I was woken up at 5:00 AM this morning by an automated telephone call letting me know that the local schools would be closed today due to extreme weather conditions. Expecting to see a raging blizzard outside, I was rather surprised to notice that my sidewalk was still well cleared of snow, and not a single snowflake was falling. It turns out the extreme weather was the temperature: -8 Farenheit.
Granted, -8 is cold. There may be a few readers of my blog who have never experienced that temperature before. I should add as well that there was a little breeze this morning, too, which brought the wind chill down to -25. So yes, it was cold this morning. But was it really so cold that schools should be closed for the day? After all, -8 was simply the low for the day. Temperatures will rise to 0 by noon, with the afternoon high expected to be around 4. Sure, that’s cold, but is it really dangerously cold for children in their Gore-Tex and down jackets? Aren’t those modern items of winter apparel rated for sub-zero temperatures?
As I pondered these questions it occurred to me that we have become a nation of wimps. I mean, really, when did sub-zero weather first warrant a day off from school? I’m talking about Northern Illinois, not Miami or Brownsville or San Diego. I’m talking about schools that are only about 10 miles from the border of Wisconsin. We’re supposed to be able to handle cold weather around here.
We weren’t always so wimpy. During the first winter of the Lewis and Clark expedition, the explorers wintered in what is now North Dakota. The morning of January 10, 1805, Captain Clark’s thermometer recorded a temperature of -40 Farenheit (also -40 Celsius). They were staying in log cabins they had rushed to build the previous November. I don’t think they had any insulation or central heating. Conditions weren’t much better 70 years later when the Dakota Territory began attracting settlers in large numbers. These men and women – and children – persevered in their dugouts and log cabins. They built schools and churches and managed to attend them, even in the winter.
Cold climes aren’t the only places that produced remarkably tough people. Lyndon Johnson owed much of his early political success to his efforts to bring electricity to the people of rural Central Texas. Imagine life before electricity in that rough, relatively infertile landscape during the long months of summer. Imagine hauling hundreds of pounds of firewood and water into the house every day. Since refrigerators did not yet exist, and would have been useless even if they did in a place without electricity, housewives were forced to spend countless hours during hot summer days bending over the wood-burning stove, boiling huge pots of water to can enough vegetables and fruits to last through the winter and spring. Imagine bending over a washtub of scalding hot water, scrubbing the clothes of seven, eight, nine, or more children and grown-ups in 100 degree heat. Then, imagine how meager the evening relief would be after the sun set, with temperatures remaining above 90 well into the night, and possibly never falling below 80 for weeks on end. By making rural electrification his signature issue, it’s little wonder Lyndon Johnson achieved success as a young, progressive New Dealer in the 1930’s.
You don’t have to go that far back in time, either. My mother and father lived without airconditioning for the first several years of their marriage. They would dampen their sheets each night before bed in order to get enough cooling relief to make sleep possible.
For that matter, I remember attending an un-airconditioned school in Texas during the first three years of my formal education. In North Texas, school started in late August, a month that is frequently the hottest of the year. 100+ degree temperatures are common well into September. It may not have been pleasant, but I clearly remember sitting in a classroom cooled only be a large, oscillating pedestal fan. As far as I know, every school in my hometown is now equipped with central airconditioning. I’m glad for that. I’m sure it makes the learning experience much more effective. Still, how would those kids and teachers cope in a classroom where interior temperatures must have approached 90 degrees?
Yes, I’m afraid we’ve become a nation of wimps. But you know what? I’d rather be a wimp in my comfortably cool 68 degree house than a tough SOB in a cold, drafty log cabin on a -8 degree morning.
Now, where did I leave my Cabela’s slippers? My toes are a little chilly.