Over the decades our local meteorologists have honed a certain kind of winter news story into an artistry.
Any born-and-raised Minnesotan (of a certain age) has experienced the anticipation of that Day-of-Days, affectionately known as the “Snow Day.” What an intense moment it was when, with faces pressed against our radio, we listened to the holy grail of our childhood — the list of school closings — read by an exuberant broadcaster, who seemed just as excited as we were.
"St Agnes School. Closed! St. Anthony Schools. Closed! St. Bonaventure School. Closed! St. Charles Schools. Closed!"
"Come on, come on. Just say it," I would whisper.
"St. Cloud Public Schools. Closed!"
And then ... "St. Louis Park Schools. Closed!"
Once, after witnessing my jubilance, I caught Dad rolling his eyes and sharing a knowing grin with my mother.
Of course, nowadays the electricity of that moment isn't quite as jolting. The internet helps spread word of school closings more efficiently, though certainly in less dramatic fashion.
Me? I’ll always remember the WCCO broadcaster’s voice speaking directly to me, practically ordering my sister and me to stay home and play, play, play!
Lessons on winter
We're proud of our winter hardiness here in Minnesota. Many of us grew up admiring our neighbors’ meticulously groomed sidewalks (and maybe we felt judged by them). We admired how our fathers manned their shovels dutifully after a snowfall, like an Air Force squadron roused from its barracks. We admired how adults confronted the harsh elements with fortitude, comradeship and ingenuity when called upon to extricate their cars from snow banks, eliminate ice from their rooftops or de-ice all manner of objects.
Before the Metrodome opened in 1982, Minnesota dads would teach the tried-and-true ways of keeping warm during Gopher and Vikings outdoor football games. My dad brought 12-inch stacks of newspaper to place under our feet — "newspaper is the best insulator," he would say — along with his flask, his pipe and a thermos of Mom’s hot chocolate.
The fine art of layering clothing was a science. Yet Dad never wore a hat, before and after ’63. I think that’s because JFK never wore one, and Dad loved JFK.
Our parents taught us how to complain about the cold and snow with a subtle self-congratulatory air:
"Had to shovel three times to keep up."
"When I was a boy we walked…."
"We sleep in our coats and put on more blankets. Keeps my heating bill down that way."
I remember watching the shadows of moonlit skaters on our lakes while listening to their muffled voices and the soft scraping of their ice skates. It was certainly more melodic than the cacophony of Minnesota’s summer screeching. It seemed the winter sounds could travel farther across the still lakes, dissipating into the darkness of who-knows-where. What followed was a silence that brought a comfortable solitude or a desperate loneliness, or sometimes a mixture of both.
Time to let go
There came the time when I was mighty pleased to take hiatus from the inevitable depression and headaches of winter. I longed for escape to more tolerable climates, where mentions of dangerous ice, biting winds, fishtailing cars, dead batteries, herniated discs, sandpaper skin, impound lots and mountains of snow brought only unblinking, ignorant expressions on the natives’ faces.
Arizona was the first stop along the way. My most vivid recollection of their "winter" is the humongous Santa Claus cardboard cut-outs mounted high on street lamps, sporting cherry red Bermuda shorts with “six-shooters” lodged in huge leather-looking holsters or pointed towards the cloudless blue sky. It looked like old Sheriff Kringle was shouting “Ya-hoo!” for a Christmas greeting.
Minnesota Winter never seemed so perfect as then.
Until I moved to Oregon. Imagine December fog settling in almost every day, dispirited clouds hanging low, dampness enveloping the dull green landscape.
One winter a rare snowfall dusted the landscape, a pretty lame attempt at winter if you ask me. I was alone at the time and actually became teary-eyed. It made me ache for a Minnesota winter, flaws and all.
Next up, Brooklyn, N.Y. If you haven’t experienced a Brooklyn winter, I assure you they are very ornery. Sure, moments of winter splendor would surprise us. When it snowed in Brooklyn, you had a four-hour window in which to frolic in a quasi-winter wonderland before its transformation into grime and slush. That did it for me.
And then: Full circle back to Minnesota. The prodigal son returned, more appreciative than ever of winter's lovely aspects.
Unfortunately, I found winter was less welcoming than expected. I had grown older. I was less able to enjoy and tolerate the frigid temps. Shoveling and even snow-blowing were now risky activities rather than the invigorating workouts they once were.
The art of layering cottons, fleece and wool became less effective in easing the stiffness in my joints. I became more inclined to think of winter in terms of Robert Byrne’s idea that “Winter is Nature’s way of saying, ‘Up yours.’”
The coup de grace was the year I picked to return: 1991. Remember the Halloween Blizzard?
But rather than throw in the towel, I adapted. Minnesota hardiness kicked in. I rediscovered the satisfaction of kicking solid chunks of ice from the underside of my car's fenders. I jumpstarted my old habit of stepping on thin sheets of ice to feel and hear them crack underfoot.
I still watch with bemusement the recycled segments on TV news about how to avoid frostbite, shoveling safely or how to dress the children properly "for the bus stop."
I admit to feeling a kind of misplaced sense of victory when "we" break the record for snowfall or low temperature. I admit to just a bit of schadenfreude when a TV reporter snares a car owner for a sound-bite interview at the impound lot after a snow emergency.
Some things never change
And I admit, I still tune into 'CCO in the mornings when a "snow emergency" is declared, with the weird hope that my alma mater will be among the list of school closings. I'm thrilled when it’s announced and bummed when it isn’t.
Minnesota Winter is in my blood. It’s who I am. I may not always like it, but I'll always love it.
Have a wonderful Minnesota winter. Whenever it gets here.
Richard Schwartz is a recently retired high-school teacher. Therefore, he has a stack of books, a dusty violin and an unfinished memoir about his Minnesota upbringing to be read, played and completed. He just purchased his first snowblower and looks forward to using it. He lives in Minneapolis.
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