Cold Case: Chicago

Three years ago, during my first full-time winter in Chicago — and back when I was blogging for the Trib — I asked my readers to share with me their tales from the frozen tundra of Windy City winters past.

They responded with — naturally — an avalanche of amusing anecdotes.

This week, as I prepare fresh blog entries to bring the Wisch List out of hibernation — while Chicago, in all likelihood, descends into it (Thursday’s high temperature is what?) —  I figured it was the perfect time to revisit these “Winter War Stories” from November 2005.

So, sit back and crack open a few of Chicago’s cold ones. And, visit again soon. After all, while the temps are dropping, the Wisch List is just getting warmed up.

It’s a brand new year around here.

 And now, straight from the City of Cold Shoulders …

“I worked at the IBM Building (330 N. Wabash) in the 1970s. When the weather got bad, the building would put up ‘life ropes’ at each corner of the building. This was to help anyone who walked over the Chicago River Bridge, as they could grasp a line and ‘pull’ themselves in. Known as the windiest place in Chicago, it became even windier when the river froze and the wind, falling off buildings, would come down the river and accelerate.
“There was also a `life guard’ posted at the southern corner of the building whose job was to rescue anyone who could not pull themselves into the building. I saw an elderly lady blown down, and she was carrying along until the life guard got her and dragged her in.You calculate the wind chill of a negative-10 degree day with 65 mph winds, and that’s cold.
“This was the day I decided to pursue opportunities away from One IBM Plaza.”

—   S.C. Argento

“Here’s one for you: Last January or February — I cannot recall which month it was — I had just left my place of employment on Fullerton and missed the bus by a half block. (I am heading east to the Red Line south — I reverse commute) I know it’s cold and it’s starting to snow, but what is a six-block walk? I do it all the time!
“As I am walking east it starts to snow heavier and heavier. I cross Racine, and it worsens! I start walking backwards (barely tolerable). Then, I get to the DePaul Campus entrance and I can barely see in front of me, cars are pulling to the curb. I literally stop walking. I turn my back to the blowing snow — it feels like needles.
“Now, I am a grown male, 46 years of age, but I will tell you this, I literally almost started to cry – it was so unbearable. Well, it started to let up and I continued walking. I crossed Sheffield and thought I should stop in Dominick’s to warm up, but said, what the heck, I am almost at the station. I enter the station and people are looking at me oddly.
“I go up the stairs to the platform, and again the `looks.’ Well, I finally look down and see that I literally am covered in snow. I touch my head and the snow just starts falling off. I must have looked like a walking snowman.
“By the time I came to my stop, at Clark and Division, I had warmed up; however a little soggy. Next time I will wait for the bus!”

— Dominic Raso

“Hello, Wisch! I drove gasoline tankers from ’77 to ’83 and you gotta stay by the truck as it unloads. (Fire Marshal stuff, ya know!) One bitter night on Pulaski Road, wind chill was 48 below zero, and it takes 30 to 45 minutes for the tanker to empty. The tractor engine’s gotta be shut down (Fire Marshal stuff, ya know!), and it took five minutes to get the diesel to run afterwards. A big plume of white smoke came out of the exhaust stack and there was a lotta grinding and groaning (from me and the engine!)
“I wore heavy gloves and long underwear (it still didn’t help). To this day, I can’t hold frozen food packages, it hurts to pick up an ice cube, and I can’t walk barefoot on a really cold floor! Folks don’t realize what ‘outside-job’ guys put up with so they can drive their gas-guzzlers to the corner store! I work inside now (computer graphics), so no worries about wind chill — except when the refrigerator door is open!”

— Steve Johnson, Evanston

“I lived in Rogers Park in the mid ’80s to late ’90s and had to walk, every day, from Clark and Granville down to the Granville `L’ stop — about a 20-minute walk.
“Well, one snowy morning, I got on the `L’ and either the heat wasn’t working or it was so darn cold it didn’t matter, I could actually feel the cold coming up through the soles of my shoes!”

