Winter, on location

  • Updated: December 21, 2013 - 4:28 PM

Love it? Hate it? We do, too. A collection of seasonal essays by members of the Star Tribune Editorial Board.

The truth is I hate winter. I really do. Although …

 

I love the bleakness of a smokestack against a milky sky. I can’t explain it. Go figure.

I hate the coldest days, but often they’re sunny, and even under blue skies snow can float in the air like glitter.

I love watching heavy snow slice past streetlights. When I was a kid, I’d view this from flat on my back outdoors, the only sounds my breath and the lightness of a thousand landings.

I love the tire tracks and footpaths that form after an accumulation. These are human patterns, meandering across official lanes and shortest-distance logic — fallibility.

I loved the look of snowmobiles before they were sleek, their sputtering gasoline auras associated, in my mind, with the pleasure derived. Isn’t that sick? And yet.

I’m not a pagan, but I love the solstice: the urgency of the shortest day and the slumber of the longest night.

I’m not a member of any faith, but I love the quiet community of a midnight mass, the minor keys of reverence sustained among the walls of old churches.

For all the categories we draw in our lives, here’s one we may have given little thought to: We live within the one-third of the Earth’s land mass that receives seasonal snow cover. We’re not among the one in three people globally who are affected by water scarcity.

The truth is for every winter annoyance there’s a wonder, but precious little allowance for wonderment. Now that’s a problem for all seasons, and I hate it. I really do.

David Banks, assistant commentary editor

 

Water produced democracy in the Netherlands, my brother-in-law explained when I visited my husband’s homeland.

 

Farmers centuries ago learned that they had little ability individually to move excess water off their land. But by coming together to build windmills, canals and dikes, they could add to their own drainage efforts and turn wetlands into tillable acres in an entire region.

The Dutch democracy that ensued bore bountiful fruit. The Netherlands ranks second only to the United States in the economic value of its agricultural exports.

Winter has had a similar effect on Minnesota, I’d claim. It’s an annual refresher course on the value of combining self-reliance and community effort to achieve a shared goal — survival until the spring thaw.

Minnesotans experience winter as both a personal challenge and a mandate for community action. Those who can shovel or plow snow, do — then help neighbors who cannot. Those who can buy extra scarves, socks and mittens, do, for donation to those who cannot and thus may need them all the more.

Folks here take an active interest in government’s role in winter survival, and insist on good results. The quality of snowplowing in St. Paul vs. Minneapolis has been a subject of lively debate and political consternation this month. Complaints that ­winter-related public services are too skinny are more common than that they are too fat. Critics of government spending seldom fault such things as heating fuel assistance for the poor.

Minnesota’s culture is said to have originated as a hybrid of New England egalitarianism and Scandinavian communitarianism. It’s notable that those are wintry places, too.

LORI STURDEVANT, editorial writer

My father was a Southerner, driven into exile in the frozen north by the great convulsions of war and love.

 

When America entered World War II, Dad joined the Second Infantry Division at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio. But these sons of Dixie were soon shipped north to Wisconsin’s Camp McCoy to prepare for wintry European battlefields.

At a soldiers’ dance in La Crosse, Dad met a young woman from Winona. He would return after the war to marry her.

In December 1944, in frigid Belgium, the Second Division put its winter-combat training to valiant use in the famed Battle of the Bulge.

But my mother, Dad’s Minnesota sweetheart, now 89, has preserved evidence of some lesser-known Greatest Generation heroics, in the earlier Battle of the Upper Midwest — as documented in doggerel by one of Dad’s frostbitten brothers in arms:

 

“The Second Division must learn to ski,”

That was the War Department’s decree.

So we left sunny Texas, and there was no joy,

“Farewell old Sam Houston, we’re bound for McCoy!”

 

We arrived in Wisconsin in a wintry blast,

And wondered how long such a nightmare could last.

For it snowed every day and the sun never shone,

And sadly we longed for our dear San Antone …

 

From colonel to private they issued skis,

And everyone shouted, “Hey you! Bend your knees!”

It was plain hell, but we soon got the knack,

And then they gave us a 90-pound pack!

 

We hiked all day and wailed at our plight,

Crawled into our sacks and shivered all night.

We practiced like that for a month and a day,

And more and more were carried away.

What could you expect on an icy schuss,

If you ran it straight and fell on your puss?

 

So we sink down humbly on bended knee,

And make this small but urgent plea:

“Please relent from that heart of stone,

Send the Second back to San Antone!”

D.J. TICE, commentary editor

 

 

The inelegant flops on icy sidewalks happen more often now.

 

Luke the lab typically looks away, no doubt embarrassed, until order is restored. In all other ways he is a loyal companion, but he hates to see his person prone in the snow, struggling to get upright.

Thanks to having the privilege of the early morning walk before work, much of the ice-tumbling occurs before the sun is up and other humans are on the move. With age, of course, the recovery time from the bruises and occasional sprains is noticeably longer.

Winter also seems colder now, with this middle-aged body, than it did even five years ago. That’s despite layering that a native Minnesotan would have thought ridiculous as a younger man, having never spent a winter outside of either this state or Wisconsin. (Consider this a formal apology to the former colleague from New Orleans who was mocked for months after he admitted to wearing long underwear from October until the final snowmelt of spring.)

Possible tax benefits aside, the snowbird thing makes more sense with each passing winter. Spring, or what we call spring here, is livable and filled with hope. The beauty of fall, with its colors and football, is to be treasured, and summer is easy.

