Baby, it’s cold outside.
I had that Christmas song on my mind for a week, stuck there despite hearing it way too many times leading up to the holiday.
How cold was it, you ask? Cold enough to freeze the lakes over solid, thick enough to hold a fairly large rock on the surface. That’s something I’ve not seen before, at least in the 11 years we’ve lived in our lakeside home in Whispering Pines.
Cold enough that the ducks were going under water to stay warm. Cold enough that the surface ice developed millions of little ice spurs on the surface that looked like tiny angels.
I can only remember a couple of other times when it got that cold for that long in this part of the world — that is, in North Carolina, where I’ve spent most of my life. There have been lots of cold snaps, certainly, with temperatures dropping into single digits, and even occasionally below zero. But they usually don’t last long. A few days, and then we oscillate back to a Carolina weather pattern.
One of those times was in the early 1980s, when a storm labeled the Siberian Express roared through, bringing with it the lowest temperatures we had ever seen. In the mountains, where we lived at the time, during the worst night of the storm, temperatures got into the 15- to 20-below-zero range, with raging winds that pushed the perceived temps to minus 25. Water was literally freezing in pipes inside the house.
There’s an old saying up there: “Hard winters make good timber.” It means that harsh weather culls the weak stuff, leaving the strong trees stronger. That night certainly tested the forests.
That night, a local pharmacy in Jefferson caught on fire when a heater got overstressed. I got the call, and it wasn’t far away. I got in my little Toyota truck, and after a couple of wobbling cranks, it fired up. I wasn’t sure I wanted it to, but duty called.
I drove to the site, and the local volunteer fire department was there battling the blaze. Icicles hung mere inches from the towering flames, as water froze in the air on its way to its target. Light refracted through the crystals as the fire danced, making quite a visual show. One fireman got drenched in this effort, and had his clothes literally broken off so he could be warmed back up.
Unfortunately, the building was a total loss for the owners. The next day, amazingly enough, the little truck started up again, and I went to the newspaper to make sure everything was OK. I was the only moving thing out there; the world was perfectly still like being in a surreal movie.
There was another time, in 1960, that was very similar to the recent couple of weeks, only worse. We lived in Albemarle then, and I was in elementary school. The cold spell was in February and March and lasted five weeks. During that time, it snowed every Wednesday for four weeks, then finished up with an ice storm.
The snow lingered on the ground way past the time when it was exciting. This was a time of small municipal governments, so there wasn’t any equipment available to push it off the roads. We were out of school for weeks and caught the usual boredom of being cooped up. It must have driven my mother crazy, having four kids in the house for weeks without an outlet.
I don’t remember a lot of details of the affair, except for one visual. We lived next door to an apartment building with eight units. One day when I was outside, I noticed an icicle hanging from the corner of the building, two stories up. It just hung there, catching the sunlight and twinkling in the sun. But the sun was too weak to melt it, so it continued to grow each day. I went out to check on it every day, mesmerized by this thing I’d never seen. It grew every day, longer and fatter, until it looked like a stalagtite hanging from the eve. It was 5 feet long and 8 inches wide at the top, and the tension of how it stayed up there left me in awe.
I’ve seen such miracles many times since, but to a boy of 8 it was an experience — until the thaw finally came, and I found it on the ground one afternoon, shattered into a thousand pieces.
Up in the mountains, things were much worse that time. The snow lay on the ground 4 feet deep, because when we’d gotten 4 to 6 inches, they’d gotten a foot or more each time. For weeks, National Guard helicopters pitched hay from the air to feed livestock marooned in open pastures.
Pictures of the time show roads plowed, with snow banks 8 to 10 feet deep on the sides of the road. Cars in old photos are dwarfed by the mass of snow pushed off the roads. Even back then, they had snow equipment in Ashe County, and for good reason.
Back then, things were simpler and people were more self-reliant. They took care of themselves and each other, depending less on government for their safety. In Ashe County, as in the rest of the mountain area, there were individuals living in the back country, up in the “hollers,” depending on no one for their well-being. As the Steve Earl song says, they were “only come to town about twice’t a year” kind of people.
As the National Guard members were passing out hay to the cows, they noticed one old shack of a house alone up a holler. Because they saw no evidence of life there for weeks as they passed over time and time again, they began to question whether the person in the house was OK.
They asked the local sheriff’s office and found that an elderly woman lived there, alone and in her 80s. Somebody should check on her, it was decided.
The National Guard took on the task, deciding to drop a couple of members by rope from a helicopter as they were delivering hay. The next day they did so, hovering over a field as close as possible. The two soldiers, bundled up well in their 1960s wool uniforms, dropped into a frozen world of snowflakes and began pushing their way through the chest-deep snow to the cabin.
It took a long time, but at last they neared the house, which was virtually buried. But they could see where a covered porch extended from the house, so they headed in that direction. The entrance was covered by a wall of the white stuff, but once they broke through, the porch was clear and dry. They knocked on the door and waited. And waited. They knocked again, freezing from the effort to get there. Just as they were about the test the door, it opened.
A woosh of warm dry air blew past them, and there in the doorway, silhouetted by the dark interior behind her, stood an old lady not 5 feet tall, her skin wrinkled like that of a black and white portrait. They stood facing each other for a moment, until the lady broke the silence.
“You boys lost?” she asked.
She was just fine, thank you. She had food canned from the garden, and a country ham, and wood for the stove that heated the house. Hooray for individualism, I always thought. Hooray for people taking responsibility to for their own welfare.
But the story does remind us that things are returning to normal, and everything will be OK. The weather is warming up, and spring will start showing up in a few weeks.
Until then, know that we live in Carolina, and we’re on the line between Northern and Southern weather patterns. Enjoy the beauty of both. And no whining in the meantime. This is where we choose to live, and this is what we get.