Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Winters in the Midwest

Being a lifelong resident of the American Midwest, except during some of my studies and work travels, has been a process of empirical observation of the loss of winter. As a child, a few decades ago, it used to snow where I lived in November, usually on Thanksgiving, almost always during Christmas, and typically right on up through March. It snowed so much that I made extra money as a kid by shoveling up snow from peoples' sidewalks and porches. It was quite a lucrative business, as adults could never get enough of the sight of children cleaning and working (probably bringing back memories when they spent their childhood working in bakeries or a textile factory).

My experiences have also taught me a couple of absolute truths about winter. One, adults hate it, because they have to drive in the snow and ice (and the cold freezes up their joints [the ones in their bones, of course]). And two, children love winter, because it is an opportunity to pelt each other with snowballs, build snow houses and people, and because if it snows enough it can periodically give us a day off from school. There was nothing better than a snow day. In the Blizzard of '78, I did not have school for over two weeks, living on soup, shoveling four feet of snow out of our driveway, and becoming the most proficient snowballer on the block. This was before the era of video games, the internet, mp3 players, iPhones, cell phones, etc., and I had to spend all of that time with my family, together, playing board games, pretending to care about my homework, and going outside to play in the snow to get away from it all.

The most interesting aspect of winter in those days, though, was playing war. Outside of the Battle of the Bulge, there were not too many famous battles that the US has fought in the snow. D-Day was out of the question. We tried fighting like we were in Star Wars, especially after the release of The Empire Strikes Back, which contained several winter battle scenes, but I always found it more interesting to feign killing Germans (I insisted on being on the side of killing the Nazis or Confederates [our two favorite targets]) than the minions of Darth Vader. Toy guns or makeshift weapons are easier to come by than a laser or a light saber. Not only that, how do you make a replica of the Death Star?

Football was also fun. Even in urban settings, you can slide-play football. Just take the ball and dive and you are guaranteed several yards. The games used to have scores like 82-68 (touchdowns were always followed by two point conversions, since we did not have adequate representations of goal posts or a motivation to want to kick field goals). And with the extra clothing you had to wear in the winter, it meant that you could really hit each other, even though during school recess we were constantly warned that football had to be non-tackle (we were busted so many times that we spent most of the year not being able to play football during school hours).

Best of all, when you played in the winter months at school, the playgrounds in those days were paved. Yes, blacktop. That is how foolish school authorities were in the 1970s--pave the ground below the monkey bars and swing sets (surely, no one will get hurt). Snow was like a lubricant for blacktop, so every week we always had a student slip and fall and break something (an arm here, a leg there, and sometimes a head for the one who slipped while hanging upside down on the jungle gym). Everyone in the school would hover around the student or windows when it happened (as the offending party would by that point be on the ground crying loudly). We would all hush, trying to find out who it was, and cash in (bets would run about a nickel to 50 cents) if that was the kid we bet on to fall for the week. It sounds cruel, but in a way it served as a nice corrective for stupid children to learn their lesson, the hard way--literally.

Now, most of this is gone. Gone are the paved playgrounds, unfortunately (yes, unfortunately). And gone are most of our winters. In the past decade, my hometown and place I grew up has only averaged about two, maybe two and half months of snow a year (as opposed to four months when I was growing up). It never snows on Thanksgiving anymore, almost never for Christmas, and for the most part only in January and February. That is it.

The days of four feet of snow are over. This is not a commentary on global warming, although I am certain it has contributed in taking its toll on winters in the Midwest, but it is sorrow for what has been lost. As any geographer or anthropologist can tell you, weather is an important factor in shaping not just the natural environment, but the mindset and values of a society. If it is warm ten months out of the year, instead of eight, that is over two months of lost coats, gloves, shoveling, and community. People in cold weather react and think differently than folks who bask in the sun. When you lose snow during holidays that have historically been tied to winter, your attitudes and perspective about those holidays change. Someone from Madison, Wisconsin, or Cleveland is going to have a much different view of the world than someone from Oklahoma City.

This is not to pass judgment on anyone from states that can afford heating bills during the winter months. I am merely wishing that the snow that rained down on me this last week had been with us for the past few months. No one likes summer where I live, where the humidity is always above 90%, and where the sun feels like it is on top of you. It is in the winter that you see civilization. It is in the cold that you see a person's stamina, character, and sticktoitiveness. It is in the snow that you can see sites like this.

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