I have lost my ability to shrug off the cold.

As a kid, the cold wasn’t just cold, it was part of my identity:  I am better than you because I can endure the cold.  South Dakota has a lot of sour-grapes values:  I can’t have nice things, so I’m better than people who can.

Which, you know, is petty, but you take what you can get.  On the other hand, cold was one of the greatest adventures that I knew, as a kid. The blizzards were epic, the snow piles well-nigh eternal, the sledding suicidal, the frost mythic, clearly caused by a demon so beaten into submission it was safe enough to call it a sprite.  The icicles were as thick and deadly as poniards.  When I first saw Dune, I went, Yes, that’s it exactly.

Only it’s heat, not water, that you have to conserve.

And so let me present to you the equipment of my childhood:

Boots: commercial snow boots were useless.  I remember longing for a dressy pair of boots at one point, only to have Mom flip them over and point accusingly at the smooth, barely-ridged bottoms, and not having to say a word.*  Proper winter boots are the ones from the farm store with the removable wool liners and the laces that can be jerked to seal out the snow and slush over and over again.  To bust a shoelace outside in the snow means taking your gloves off.  No. Just no.

Socks: as many pairs as you can fit on.  As many pairs as you have, because you only get new socks when school starts, and by the time late October rolls around, you have already shredded the heels.  Hopefully not higher than can be concealed by your school tennis shoes, which are already falling apart at the seams as well.  Socks for Christmas?  Yes, please.

Pants:   Denim, no long johns, not really.  Because…

Snowpants:  Nylon full-body snowpants and/or snowsuit.  Nylon because it resists soaking and makes a swishing sound when you run.

Shirt:  Shirt, another shirt, another shirt on top of that, sweater, another sweater…

Coat:  Depends on the snowpants/snowsuit situation.  Coats are easier to get on or off, especially if you have to pee.  But coats let in wind and snow and water around the waist.  It’s a tradeoff.

Ski mask:  Always has a chewed spot on the bottom lip, because it would get cold and sweaty, and then you would chew on it.  I think it was my cousin Laurie or Mary who was trying to explain to me that if you were thirsty you should suck on a small pebble.  No, actually, you should suck on your ski mask.

Hat:  Over the ski mask.

Hood:  Restricts visibility and freedom of movement (turning your already sausagelike head).  Not used unless it was really windy.

Gloves:  The best setup, IMO, was gardening gloves on the inside and nylon shell gloves with long wrists on the outside.  Your hands and feet tended to spend so much time at or near frostbite levels of cold that you really didn’t pay attention to them until they started to ache and/or prickle.  Strips of snot along the wrists marked your unwillingness to go Back In The House, not your essential disgustingness as a kid.

Scarf:  Debatable.  One of the shortfalls of a non-hood setup was having snow, snowmelt, cold air, etc. go down the back of your neck.  But Christ, those things would just get tangled up in stuff, and then you’d lose them or get stuck on a nail half a mile from home somewhere, or tear the damned thing.  Probably better off without, unless you wanted to feel like an explorer.  And then you needed a scarf.  Which you would probably also chew on.

Another benefit of nylon-shell outerwear was that, if the snow was hard enough, you were essentially wearing a full-body sled.

Accoutrements:

  • Sled:  Long.  Red.  Plastic.  Low weight, for those interminable walks uphill.  Bottom may have been waxed with waxed paper from the kitchen, if you were feeling especially daring.  Not a toboggan.  Teenage cousins and idiot uncles (Howard!) would use the toboggan.  Not a dish.  Oh God.  Those dish sleds were like providing an interplanetary launch pad, the hills we went on.  Better to have something you could brace your boots against.  Stupid breakable cotton cords replaced with scratchy, non-break, non-slip nylon rope.
  • Sticks:  Big walking sticks, for banging on streams to see if they were safe to walk on or punching holes in if not; for knocking frost off the trees and fences; for reaching icicles off the eaves on the big house; for shaking at the sky like sandpeople.  Dagger-sized sticks with the ends sharpened, for digging holes and prying interesting things out of the ground or from a patch of ice; for stabbing snow-monsters; for wedging open stuck doors or prying old bits of rusty junk off larger bits of rusty junk; for tracing patterns in the tops of blank patches of snow.
  • Steak knives:  We had a couple of old steak knives hidden in the hay shed, for sharpening and/or carving the small sticks.  We didn’t carry them around much; we flung ourselves off too many tall objects to make carrying around knives even remotely safe most of the time.
  • Trowels:  I think we had some sort of choppy-stabby garden thing that we used to dig snow tunnels with, but I didn’t learn what the word “trowel” was until later, so it might have been something else.  We may or may not have been allowed to use these.

The normal rule of no hitting was suspended for snowballs, although generally, not being coordinated, I gave up on these pretty quickly, in a rage of incompetence.  I vaguely remember making about a hundred snowballs in preparation for a snowfight once, only to discover that they’d frozen to the ground in the night.  D’oh!  I instead loved to carve out big squares of snow (with the small stick) and drop them off things.  One year we got some sort of rough wooden slat–garden markers or paint stirrers, maybe?–and those were the shit for cutting out snow blocks, like wooden saws.  We never really got into snow molds for making blocks:  with that much snow, it was just a waste of time to patiently pack blocks, when you could be cutting them out of fresh snow much more quickly.

The rituals of reentering the house were almost as important as getting dressed properly:

Did you do your chores?

Just don’t even bother taking off your clothes if you hadn’t.  Your need to pee was immaterial in the face of the question of chores.

Did you knock the snow off your boots?

A boot scraper sat outside the back door of most people’s houses.  If it wasn’t the snow, it was the mud.  Or the manure.

Then, the two most important questions having been answered, you could then begin to throw all of your outerwear on the floor.  But there was one more step…

Did you hang up your wet clothes?

We had a folding wooden rack made mostly of half-inch pine dowels that perpetually sat in front of the heater.  Wet (outdoor) clothes were draped over it while little tushies shivered in the thin, blasted gap between the rack and the furnace-like heater.

And, sometimes, if you had answered the questions correctly or, better yet, without having to be nagged, Mom would bring you hot chocolate.

 

 

*My dressy boots now are calf-length Doc Martens with thick laces and side zippers and treads so deep you can see geological strata in them.  Score!