Watching my breath stream from my mouth and nose as I held out the flag for the first train of the morning, I realized it's been quite a while since I've had to work in the cold. Even the construction job before graduate school was inside a building. There was no heating system, but the walls kept the worst of the winter where it belonged.
The last time I worked outside the New England area experienced a very snowy, very cold winter. How cold, you ask? My father (he was the union steward) filled a cup with water inside the company trailer, stepped outside and tossed the water into the air. It became snow before it hit the ground. None of the diesel-engine trucks worked. For a few days Boston Harbor steamed, then it froze.
To survive those days with all my extremities intact I mummified myself in layers of clothes. Thermal everything, one on top of another. As long as I dressed for protection and kept moving the cold was manageable. So slow days were the worst, and because the difficulties that weather brings, work ground down to a slow crawl. There is one that sticks out: I was tending two carpenters who worked inside an unfinished wall on top of a footing. A road would rest on wall a year or two later, but at that time the top was exposed. The carpenters didn't need many tools after what I brought them in the morning, so I spent a lot of that day on top of the wall, shivering, the wind searing what skin wasn't covered by my mask. Once I was home, it took a hot shower and an hour under all the blankets to exorcise the chill.
Fortunately, the body adapts. After weeks of sub-zero temperatures, 20 and 30 degree days became tolerable, if not easy. When the cold snapped in late February, early March and the first 40 degree day since November blessed us with its presence, I was walking around in jeans and a long-sleeve t-shirt. Though I've always hated the hot days of summer, that year I didn't notice as much. Because I was outside most of the day every day (I worked a lot of overtime that year so when I say every day, I mean just that) my body acclimated to the gradual warming from one season into the next just as it did when the cool air first came in the autumn.
Faced with working outside more days than not again, I'm not worried. In fact, sick as it sounds, I'm almost looking forward to it. It is cold out this morning, sure, my breath leaves me in great bursts of vapor, but my jacket has already been shed. My hooded sweatshirt and the thermal shirt underneath are enough.
It's not that living through the cold toughens you. It's that you learn to like it a little bit, so you can stand it.