Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Baby It's Cold Outside...

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.


  1. I had a dream the other night that I went skiing. I was on top of a mountain. Not one of the glorified hills we have at this end of the country but a proper mountain, and I was up above the treeline. The sky was that bright blue that you only get on the coldest days when the air physically cannot hold any moisture. There were no clouds, the sky was high overhead, and the snow was untouched. I aimed my skis down the slope and took off. Unlike skiing in reality, this time I had no apprehension of speed. I had no lingering memories of wiping out and wrenching my knee, so nothing kept me from just barreling from one carved turn to another, flat-out. It was incredible.

    Then I woke up because Simon needed to be fed or changed or something and I got an inkling of just how much my brain must hate me.

  2. That was back when my brain hated me, too. One time Sarah found me sitting on the edge of the bed in my underwear. This was hours after I fell asleep. When she asked me what I was doing, I responded, "I have to watch the pour." The pour, she said. "Yeah," I said, "the concrete pour. I have to watch it while the other guys are at lunch to make sure no one falls in." Eventually, she convinced me that my boss wouldn't mind if I took a short nap. I was working 16 hours a day m-f, 12 on Saturday, 8 on Sunday, and THAT is what my brain decided to dream about? It couldn't give me a dream about flying or sex? Really? Fuck you, brain.

    And fuck you too, Jober. Now I want to go skiing.