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So You Think This Is Cold?

by Stanley Scislowski

So you think we’ve had cold weather lately. Big deal! Like an old-timer would say, "It’s nowhere near as bad as back in the thirties!"

During one winter in 1935 or 36, it was about 15 to 20° below zero Fahrenheit for almost a whole week. And to make things even worse, we had a granddaddy of a blizzard that dropped three feet of snow overnight, stopping what little auto traffic there was in those destitute days.

The only things running were the horse-pulled milk sleighs and the streetcars. Otherwise it was the Arctic out there, a desert of snow and icy winds. Not a soul to be seen on the streets.

Man, was it ever cold! And just when our household’s coal reserves were all but used up. If we didn’t get some coal or wood to burn soon, it shaped up to be one God-awful cold night ahead.

With our frame house not insulated, it wouldn’t take long for it to be as cold inside as it was outside, except for the wind. The main source of heat came from the lowly upright wood and coal stove set up in the dining-room; the bedrooms were all like ice-boxes.

There was no getting away from it — get some coal, whether by hook or by crook, or freeze our butts off. We were down to a half scuttleful or so of it, just enough to take us into mid-afternoon. After that, it’d be ‘shiver and shake’ the long day through.

With no money to buy coal, my mother had no recourse but to send me and my brother Joe to the happy hunting ground for coal — the gondolas filled with the stuff, parked on the siding on the Essex Terminal tracks between Benjamin and Hall near Tecumseh Road. And I don’t think we were the only family that depended on unlawful procurement of fuel; there had to be quite a few others in the same boat as we were - dirt poor and desperate.

So, on the coldest day of the year, with a wind-chill that had to be about 40 below, Joe and I headed out into the howling wastes with a wagon and a homemade wheelbarrow, to swipe some coal and save the family from freezing half to death.

How we made it that far through the drifts and bitter cold winds, I’ll never know. But we made it and commenced loading-up, hoping to heck that old man Thompson, the railway dick‚ didn’t catch us in the act. But I guess he had more brains than I gave him credit for and didn’t venture out of his heated office, wherever that happened to be. No railway cop in his right mind would patrol the tracks in the Arctic weather such as Joe and I had to brave.

With our precious load of anthracite, we made it home in the nick of time — all there was left in the stove when we got back was the last flickering glow of a few embers.

Next morning we were hard at it again.

Although there were other days when things got pretty darned chilly around the house, it never got quite as bad as that particular spell of frigid weather.

The kids nowadays sure have it easy — in fact too easy. No coal to have to swipe in below-zero weather…no 3-foot snowdrifts to wade through…no forever having to feed a hungry stove with wood or coal…no sifting of ashes for the last remnants that will still burn.

A little cold? Just turn up the thermostat kids — and you’d better be happy you live now and not then!

Read more about record winter storms in this area at The Detroit News Rearview Mirror Website




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