— Peter J. Gallanis

“Currently, I can’t complain about the fact that I am currently living in southern California (Riverside) and have been since November 2004. Having left Chicago in July 1998, the memories of 40 years of Chicago winters, have not faded. There is one winter that will never fade from memory, barring Alzheimer’s.
“It was in the late 70’s (1978 or 1979?). There was this one January morning in particular that started off with a low of minus-28 degrees, and a wind-chill of minus-82. After putting on multiple layers of clothing, I took those dreaded steps out the front door.
“When glancing down our street, there was a common sight from one neighbors house to the next. Every neighbor had the hood of their car up, in the hope of getting it to start. The snow on the ground was so frozen that I never broke the surface as I walked across the front lawn to get to my car. The door lock on my car had frozen. After heating up the door key with a lighter, and after what seemed like forever, I was able to get the lock to slowly turn. My body was already numb from the cold. I got into the car, closed the door and felt the warmth of minus-28 degrees without the wind-chill. I turned the ignition key to try to start the car. With little surprise, the engine wouldn’t crank over. I then proceeded to walk (like my legs were strapped to 2 x 4’s) back into the house, never to venture outside again that day.
“On the brighter side, the temperature did climb up to a high of minus-16 degrees.”

— Richard Mysiewicz

“My favorite memory of a nasty Chicago winter was in January of 2004, when I had managed to stumble to and from class decked out in most of the cold-weather gear that I owned. That evening, I remembered I had promised to go ice skating on the Midway Plaisance rink (nothing between you and the lake). And by that evening, the absolute temperature was about negative-7 and the wind chill was about negative-30.
“I had everything on — thermal undershirt, sweater, dual-layer ski coat, scarf, watch cap, thermal pants, jeans, wind pants, dual-layered cotton socks, heavy boots … but nevertheless, by the end of the 45 minutes of skating my extremities were throbbing..
“If I could pull that off (my first winter in Chicago, too!), then I think you can manage to survive this winter.”

— Brian Hinkle

“Dave, I know this sounds sick and twisted, but after what seemed like an eternity of 90-plus-degree days and constant sun with no rain for weeks on end, I am looking forward to this winter. What’s not to love? Rain, sleet, snow, slush, Battleship Grey skies for months on end …
“Mix in those blessed days in mid-January when the clouds finally break and the sky is so blue, so clear, so clean and it is so cold that the smoke stacks from New Buffalo (you know, on the other side of the lake) look like they are three blocks away. I love winter so much that three of the times I have moved, it was winter. We could have it much worse, like when I moved to Minneapolis and then back, both in the cold. Nothing like having to park on the street and lift heavy things over packed snow, ice and slush 2 feet high and 4 feet wide. But, the best was moving my family into our new house last January. Remember that really big snowstorm? You know, the only one last winter? Something like 12+ inches? Yeah, I moved in that, loved every minute of it.
“Yes, sick and twisted.”

— Martin Sikorski, Oak Forest

“This is my first Midwest winter. I moved here in September from Florida … FLORIDA! I’m going to freeze!
“But my mantra today and for the rest of the winter is this: At least it’s not a hurricane.”

— Michele Jones

“I was born and raised here in Chicago. I am here to tell you, you will never get use to the winters. Every year (for the last five years) I have ask myself the question, `And, why are you still here?’ This question will be asked a couple of times a week. Until about March, where the question seems to fade. Then comes November again.
“For a person who has never experienced a Chicago winter, I feel there are no words that can truly give it justice. I can only hope that I will get the answer to my question — or it will get so cold that I will forget what the question was.”

— Vivian Rayford

“One bitterly cold winter day about 10 years ago, I waited in vain for my bus. Since it was only about a half-mile to the train, I started walking. I stepped off a curb right through some ice into a very cold puddle of water, which soaked through my boot. I continued my squishy trek to the Blue Line. At our first stop, the sliding doors on the car became stuck open.
“The conductor had to stand by them, so none of us would fall out. And he assigned a passenger to look out the little window and let the engineer know when the platform was clear of passengers. The car was crowded and cold, but everybody seemed to take it with good humor. My foot was even more frozen than when I first got it wet due to the wind from the open door blowing on it.
“I finally arrived at my destination and caught my last bus. Upon debarking, I slipped on the wet steps and slid down them into a large snowbank! Thank goodness, I was well padded with all the winter garments I had on. Of course, I was late to work and I referred to this adventure as my Ride From Hell. (By the way, it is really cold on those train platforms, so dress in layers.)”

