The temperature at the bus stop this morning was 8 degrees Fahrenheit (-13 Celsius).
It is, by the way, shortly after declaring the temperature that your average Minnesotan is required to tell you the incredibly important facts they have gleaned over a lifetime, all of which are based on truth and specifically embellished for gruesome-ness.
Let me get you started, should you find yourself unable to come to Minneapolis this winter.
Did you know that at this temperature skin freezes? First the skin hurts, then it goes solid white and hard, then it stops hurting, and then it turns black and falls off. I knew a guy once, lost two toes snowmobiling. True story.
Did you know that 75% of heat is lost through the head? Would you believe 80%?
Did you know that there are stories of the settlers forced to kill, split, and climb inside an ox to stay alive when hit by a blizzard while coming back from town? Could you imagine being inside an ox during a snow storm? Could you imagine being inside an ox at any other time?
My father told me, when I was 10, that it wasn’t until he was in his late 20s that he truly understood just how debilitating the cold was. A salesman for a cigarette manufacturer, he often traveled to the Dakotas; and while both Dakotas are known for their unreasonably cold and windy winters, he was in North Dakota when he first truly understood Winter's desire to kill him.
“I’ve got some promotional items with me. Cardboard signs, free lighters, drink coasters, that sort of thing. So I'm in this bar talking to the owner and I run out to the car for them.”
Dad takes a drag of his cigarette, looks off into the distance and shudders slightly, the cold still fresh in his mind.
“You ever been in a fifty-below windchill, Patty?”
My father, unable to recall the ages of his children (“What are you now, 16?” he asked me in fourth grade) is also unable to recall their names and often calls me by his sister's, something he does to this day.
“No, Dad. I don’t think I have.”
“It’ll kill you.” He takes another hit off his cigarette. “See, the thing is that it hurts. It hurts really bad. And then suddenly, it doesn’t. Suddenly, you’re getting warm again. Isn’t that nice?” He pounds the table with the palm of his left hand. “But no! You’re not warm! You’re freezing to death.”
He shakes his head. “As long as you’re in pain, you’re okay. The minute you start getting warm and sleepy and the pain is gone, you’re done for.”
He stares out the window. “Don’t ever fall asleep in the snow. I don’t care how tired you are. You ever fall asleep in the snow, you’ll never wake up.”
He takes another hit of his cigarette. “But that didn’t happen that time in North Dakota.”
I waited. Dad likes to take his time with a story.
“Nope. That’s not how it happened at all.”
Oh. Now I see. “So what did happen, Dad?”
“I put my coat on, right? Grab the keys to the car. I figure, hey, I’ll be in and out, no need for gloves. I’m out there less than two seconds, it seems, when I am completely chilled. Fifty degrees below zero! Think about it, Pearl!”
I think about it. I nod solemnly.
“So I’m holding the keys,” he holds his hand out, shows me how he’s holding the keys, “and I’m back at the trunk, and I drop them. Huh. I pick them up. I drop them again! I bend over, I pull them out of the snow – and I drop them again! And I can feel my fingers slowing down! My fingers won’t hold the keys! I can't get in the car! And I think to myself, man, this is how people die. First it’s the fingers, then it’s the toes, pretty soon you’re stumbling in circles, walking on what feels like someone else’s feet.”
“So what happened, Dad?”
“What happened?” He stands, walks to the fridge and gets himself a beer. “I died! I froze in the snow!”
My face betrays my shock and my dad laughs. “I didn’t die,” he says quickly. He pops the top off his beer.
He pauses, takes a drink of his beer.
“Yep,” he says. “I didn't die. Not that time. But that’s how it happens, I'll bet.”