink. Getting back into that thing to stagger home was like climbing into a spacesuit lined with used bar rags. The gloves were made of the same material; trying to handle anything was like doing card tricks while wearing oven mitts. That I remember.

Don’t remember harsh cold like this? But it could be worse. Any night you don’t have to sleep in a cow, you’re doing fine. Let me explain.

In the early days of North Dakota (pop. 37) they didn’t have long-range forecasts, except for the Farmers’ Almanac, which came out once a year in printed form. Also known as a “text alert.” I suppose some old pioneers, wise to the ways of the plains, would taste the first few flakes and muse, “Two feet by morning, three feet by noon,” based on the weight and the taste. But when the snow came in, there was little you could do but huddle in the house and hope you didn’t have to burn the furniture.

We look back on these people with amazement: The fortitude! The courage! My ancestor was from the chilly part of Europe, so North Dakota winters weren’t entirely surprising. Still, it’s like coming from a land where it rained ax handles and moving to a place where it rained sledgehammers.

As the story goes, the storm hit hard and fast, and he went to get the cows in. Can’t carve up the frozen cows the next day, ring up Omaha Steaks and say, “Need anything?” Of course he had his knife; in those days a man didn’t go out into a blizzard without a knife in case he had to get into a cow.

Think of that the next time you’re at the grocery store and curse yourself because you forgot your reusable bag.

Well, it was a whiteout, and frontier North Dakota not being known for prominent landmarks, there was no way to get back to the farm, so he opened up a cow and got in for warmth. I don’t know if he came up with the idea on the spot or whether this was something on page 23 of “So You’re Going to be a Pioneer!” handbook they passed out when the train stopped in Fargo or whether he was just smart. If it’s the last one, that was ingenious and explains why for years North Dakotans said, “I may not be an expert on the subject, but I did stay in a cow last night,” years before Holiday Inn Express came up with the idea.

I’d love to know if he got any sleep. Hate to think he woke to clear skies, found himself 3 feet from the house with his wife on the steps tapping her toe, waiting for an explanation. More than likely she thought he was dead and was relieved to see the ruddy apparition trudge across the field the next day, bedecked with the grue of bovine innards.

Perhaps he flopped down in front of the fire, took a cup of good Lutheran coffee in his shaking hands and said, “Rough night. Had to bunk in the stock.” Wife nods. Waits. “But can’t sit here all day jawing. Work to be done.” He stands and stretches. “Pack your things, woman. We’re going to Arizona to start a new city.”

“Poor cow,” his wife says. “We must find a way to honor him.”

“That we will,” says the pioneer, looking across the field. “I owe ol’ Scottsdale my life.”

P.S. You’re thinking: Nice story, but I think you’re confusing family history with a scene from the “Star Wars” movie “The Empire Strikes Back.” Did I say my great-grandfather was named Luke Sodwalker? No? OK, then. It’s true.

He didn’t found Scottsdale, of course. They stayed. The spring came, and hearts lifted. As they always do.

 

jlileks@startribune.com • 612-673-7858

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