Our recent cold snap reminded me of winters past. Living in Michigan for more than 40 years, I gleaned a bit of experience in surviving bitter temperatures.
In junior high, our whole neighborhood walked almost a quarter of a mile to the school bus stop. We were prompt, since it waited for no one and the only alternative was to walk the 2 miles to and from school.
Schools never canceled for inclement weather back then. Ice storms sent us skating along the sidewalks and roadways in our laced-up leather oxfords, fingers and toes numb.
Girls wearing pants to school was a strictly forbidden concept. We were allowed to wear a pair of pants underneath our dress going to and from school, but once inside, we stripped the pants off and they remained on our coat hooks until dismissal.
One morning, the actual temperature dipped well below zero. Inhaling caused our nostrils to instantly and firmly freeze shut. One boy spit, but before the spittle reached the ground, it froze midair, literally bouncing across the frozen crust on the snow.
As cold as that was, two years prior, I had a life-altering encounter with winter weather. Bitter cold and ferocious wind added to my discomfort. A tall, skinny sixth grader, I left home and zigzagged behind the school and playground to shorten my trek to my friend Phyllis’ house. It was about half a mile each way.
The warmth of her home and her mother’s hot cocoa was most welcome. We thoroughly enjoyed our visit, as always, and still exchange Christmas cards.
When time to head home came, I bundled myself back up, with oversized rubber boots, a coat, scarf — which we wore on our heads back then — and mittens.
The setting sun and dropping temperature raced in competition with one another. Darkness encroached on the remaining daylight. The wind, no longer at my back, was blustery and bitterly cold as it howled in every crevice. My eyes watered, blurring my vision as the cold wind ravaged them. My chest ached with every breath, as my lungs nearly froze.
That didn’t deter me from pressing forward. I hurried as fast as possible, running most of the distance, but suddenly the unthinkable happened. The ground beneath me disappeared, and I dropped rapidly downward, plunging into the icy waters below. Panic did its best to overcome me, but my spindly young body fought hard as my brain frantically tried to process what happened.
Someone had removed the lid to a manhole, and in my haste, I hit the target perfectly. Fortunately, I managed to catch myself with my elbows on the frozen rim. Fighting with every ounce I could muster not to slip into the murky, mushy liquid beneath me, somehow I succeeded to hold on.
The will to live is strong.
Unsuccessfully, I tried to raise one leg out of the swamp water and get it onto the ground, but I slipped back in. My fingers were too numb to be of much use as my mind raced with a bajillion thoughts. Surely I was a goner, because the water seemed to literally have a grip on me, pulling me downward.
I think I prayed — or at least said — “Oh, God. Help me!”
There was no one around to hear me if I yelled. The fight for my life and to overcome panic was intense. Think!
To this day, I am at a loss to explain how I managed to pull myself out and embrace the frozen surface. My arms have always been my weakest point — perhaps my guardian angel has stronger ones.
As I lay on the cold ground, I embraced it for a few seconds before realizing my clothing was wet and cold, up to my armpits, including my mittens. Wrestling to get to my feet, I headed home with such a sigh of relief when something else went awry.
In a brief moment, my jeans as well as other clothing literally froze stiff, like the lifeless laundry on clotheslines in January. Unable to bend my knees or move my hips in my icy attire and barely able to move, I managed to trudge homeward. It was a 10-minute walk on a good day, but this time seemed eternal as darkness overcame me.
It was a miracle that I was able to open the laundry room door and fall inside. Later, bathed and in my flannel nightgown, my utter and complete exhaustion failed to dispel the miracle I had experienced.
At that tender age, God’s protection was apparent. Grateful in the knowledge that he has a plan for me, occasionally through the decades, I have reflected on that frightful experience. Other harrowing experiences convince me still that God has a plan for me.
— A coal miner’s daughter born in Appalachia and schooled in Michigan, she currently lives in rural Athens. Hill describes herself as a cook and cookbook author, jack of all trades and master of none, a Christian wife, mother, grandmother and great-grandmother. She shares her home with her husband, Bob, and their spoiled-beyond-belief dog, Molly.