The Free Press, Mankato, MN

January 26, 2014

Cross column: Another polar vortex? Count your blessings!


The Mankato Free Press

---- — By this time tomorrow, we’ll be back in the deep freeze.

A cold snap.

That’s what we used to call it when the bottom dropped out of the thermometer.

But when entire cable channels now are devoted to the weather, when snow storms now are adorned with names, well, that term apparently isn’t sexy enough anymore.

The catch words this winter are polar and vortex.

But a rose by any other name smells just as sweet.

And by what ever name you choose, it is going to be brutally cold out there once again.

I’m Minnesotan, born and raised. So’s my wife.

The reason we returned to Minnesota after a brief stint in comparatively balmy Kansas nearly 40 years ago was that we both missed Minnesota winters.

How much did we miss them?

We used the paltry amount of vacation we had accrued at our jobs in the Sunflower State to return to Minnesota to witness first hand the meteorological carnage left in the wake of the Super Bowl Blizzard of 1975.

For those too young to remember, it was one hell of a snowstorm. Snow began on Friday, January 10, and continued unabated for the next two days, including Super Bowl Sunday.

As much as 27 inches of snow fell in some parts of Minnesota and the Upper Midwest, accompanied by sustained winds of 30-50 mph, gusts up to 90 mph and sub-zero temperatures.

In the blizzard’s wake, 58 people and tens of thousands of farm animals died. Wildlife populations suffered similar catastrophic losses. Snow drifts as high as 20 feet stranded motorists in their cars for days awaiting rescue in the wake of the storm that was characterized as an inland hurricane because of its record low barometric pressure.

We felt we had missed out on all of the excitement, so when the opportunity to return to live and work in Minnesota with its invigorating winter season presented itself, we didn’t hesitate.

But now, I’m a little older, a lot wiser, and on mornings when the thermometer reads teens-below-zero through the frosty window, I wonder: What were we thinking?

But when I start feeling a little sorry, I remind myself of just how easy we now have it compared to people who endured winters long past.

Certainly, winter was an exceptionally tough time for homesteaders in the 1800s, frequently a matter of life and death as they huddled in their sod huts when blizzards swept across the untamed prairie.

But as recently as the 1930s and even the 40s, when an arctic blast descended on the Midwest, life still wasn’t all that easy.

Prior to rural electrification, if you were a country dweller, there was firewood or perhaps a tub of corncobs to stockpile if you were going to stay warm and then only by hovering in the immediate vicinity of the stove.

A hot bath meant hand-pumping water and then heating it on a stove. A trip to the bathroom, likely as not, was a sprint through the snow to an unheated outhouse. That or a chamber pot.

City folks may have had it a bit easier, what with indoor plumbing. But they still probably had dusty coal to shovel into a furnace and then tend to if they were going to stay warm.

Regardless of where you lived, just as recently as 20 years ago, a car that started without fail on sub-zero days was something to brag about.

Today, we have efficient gas-fired furnaces that distribute wonderful warmth evenly through our homes with the touch of a thermostat, cars that reliably roar to life with the turn of a key.

When we do venture into the elements, we are protected by high-tech outdoor wear.

So comparatively speaking, we’re living in the lap of luxury when yet another one of these pesky polar vortexes plunges us into arctic conditions.

This latest round of bone-chilling cold might inspire even the hardiest Minnesotan to complain, but in the end, we all know there’s not just a whole lot that can be done except bundle up and deal with it.

The good news is that spring is just 53 days away.

The bad news is that in Minnesota, we all know that really doesn’t mean too much at all.

John Cross is a Free Press staff writer. Contact him at 344-6376 or by email at jcross@mankatofreepress.com.