A winter’s tale

I often tell folks in my wordsmithing classes and workshops that some of the most useful tools they can employ are the five senses.  I also tell them that the sense of smell is almost always the quickest one to trigger a memory of the past.  But the feeling generated by a really cold day, like several we’ve had more of than usual this year, might give smell a run for first place.  In support of that theory I offer the following piece I wrote one particularly frigid morning a decade or so ago for my Sunday newspaper column:

On more than one occasion in this little corner of the paper I have confessed to being a weather junkie. I’ve owned up to looking forward to big blue northers barreling in and to enjoying blustery gray days that normal people chalk up as failures.

But I also need to confess that I generally like such days from inside a warm house. You’ve found me on a chilly morning with a determined gust pushing against the windows. I just made a quick foray outside to get the papers, wishing I’d put on an extra sweater for just that short journey. Dry leaves scratched their way swiftly along the street and a stiff north wind practically blew me back inside, to a warm room, a cup of hot coffee and a winter memory.

When I was all of 20, in the Army and stationed in Germany, my company commander decided, during a frigid January, that a parking lot full of decommissioned jeep trailers that we somehow ended up with needed to be guarded. I never understood why those ancient rigs warranted any sort of protection. They had no doubt been built in World War II or just before it and 30 years later, when my fellow privates and I had to guard them, they were in a mighty pitiful shape. Most of them were immobile, all were banged up and more than a few were missing tail gates, hitches, tires or even wheels.

Now I’m here to tell you those were some downright cold nights when we took turns rolling out of our bunks, pulled on as many layers of Army-issued clothes as we could get into, slung M16s over our shoulders and made sure nobody stole a bunch of clunkers that I doubt the Army could have given away.

Some nights it snowed. Some nights it rained. But clear nights, with no clouds to serve as a blanket, were the worst of all. Because when the sky was full of stars it was bone-chilling, blue-faced, deep freezer cold. On those nights nothing in the world seemed more inviting — not home, or a weekend pass, or fried schnitzel with German-fried potatoes — than the prospect of ending our two hour stint, crawling back into a narrow cot and pulling stiff Army sheets and a couple of scratchy olive-colored blankets up over our heads.

When we’d suffered through that arctic sentry duty for a month or more, an order came down from the battalion or division or some other lofty zenith that all guard details had to be overseen by an NCO. So now our cadre of sergeants had to roll out with the rest of us, bundle up and brave the elements. And it was fortunate for us that when First Sergeant Shultz took his first turn the wind was whistling down out of the Bavarian north like a scene out of “Dr. Zhivago.” In the Army, a first sergeant — usually called “Top” — might have to salute officers, but make no mistake about it: He runs the company. So the next morning he had a word with the company commander and requisitioned a truckload of heavy chains, which we used to connect all the trailers together and secure with big padlocks.

It took just a few minutes outside on a bitter night for Top to come up with a little common sense and a new plan. And our trailer vigil came to an end.

I’m pretty sure nobody ever cut those chains and tried to steal any of them, though a few of us did manage to roll one over to our barracks that May, where we filled it up with ice and bottles of German beer to celebrate my 21st birthday. But even on that warm day the combination of one of those trailers and all that ice made us wince. Because it was enough to take us back to those long nights of polar misery.

If you’ll excuse me now I’ll turn up the gas in the fireplace and get those flames lapping up a little higher. Then I’ll top off my coffee, Miss Karen and I will read the papers and our two opinionated, elderly cats will curl up into balls by the hearth and go to sleep.

The winter day can spit and blow all it wants to outside. And if I start considering taking a walk around the neighborhood I’ll just think, instead, of a lot full of rusty trailers that may still be chained together, for all I know, in Illesheim, Germany.

Then I’ll nestle more comfortably in my chair and be content to look out the window.

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