The coldest I’ve ever been was not December 27, 2009 when I watched my husband officiate the Music City Bowl. Sitting for three hours inside the Tennessee Titans’ stadium in a winter windchill of 17 degrees makes a body cold, to be sure. But I’ve been colder. In the 70’s.
In the 70’s, I lived to hear the WKEE disc jockey who lived inside my clock radio include “Cabell County” in the list of school cancellations.
I’d slap the off button and roll over and dream about— What was the oldest Partridge brother’s name? Not Danny, the other one.
The smell of Maxwell House would waft under my door, telling me Dad was up. I’d slide my feet into slippers, my arms into my pink fuzzy robe, and join him in the kitchen.
Glancing up from his dippy egg, Dad grinned. “Gonna sleigh ride?”
I grinned back. “You know it.”
Opening the cabinet over the stove, I surveyed the collection of cereal—Cheerios, Frosted Flakes, Sugar Pops. That day I picked Cheerios, added a teaspoon or two of sugar and a big pour of milk.
Dad pushed his chair back from the table and carried his dishes to the sink where he ran water over his plate so the yolk streaks wouldn’t turn to Super Glue. Then he patted me on the back, a little too hard. Actually, a lot. I arched my back to soften, maybe even avoid altogether, his enthusiastic blows.
When he lined up his cheek with mine, his Abe Lincoln beard felt scratchy.
My nose wrinkled with the assault of his morning plus Maxwell House breath.
Since my mouth was full, I made the brusha-brusha-brusha motion with my hand. He cupped his to form an almost-fist, breathed into it, and sniffed. Backing away, he mimicked my brusha-brusha action.
Before he left to walk the three miles to where he taught psychology—Marshall University—he returned to the kitchen and exhaled in my face. Colgate breath. Minty fresh. Much better. My mouth was still full so I gave him a thumbs up.
Alone now, I slurped the sugary milk dregs and stacked my bowl on his plate in the sink.
Then I started collecting. Socks, long johns, jeans—two pairs of each. Turtleneck, sweatshirt. Toboggan, scarf, gloves. Baggies and rubber bands—one for each foot.
The plastic bags’re key. They keep the feet dry. Wet cold is way chillier than dry cold. If your feet are dry, you can stay out at least an extra hour before you have to race home to throw everything in the dryer. And guzzle two mugs of Swiss Miss cocoa with the adorable tiny marshmallows, smaller even than the ones in Count Chocula.
Next stop was the basement, for foot and outerwear—always my brothers.’ No way my coat and boots would fit over all my sledding gear. I rooted through the shoe pile under the stairs, searching for the Scotch-guarded, stubby-toed, caramel-colored, suede hiking boots with red laces. I grabbed my middle older brother’s arctic parka—bronze on the outside, fluorescent orange inside.
The faux fur trim around the hood almost always kept the snow spray from my face.
Now into the garage. To decide which sled, or sleds, would be ideal for today’s purposes. I selected the silver disc and the newer Flexible Flyer sled. My brothers had waxed the runners recently using Mom’s tapers from the living room mantle candlesticks, but I’m not stupid. I didn’t tattle.
After lowering the garage door, I dragged the sleds to the end of the driveway, turned right up Green Oak Drive, then right again onto Norway Avenue. En route to the cemetery. No need to tell Mom. The graveyard was where I always headed when it snowed.
It was the best of snow days. It was the worst of snow days.
That morning’s snow possessed a crisp—like potato chips—veneer. As if it had snowed, drizzled, then froze. If I was super careful, I could pick my way across the surface without falling through. The trick was weight distribution. You had to center yourself over your feet. If you dug in a boot heel or edge, you’d crash through. Ka-runch. On a good day, I could accomplish six or eight steps without a breakthrough.
Us neighborhood kids had anticipated this cold snap. We prepared for it too. After school the day before,
Some of us tromped over to Woodmere Memorial Park and used a stubby stick to jam the water pump at the top of the hill where the road winds down to the giant, open Bible carved from granite.
Yesterday, when the temperature almost hit 40, the water had gushed willingly. This morning it wasn’t even 20. The water refused to flow. Instead, it resembled a white paper towel tube emerging from the forest green, goose-necked faucet.
