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Peterson: Polar vortex tests survivor’s Midwestern mettle

Published: Friday, Jan. 10, 2014 12:23 a.m. CST

I used to say I preferred 20 below zero to 90 above zero any day of the week. That’s how much I dislike hot weather. And how much I like the cold.

The vaunted polar vortex earlier this week proved me wrong.

I have betrayed my heritage.

While I have plenty of eastern European blood coursing through my veins, most of it is from the northern European Lillehammer region of Norway. I lived the first 13 years of my life in South St. Paul, Minn., and don’t let “South” fool you. They had to call the town that shared a southern border with capital city St. Paul something, and they weren’t particularly creative. Little Canada, Minn., a St. Paul suburb, is boldly creative, taking on and paying homage to our neighbor to the north.

St. Paul, the better half of the Twin Cities, is the coldest major metropolitan area in the country. It snows in May, for crying out loud. Below-zero temperatures are ordinary, and you best get used to them or they will devour you.

We moved to tropical southeast Iowa, where below-zero temperatures and deep snow were rare, and that took some getting used to. The people were soft. I returned to Minnesota to attend college and experience the cold and snow once again. 

I got half of the pair – the cold. It might have been a snowless winter in St. Cloud, but it was cold. For two straight weeks, the temperature plummeted to at least 20 below every night, and zero was barely seen during that time.

It was cold, but you dressed for it. Heaping injustice upon the bitter cold was the 1974 yellow Vega I drove. That car didn’t like the cold, and I had to baby it.

Student parking was more than a mile from student housing, and I soon found out that if I wanted the car to start in that cold snap, I had to remove the battery, lug it in all its heaviness across campus, and let it warm up in my dorm room, then lug it back to the car when I needed to use it again. This was definitely a “need” not a “want” time of my life.

Batteries then weren’t sealed that well, and battery acid splashed on my dark blue parka, eating small holes in the nylon fabric. I wore that coat for several more seasons -- college kids didn’t have a lot of discretionary money – and the holes were badges of fearlessness in the face of bitter cold, especially walking into a north wind. We didn’t talk much about wind chill then.

While Iowa did not get the extreme cold in the winter, it got extreme heat in the summer. It wasn’t unusual for the temperatures to climb into the 100s in July and August and the 90s were a cool front. I melted like an ice cube. I couldn’t handle it.

And I worked outdoors on farms and feed mills, baling hay and unloading grain bins. It was hot work under extreme heat. You can’t dress for it. You just sweat, which was fine when you were working but not so fine when you were going to church. The sweat glands did not turn off. It felt good to sweat at work; not so much so at church.

But that led me to state I would take 20 below zero over 90 above zero any day of the week.

I knew the polar vortex was coming as early as last week, according to my main weather source, Weather Underground, a great website. You can plug in any locale in the country and get current weather conditions and a long-range forecast.

Weather Underground told me that it was be 19 below zero Monday night, after a night of 15 below, and it was sticking with its forecast day after day. I had a meeting in the Hyde Park neighborhood in Chicago for 9 a.m. Tuesday, which would put me on the 6:38 a.m. train out of Woodstock, and waiting for bus transfers in Chicago well before 9 a.m. And it was going to be 19 below zero.

Me? The guy who prefers 20 below to 90 above?

I canceled the meeting because of the impending cold. I wasn’t about to stand a half hour outside waiting for the next bus to come. It was too cold, especially with the wind off Lake Michigan.

I chickened out. And I can’t honestly say I prefer 20 below to 90 above anymore. The extremes don’t compare. I won’t cancel a meeting on a 90-degree day. Maybe I’m wising up.

• Dick Peterson, who lives in Woodstock, is a mental-health advocate. He is a freelance writer and a former Northwest Herald Opinion Page editor. He can be contacted at dickpeterson76@gmail.com.

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