Cold, Cold, Cold

A young woman froze to death a few cold Wisconsin nights ago, after having slid into a ditch in a very rural place. They found her the next morning, about a quarter mile from her car. The second saddest part of it all is how it never should have happened–it certainly appears that she did everything wrong.

We take our existence for granted in so many ways. Like everyone, I used to scoff at reactions of southerners to the cold. “Come on,” we’d say. “Stop being such a baby. It’s not any colder for you than it is for us, for crying out loud!”

After spending a year in Miami, I moved back to Chicagoland in the spring of 1978. My brother had started a fence installation company and I went to work for him. I liked it. It was hard, but it was outdoors, different every day, the time flew by, and the customers were generally very appreciative that we had finally shown up, since the company we installed for continually overbooked while grossly understating to them the lead time for installation.

Of course, you can’t dig post holes in two feet of frost–not with any kind of equipment you can maneuver around tidy suburban lots, anyway. I needed a winter job. I saw an ad for a chauffeur. It was a Highland Park phone number, an affluent suburb on the North Shore, so I figured it might work. I lived about forty minutes drive from there, but I couldn’t be choosey–the employment situation in those days was just about as bad as the weather.

It wasn’t at all the Driving Miss Daisy thing I had imagined. The company was a large livery service, mostly ferrying corporate types in and out of O’Hare in airport stretch Cadillac Fleetwoods–factory-made limos just long enough to give a passenger some room to stretch their legs, read the paper and pour themselves a strong one. I was to take the car, be on the Motorola dispatch radio, turn in 60% percent of the fares, and pay for the gas. In my remote situation, relief was hard to arrange, so I worked five days that averaged about 16 hours, covering both rushes with a bunch of midday down time playing cards with the boys, reading, or playing Centipede at the arcade. Missed my wife, but it seemed like a better deal than working at a gas station for what must have been around 5 to 6 bucks an hour around then.

I did well. I knew my way around and hit my pickups, so I quickly became a favorite with the dispatchers, if not some of the other drivers. After a week or so, I was netting about a hundred bucks a day, cash.

Then the winter of ’79 got going. On January 13th, we were expecting two inches of snow. 38 hours later, the total was over 21 inches, with winds gusting up to 39 mph. Snow depth averaged around 30″. O’Hare was shut down for nearly three days. Secondary roads were covered in at least 4″ of packed ice. City streets were jammed with drifted-over abandoned cars. The transit lines shut down, buried under frozen ice and snow.

Nothing melted. The temperature remained below freezing for about a month. The winter was the second coldest in Chicago history, averaging 13 to 14 degrees below normal. On top of the 30″ on the ground came another 50″ inches of snow over the next six weeks, making the winter the snowiest on record. Some radio station came up with a promo for bright colored styrofoam balls to attach to the top of cars’ radio antennae, to help people see each other approaching intersections or getting out of driveways. It was a hit. The limo service made them mandatory.

You might think this would be a problem for a limo service. Sure, it was tough on dispatchers, but it was great for the drivers, as long as you could keep yourself moving. Once flights resumed, the demand was fierce. Vacation reservations still came up. Business still happened. For the frequent traveler, fares were per order. Sharing two pickups was the most common, but a driver who could handle both the geography and the customers might get a triple now and then, substantially improving their profit.

In the worst of it, though, triples were the minimum. Instead of deadheading 25 miles up the Tollway to grab a double, we were taking three and even four separate fares out to grab a triple back in. It took forever to get anywhere, but the fare totals were way up and the fuel usage down. For a while, I was netting $150 to $200 a day, which was pretty handy at the time.

And then, driving home some middle of the week midnight after my last fare, I hit a patch on a curve and slid off the road. Nothing too serious–just bumped into enough of the snowbank to get stuck. It was cold that night–about ten below, with a bit of north wind. Remember, I was still Florida-conditioned at the time. In the quiet, without the light of a house or car in sight, I was alone and not particularly well dressed or equipped for the cold, with about an eighth of a tank of gas, no radio, and about 20 years short of my first cell phone.

That’s when things got visceral. I was in a potentially unsurvivable position, and it scared me. I knew I couldn’t walk out of there–I didn’t have the layers or footwear for it. I had no plan, so I sat and hoped someone would come by before the gas ran out.

Fortunately, after about forty-five minutes, someone did come by in a 4×4 pickup and yanked my sorry ass back out of the bank with a chain. If I’d been on the back roads I often took, I might not have been so lucky.

A few years later, a similar thing happened, but under worse conditions. My wife and I were coming home from a party, driving the county roads through the farmlands of McHenry County quite late. The temperature that night was about twenty below, as I recall, with a pretty good wind blowing across some the flattest of prairie flatlands you could imagine. There was little snow on the ground, but it was blowing around enough to drift four to six inches in spots, not much of an issue for a SAAB 99. We’d done it before.

A twelve inch drift in one spot, stretched out for a hundred yards or so, was a little too much, though. Eventually, we backed out of it and took another route. By that time, someone else had joined us anyway, so it wasn’t like we were in any real danger.

But I had learned. We had packed layers to wear. We had a couple of blankets as well. And plenty of gas. We also had a couple of candles and a coffee can, I think it was. A candle will keep you alive, as long as you crack a window, of course.

Technology being what it is, we don’t often consider the fragility of our existence. We have one way of doing things that has always served us under any conditions. We don’t see ourselves in the same hostile environment our ancestors often did not survive.

And then late one night you go off a country road. You’re in a dead cell zone. You’re in street clothes. The gas runs out and the car goes dark. You hear a car or two go by, but nobody stops, likely assuming the car abandoned. Long past midnight, you’re getting hypothermia. You can’t think. You have to move.

You don’t get far.

Such a needless loss. Random and utterly preventable, yet it could have happened to anyone unused to considering the dangers of their natural environment–for whom circumstances have never made those dangers real.

It could easily have happened to me.

One response to “Cold, Cold, Cold”

  1. Pretty harrowing experience, Don.

    I agree most folks in cold climates scoff at the everyday activities we experience until something like this slaps you awake to improve in either your preparedness or, avoidance.

    Having lived in both the Midwest and Mountain West for half my years, I have learned to both prepare and, avoid. Like not doing the Google maps shortcut thing across an unknown mountain pass with sketchy road conditions.

    I had to learn the near miss bonehead way. Cutting to the climax:in my early 20s, I was driving a beat up Datsun from Webster City, Iowa back to Flagstaff, Az. on US 54 when a spring break March storm blew down from Canada. The car broke down at sunset. 18 wheelers mostly frequented this route but, the few that were out that evening weren’t stopping for this long haired leaping hippie. By 11 pm, the radio gave out with a last report of temps at -20 and winds at 30 mph. I was wearing all the warm clothing I had plus an Army blanket but, I knew this wasn’t going to cut it very long.
    Finally, I made a last attempt to flag someone down in the snow flurries, waving my arms like a looney. A traveling secretary with her boss asleep in the back in a big warm Caddy finally stopped and took me in and on to an all night truck stop. Bless her. The storm passed, Sun came out and life went back to normal.

    I would be stuck in the elements on other journeys in the future but, not without the resources- and experiences-you need for survival.

    Not just luck.


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