The road’s gleaming coat reminded me of the powdered sugar glaze on my mom’s Bacardi rum cake. Shiny. Slick. Speedy. I smiled and briskly rubbed my gloved hands together.
“This run’s gonna be so fast,” I told the dead people.
After the faucet inspection, I climbed back up the hill to where I left the sleds. The snow disc was appropriate for the short and straight run down to the Bible, the path that started near the line of evergreens. I’d tackle that next. Maybe build some ski jumps by heaping up and packing down snow.
For the road run though, the Flexible Flyer was the obvious choice due to its steering capabilities. Should I sit up, or lie on my belly? I went with my belly because when it came to jerking the crossbar right and left, I trusted my hands way more than my feet.
I slid the sled a ways back from the edge so I could get settled before I— On your mark, get set, went. I eased my Michelin-man self, tummy down, onto the Flyer’s slats, making sure to tuck the rope beneath me so it wouldn’t get caught mid-flight under the runners and ruin my race.
There was one more thing to do before I geronimoed: arrange my muffler up over my mouth and nose because I hate freezing cold snow powder in my face. Hate it!
When you ride a roller coaster, you’re scared as you wait in line. At least I am.
Then, you’re anxious as your car climbs the first hill. That’s how I always feel, like there’s no turning back now. And then you’re at the peak and your stomach jumps up to keep your sternum company. Suddenly all h-e-double toothpicks breaks loose. Speed. Wind. Adrenalin. Fear. Joy. The ride’s over already? Let’s do it again!
More excited than scared, I hunched and scooted and jerked my way to the precipice. Before I lifted the toes of my boots, I paused to examine once more the gleaming ribbon of silver. I considered the way the road dog-legged to the left, halfway down and wondered how well the Flyer would navigate the ice. Only one way to find out.
“Cowabunga!” I shouted to the edges of winter as I oomphed myself from flat to steep.
It all happened so quick. I didn’t even get to enjoy the rush of alarming velocity before the pain—the burning pain—set in. The steering of the Flyer on ice? It didn’t happen. The frigid slicky-slide flung me down the hill so fast, by the time I approached the bend and needed to correct course, it was too late.
The Flyer slammed into the curb and stopped. My body, however, kept going. Across the crisp—like the top of creme brulee, but cold not hot—snow. The parka’s hood flew back and the scarf protecting my face abandoned ship allowing the sandpaper-rough ice crust to razz my face. There went a layer of the skin on my right cheek and jaw. And of course, gosh darn it, I experienced a baptism of freezing cold snow powder.
I don’t know how long I laid there, motionless, like one of those baby harp seals whose eyes beg, “Please don’t let mean, greedy men kill me.”
After a while, the burning on the right side of my face gave way to stinging. Then prickling. Isn’t this what they say frostbite feels like? And then people’s toes and fingers fall off. Is my whole cheek going to fall off?
I lifted my face from the ice layer. My eyes bugged when I saw the pink print marring the snow’s sparkle. With a groan, I rolled onto my back. My neck and shoulders ached from the Flyer’s violent kiss with the curb.
How I wished the snow was soft and fluffy like when it first falls and you sprint outside to make snow angels.
Above me, the sun sat at approximately 10 am, and though it shone brilliant bright, the air was arctic. A quaking began in my gut and shimmied up to my teeth, making them clack. The sound reminded me of castinets which made me think of the song we sang in music class: “La Cucaracha.”
Again my cheek itched and shaking my head to ease the crawling sensation didn’t help. When I reached a clumsy brother glove up to scratch, I felt a tearing. The fringe fibers of my scarf had mated with the beginnings of scabs on my cheek. My face would not surrender the muffler fabric without more pain. More blood.
As I sniffed, my lower lip quivered. I’m gonna be ugly, I thought. This’ll most likely leave a mark.
I’ve not been loved yet, and now I probably never will be.
I’ll have to become a nun like Sally Field, or Maria in The Sound of Music. The wimple will come in handy to hide the puckered, angry scar skin.
That is, if I don’t freeze to death first. After all, this was the coldest I’d ever been.