Cold in the Heartland

The blast of Arctic air that has moved across the Heartland this week brings me memories of other winters. Growing up in the Heartland, I was accustomed to a few days some years when the high temperature of the day was below zero degrees F. I was also accustomed to a few days some years when the high temperature of the day was above one hundred degrees F. We learned to live with such extremes, although central heating and air conditioning made the living far easier.

When I was a boy, I watched Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin as they walked on the moon. When winter came, I chose to imitate their excursion in our back yard. The temperature was five degrees below zero, so it was important to leave no skin exposed; but that was just the point. I was dressing up as an astronaut, putting on double layers of shirt and pants, thick socks, black boots (which had five buckles each), mittens on my hands, a heavy coat with a hood, a stocking cap under the hood, and a scarf across my face. Dressed in that fashion, I went through the back door and backwards down the steps, making a giant leap for mankind. I observed the scenery, took samples of the snow, and played astronaut to my heart’s content. For the next couple of years, whenever the weather gave me the opportunity, I repeated the experience, leaving footprints that would never fade, since there is no atmosphere—and hence no wind or rain—on the moon.

It’s hard to describe the difference of a day below zero to people who are miserable when the temperature falls below forty degrees F. Snow has a different sound when you walk on it in the deep cold of winter—instead of crunching, it squeaks. Frozen fog is a sight to see—ice crystals hanging in the air, not falling as flakes. The coldest days come with clear skies, as the snow reflects the light and heat of the sun back into space. That sunlight glaring off the snow can almost blind a person, especially a person wearing glasses that have just become coated with frost when they hit the cold air.

Heartlanders in general, and Chicagoans in particular, are proud of our ability to face all kinds of weather calmly and stoically. We laugh at dwellers of the desert who come to visit in August and wilt, even though the temperature is only ninety degrees, because the relative humidity is also ninety. We laugh at the foreigners who bundle into their heaviest coats when the first snow falls in October and then take pictures of themselves and each other. We know how to drive in the snow, and we sneer at those who slide off the road. Harsh weather makes us strong, able to face any difficulty, unlikely to be overcome by adversity.

The story is told of a Heartlander who died a couple of years ago; he was sent to the devil’s prison for his sins. The devil knew this Heartlander to be a tough man, so he tried his best to make him miserable. He cranked the thermostat up high, but the Heartlander simply relaxed and said, “Feels like a July day back home.” Annoyed, the devil turned the temperature even higher, but all he heard was, “Feels like the middle of August back home.” The devil decided to try the opposite extreme and turned the air conditioner on full blast. Soon fog was swirling, icicles were forming, and even the devil himself begin to shiver. Satan smiled, though, as he heard the man running around in the fog shouting at the top of his voice. Strangely, though, the man did not sound unhappy. Satan lost his smile when he heard what the man was shouting: “The Cubs won the World Series! The Cubs won the World Series!” J.

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A creek ran past it

A creek formed the northern boundary of the property where I spent my childhood. Years before I was born, the creek had been fed by springs, but the growth of the village led to increased use of well-water, so the water had dropped and the springs disappeared.

Of course when I was little I was not supposed to play in or near the creek, and of course I did. When water was flowing down the creek, my friends and I would launch large leaves or slabs of bark in the creek, then pelt them with small stones from the shore, trying to sink or destroy our toy ships. Many summers the creek bed became dry, forming an irresistible playground. I gathered aluminum cans other people had tossed into the creek and built cities from them, then attacked the cities with rocks. Those rocks had originally been placed on the banks of the creek to prevent erosion, but many of them had tumbled or been pushed into the creek bed. One year I thought that I would pull the rocks out of the creek and build a fort, but the walls of the fort never grew more than two layers high. When I was older, I spent several afternoons of one summer rebuilding the stone reinforcement of the banks.