But in winter our weaknesses — including any uncovered flesh — are exposed, and a sense of vulnerability sets in. Winter in Minnesota is for the young, or at least those with youthful balance on the ice.

And they can have it.

SCOTT GILLESPIE, editorial page editor

 

 

I’ve lived in Minnesota for most of my adult life, but I’ve long held a grudge that winter arrives a little earlier and departs a little later than in the small Iowa town where I grew up.

 

It adds about three extra weeks of winter, which is why I head south every January to reclaim some of the warmer weather I’m owed.

The flight back is tough, but it’s leavened by the knowledge that this cold season brings out a charming defiant streak in my Minnesota Nice adopted home state. Storms that would paralyze other places are greeted with a “we got this” attitude. Blizzards, freezing rain, bad visibility? Meh, we’re Minnesotans. We have parkas, Sorel boots, monster snowplows and four-wheel drive.

A phone call on a snowy day a few years back brought home how deeply I’ve come to admire this cold weather can-do, even if I don’t always share it.

I was getting ready to go home from work on Dec. 23, 2010, when the phone rang. It was Mick, the husband of one of my oldest friends. Their family of five was flying back to Iowa for Christmas from their current home in Egypt, but had been stranded in Germany for days due to snow. Finally, they’d caught a flight to Washington, D.C., but now another massive snowstorm was shutting down airports across the nation’s upper half.

Their best shot at getting home in time for Christmas? Mick didn’t even have to finish. “Let me guess,” said the Minnesotan on the other end of the line. “Good old MSP is the airport most likely to stay open during the storm, right?”

Yes, that was the case. Mick also couldn’t find a rental car in the Twin Cities so close to the holiday. But luckily, he was talking to an always-prepared-for-winter Minnesotan. I had just the vehicle for the snowy trek to Iowa: “Big Blue,” our semiretired Chevy four-door pickup truck with four-wheel drive.

MSP was one of the last northern airports still open when they landed that night. I met them with a gassed-up Big Blue, a plate of cookies and lots of blankets. In the meantime, the snowstorm had turned fiercer. A tired Mick looked anxious.

“Just keep it slow and steady and you’ll get through,” I told him. All around us, jets were still roaring off into the night and cars were confidently heading out onto the roads. Yeah, we were getting socked by storm, but so what? That cold-weather can-do was contagious, and the visitors from Egypt piled into the truck.

They arrived five hours later, road-weary but safe. I was not only grateful to see their family but delighted by winter-savvy Minnesota’s role in getting them home at last for the holidays. Come March, I’ll be griping about the long winters here. But I remain inspired by a home state that meets winter’s challenge the way that all of life’s challenges should be met: head-on.

JILL BURCUM, editorial writer

 

 

Ask about a big blizzard, and those of a certain age will recall Armistice Day in 1940.

 

Later generations will tell spooky stories about 1991’s Halloween blizzard, when it wasn’t frost on the pumpkin but snowdrifts on jack-o-lanterns greeting intrepid trick-or-treaters in indistinguishable costumes (all looked like snowmen).

Both blizzards are seared in the collective consciousness because of their severity, but also because they coincided with a certain date. Or sometimes a year — such as the Chicago area’s great “Blizzard of ’79.”

As a Minnesotan transplanted there, I was used to winter’s symbiosis of beauty and challenge. The blizzard was indeed beautiful, but beyond challenging: It paralyzed the area. My suburban high school was closed for a week. Abandoned cars, akimbo in narrow streets, gridlocked the city, and even the fabled elevated trains were laid low.

No machine seemed to work — including the political one Mayor Michael Bilandic inherited from the late Mayor Richard J. Daley. Bilandic’s bungled blizzard response resulted in upstart Jane Byrne’s upset election as mayor just months later.

But for me, the most remarkable snowstorm doesn’t have an identifiable date or dynamic like an election, and thus doesn’t live in lore. Or maybe because it was two storms: On Jan. 20-21, 1982, 17.4 inches of snow fell in the Twin Cities. A day later, a new storm began, bringing 20 inches.

Unlike Chicago, the Twin Cities didn’t stop. Slowed? Sure. The U closed — for half a day. But what I remember most were students — and several professors — gleefully skiing through Dinkytown, on the right side of the beauty/challenge equation.

JOHN RASH, editorial writer

 

 

I came a little late in life to appreciating Minnesota winters.

 

Oh, as a St. Paul native, I have fond childhood memories of gleefully playing in winter weather — sliding down hills and throwing snowballs. But that was kids’ stuff. Once I could make my own decisions, I promptly dissed my home state and became a vacation snob. It wasn’t a “real’’ vacation or getaway unless you got on a plane and escaped.

However, during my late 30s, friends encouraged me and my young daughter to take downhill-skiing lessons. That was a turning point; having fun again and a good reason to look for snow helped me welcome winter. Now I enjoy a cozy cabin and dogsledding Up North just as much as an ocean view and partying on a Caribbean beach.

Despite my winter attitude adjustment, I can still complain about it with the best of them. After all, playing is one thing — navigating, shoveling and piling on enough clothes is another. Our recent early December cold snap, for example, got a few “And why do we live here again?’’ type comments out of me. But that’s just part of making Minnesota Nice small talk.

Actually, there have been many springs when I was sad to see the white stuff go. Why? Because that lovely white replacement for grass gives way to the fifth and worst season we have — the ugly, gray, slushy, gritty time after the snow goes but before anything turns green around here. It’s the time when all the crap people throw on the ground is revealed and comes back to haunt us. That’s worse and more depressing than the landscape in the dead of winter.

DENISE JOHNSON, editorial writer

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