— Irma F. Gibbons

“Last winter both of my doors (on a two-door car) completely froze shut and couldn’t be opened. I was in the middle of a parking lot, so the old blow dryer trick wasn’t going to work because there was no electrical outlet anywhere near by. And it was also late at night and I couldn’t get anyone to help me. My solution?
“I took out one of those lighter things for like the barbeque and and started going up/down the door panel until I was able to start chipping off ice and get the door open. The whole circus took me over 30 minutes between digging out my car and getting the door unfrozen.”

— Yvonne Suarez

“I’m a Chicago native now in the South and trying to come home. I miss the cold. It’s miserable living somewhere that has 100,000 percent humidity and extreme heat for too many months to count. I often say I would rather take a Chicago winter over a North Carolina summer. But, I may be forgetting what’s it’s really like as I only get home for a few days at a time.
“Anyway, here is my cold weather story that doesn’t make me miss the cold. I was at school in Michigan and suffered through one of their coldest days on record negative-30, or something like that. Pretty much the whole `world’ shut down — except my school. It’s not like I never skipped class, but for some reason I had to go that day — I think it’s the warrior in me.
“By the time I got to class my eyelashes were frozen. I had a hat down to my eyes and a scarf up to my eyes. But the cold would make my eyes tear and the tears just froze when they hit my eyelashes. AND, I looked like the kid on `A Christmas Story’ — I was so layered underneath my down parka that I couldn’t even put my arms down. It was a sight.”

— Heather Kuh

“I once started a contract assignment at LaSalle Street and the Chicago River on Jan. 2. My train let me off at Union Station and — not yet knowing the buildings I could cut through — I set off into 35-below wind chill. By the time I reached the building, my face felt sharp as a razor and twin trails of ice left white stripes in my mustache. I spent the entire spring getting to know the correct routes to take, but there’s no mistaking the “all limbs tucked” block posture of a Loop commuter who knows how to walk in the winter wind.
“Towards the lake isn’t so bad, with your back to the west wind. But back to the station from the lakefront, into the wind — wanna talk `character builder?’ “

— Brian Turner, Schaumburg

“One of the big reasons I hate winter, and especially Chicago winter, is falling. Now, I am no gazelle. But, with my big feet, I can usually stay upright. But at least once every Chicago winter I would find myself flat on my back — betrayed by a sneaky patch of ice that was masquerading as pavement or snow.
“Every fall made me vow to move to Arizona, which is where I now live and read your column online.”

— John Koller, Surprise, Ariz.

And, finally, this one may be my favorite (the last line is classic):

“I remember the winter of 1981-82. It was bitterly cold, especially the month of January. The air temperature was below zero degrees and the howling winds made the wind chill factor near 80 below zero. Everyone was having problems starting their cars, and the CTA was really having problems keeping the bus lines in operation. In fact, Mayor (Jane) Byrne had ordered that the buses be kept fueled with engines running all weekend to avoid not having them start for the Monday morning rush.
“I was a freshman at St. Rita High School, and I lived in the Pilsen neighborhood. The announcement came over the radio that all Chicago Public Schools (grade and high schools) were closed due to the weather. It was announced that most area Catholic grade and high schools were recommended to be closed. Needless to say, I was shocked when it was stated on the radio, and confirmed by the school, that St. Rita High was open for a regular schedule.
“Mom insisted that, if the school was open, I must attend classes. After some arguing, I bundled up and walked out the door to the bus stop. Normally, I would have had to take two separate buses to get to school, but the first bus was more than 30 minutes behind its usual time, so I decided to walk to the next bus line which was Western Avenue, more than a mile away.
“I waited at the bus stop for another 45 minutes with the air temperature hovering around 18 below. I was miserable and angry that I had to be outside in that weather while my siblings were home because their grade school was closed. I finally made it to school around an hour and a half late. I was given a detention for arriving late to school. We didn’t learn anything new due to the fact that around 90 percent of the student body and 60 percent of the faculty staff were absent.
“I moved out of my parents’ home at age 18.”

— Gabriel Garcia


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1 Comment

  1. Its pretty cold here on the coast too…. We are looking at low temps of 19, and hi’s in the 40’s this weekend… Thats pretty chilly down this way…

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