In the winter the creek usually froze. Generally the water level dropped during the gradual freezing process. Schoolchildren found endless satisfaction breaking the shelves of ice on the banks of the creek on their way home from school. They used their feet to break the ice or threw rocks at shelves on the other side. During the spring thaws, children again attacked the ice in the creek. When conditions were right, the creek would freeze into a smooth surface suitable for ice skating. I owned a pair of skates and would go out on the creek on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon for an hour or two of exercise. I never had the ability or the room to learn any skills other than skating forward, but I enjoyed the time spent outdoors all the same.

Sometimes in the springtime fish would swim upstream in the creek. Some of the neighborhood children attempted spear fishing, but they had no success. The creek also attracted mallard ducks, and–two years–a large snapping turtle. When the water was low, crayfish could be found under the rocks. My friends and I captured them and released them; it never occurred to us that people might cook and eat crayfish. Trees lined the bank of the river, mostly boxelder and mulberry trees. Phlox and other wildflowers bloomed in the spring. When I was in the fourth grade, I picked a handful of phlox to give to the new girl at school, because I thought she was nice.

Floods from the creek several times covered the property and entered the basement. My father believes that the flooding increased because of construction in the area that reduced natural drainage into the ground. A few years ago, he successfully led a battle of village residents to deny rezoning that would have allowed construction of a megastore (with a large parking lot, of course) next to the creek about a mile upstream. That one victory did not prevent the eventual razing of the house because of its location in the floodplain. J.

Nothing left but memories

The house in which I spent my childhood no longer stands. Nothing is left of it but memories.

Here is the history of that house. Late during the Great Depression, my grandparents bought a farmhouse on three acres of land; they also acquired a barn and a chicken coop with that purchase. Their house was half a block from a one-room schoolhouse, about two blocks from a railroad station, and several blocks from a tuberculosis sanitarium. The village had fewer than two hundred inhabitants.

My grandparents bought three acres because they wanted their son and their daughter to live next door when they were grown. After my mother (their daughter) and my father were married, they were invited to choose between the northeast and northwest quarter of the property. They chose the corner on the quieter street, and they had a house built. It was a ranch house with three bedrooms, one bathroom, a living room, dining room, and kitchen; it also had a full basement. A spring-fed creek ran along the property line to the north.

Over the years, the village grew. The sanitarium became a major regional hospital. When my mother graduated from eighth grade, she had one classmate; when I graduated from eighth grade, I had ninety classmates (separated into three homerooms). Since my grandparents, uncle, aunt, and cousins were neighbors, holidays and birthdays and wedding anniversaries were all family events. I walked to school, even in the rain and the snow, and at the end of the day I walked home again. Each of these uphill journeys involved passing three other houses.

The summer I turned ten, we had a forty-year flood. (Since there have been five such floods since that time, you can calculate my age.) Due to heavy rain, the creek rose over its banks, inundating the property. Four feet of water rose in the basement. I spent the next few days playing with “driftwood” that had washed onto the property. About the only benefit from the flood for my family is that it helped us locate precisely a leak in the natural gas line in front of the house by the bubbles that rose through the floodwater.

The next forty-year flood happened in the early spring after a winter of record-breaking snowfall. One day the temperature reached sixty degrees and it began to rain, melting the upper layers of snow while the lower layers remained frozen. Since the creek was also frozen, all that water had nowhere to go except for the property and the basement. Overnight lows dropped into the forties, which is memorable since the basement flooding had required my family to turn off the furnace.

After those two floods, my parents were required to purchase flood insurance. When flooding happened, the insurance company would pay money to replace damaged equipment such as the furnace, clothes washer, drier, and deep-freeze. They would also pay a set amount per square foot for cleaning what had been flooded. They did not cover furniture, hobby and craft equipment, or other improvements people might make in a basement.

By the time I was an adult, my father was ready to move out of that house. Understandably, my mother was reluctant to move. That difference of opinion created some tension in the family over their later years, although most of the time we handled it well. My mother’s opinion prevailed; the two of them remained in that house until the last week of her life, when she was hospitalized until her death.

Since that time, my father has moved to a different state. A government agency bought the house and property. Because it is in a flood plain, they have destroyed the house and will allow the land to remain undeveloped. I doubt that I will ever see the lot; I have no reason now to return to my hometown. Only memories remain of my childhood home. J.