392. Cold to the Bone

Poor Tim. I’ve been putting him through Hell since he wandered off and got himself lost in Post five. But you have to give me some credit. I gave him two breaks. If he hadn’t found that piece of pyrites, or something equivalent, he would have died by the second night. And if he hadn’t stumbled onto that piece of obsidian, he could not have made spearpoints and arrowheads.

The rule of fiction is: you can use all the coincidence you want in getting your hero into trouble, but be very careful in using coincidence to get him out of trouble. That is story logic, not real life logic. We dodge bullets every day by sheer happenstance, but we don’t expect our authors to cut our characters any such slack.

So I gave Tim a piece of pyrites and a piece of obsidian, then gave him rain, cold, clouds, a twisted ankle, and got him so thoroughly lost that he had no idea which way to walk out. That’s fair, in story land. Two ounces of luck and a thousand pounds of pain.

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Write about what you know; the oldest cliche in the book. Well, I know cold.

Take a typical December day in Oklahoma. That means not much snow, some sleet occasionally, but typically bare, hoof churned dirt, frozen by thirty degrees of frost into a tangled mass of lumps and holes. It was deadly to walk on and the cow flop froze solid when it hit.

You will find me snug and warm in my bed until 4:30 A.M. when my dad would throw back the door and shout, “Get up!”, in his take-no-prisoners voice. He had no patience for coming back a second time and, with that voice, he never had to.

I hit the floor with a jolt of adrenaline and went in the living room to dress. The only stove we owned was there, gas burning and hot. The stove pipe in the back had been replaced with a “C” of pipe sections that redirected the fumes into the fan that sent glorious heat into the room. OSHA would not have approved, but OSHA hadn’t been invented yet.

First I held my long johns over the fan. They stood out like a wind sock briefly, then I put them on. The same with my jeans and shirt. The same with the overalls that went on next. Then two pairs of socks, boots, overshoes, then a blanket-lined jean jacket. I was warm as toast.

The comfort lasted about thirty seconds after the kitchen door closed behind me and there was no comfort for the next three hours while my dad and I milked cows.

There is nothing like three hours of arctic cold seeping into your feet from a concrete floor to make you appreciate that you would soon be in a heated classroom. I loved school. I loved learning. I also loved being where it was warm — while it lasted. After school, we did it all over again, then I got to sink into the comfort of a warm bed.

Until 4:30 the next morning.

After milking each morning we would load hay onto the truck and drive out to scatter it in the pasture. Then we would drive to the pond, and both hop out with our axes. We each cut — or recut — a series of eighteen inch square holes in the ice so the cows could drink.

There is a science to this. After you chop out the four lines which form the perimeter of the hole, you flip the loosened square out onto the ice, then splash water up and around the hole. This removes the floating ice chunks that would quickly refreeze, and also thickens the ice where the cattle will later stand.

It works well, usually. But one day there had been a rare snowfall. There were drifts, only inches deep, at the edge of the pond. Actually, over the pond, as I found out when I stepped out, thinking I was still on land, onto the ice itself.

No, I didn’t drown. I’m here to tell the story, aren’t I? But I can’t describe the shock when I went in to my knees.

Science tells us that water, under ice, is 0o Celsius or 32o Fahrenheit. Science lies! It is infinitely colder than that.

So yes, Tim, I know all about cold. I feel your pain, but you are the hero and I am the author. I am going to enjoy sitting here in front of the typewriter with my feet wrapped in a blanket while you sleep on the frozen ground. It’s nothing personal, but I’ve been there, and I ain’t goin’ back.

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