Dennis Hetzel, a veteran newspaperman who was my right-hand guy here as managing editor of The Capital Times during the late '80s, got this conversation going several days ago when that miserable polar vortex came roaring into town, setting us to wonder if we'd even survive.
Like all of us, he saw those temperature predictions of 60 below zero and couldn't believe it could possibly get that cold. Then it dawned on him that 60 below was the predicted wind chill, not the real temperature, which was more like in the minus 20s.
In an email, he asked if the weather prognosticators of our youth used those figures. The answer is no, they didn't. It wasn't until the late 1960s that the wind chill "index" came into vogue in an effort to explain what the temperature, combined with the wind, actually "feels like." In the years since, more and more forecasters came to feel a need to include the wind chill to warn listeners and viewers just how dangerous it could be, particularly to exposed skin and the possibility of frostbite, and especially to kids.
Besides, fancy graphics depicting a horrendous cold wave helped make the weather news much more exciting.
As a farm kid I still vividly remember just how cold those subzero days were as snow crackled beneath our heavy boots like styrofoam as we trudged from the house to the barn at five in the morning to do the milking and the chores. One of my jobs was to chop the ice off the top of the water in the cows' outside drinking tank and fill it with even more frigid water.
While my toes tingled and the tips of my fingers and lobes on my ears ached, I'd console myself that there were only so many more days of the awfulness when the temps would likely drop to minus 10 and then minus 25. While we never heard of minus 60, there surely were several days when we hit that wind chill mark.
We recalled those days in late January because, as luck would have it, my friend Tom Schultz, managing editor of the Watertown Daily Times, and a couple of his buddies, Joe Krueger and John Richter, embarked on our annual quick Amtrak trip, this time boarding the Hiawatha in Milwaukee, switching to the California Zephyr in Chicago, and planning to get off some 24 hours later in Glenwood Springs, Colo.
The weather people were already predicting wind chills of 60 below by midweek in Wisconsin, but who were we to worry? It's always warm on the train. Trouble is the trip that was to take about 24 hours became 31. The Zephyr had to pull onto a siding out in the Nebraskan plains because the wind was gusting at 70 miles an hour. Oh, the train stayed warm, but can you imagine what the wind chill must have been outside?
Interestingly, the temperature in Glenwood, high in the Rocky Mountains west of Denver, was a balmy 35, and, fortunately, we made it there just before our favorite steakhouse announced last call.
Later Tuesday we grabbed the Zephyr for the return to Chicago. The train was just an hour late arriving at Union Station in Chicago. It was after we got off the train that the reality of a minus 60 wind chill hit us right in the face. That's when the memory of those days filling the water tanks on the farm came rushing back.
But our adventure wasn't through. Amtrak announced that all Hiawatha runs from Chicago to Milwaukee were canceled for the next two days, along with a number of other cancellations. Ah, no problem, I thought, we'll get a Van Galder bus to Madison — but the buses, too, were canceled because of the dangerous cold.
We all nearly suffered frostbite in the minute or so it took us to get a cab and ride to where we could stay warm overnight. Quite a feat for four guys well beyond middle age.
We did manage to make some unconventional arrangements to get out of town the following day, constantly cursing the minus 60 wind chill.
I was able to figure something out, though. It makes no difference whether it feels like minus 60 when it really is minus 28. Both are really cold.
Dave Zweifel is editor emeritus of The Capital Times. email@example.com, 608-252-6410 and on Twitter @DaveZweifel.
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