Cold

January 20th, 2022

It’s 5:00 AM and it’s four degrees Fahrenheit outside. That’s brutal. The sun isn’t up yet, so it will probably get even colder. I don’t plan on going outside very much today.

Our son, Stefan, came over to our house yesterday. His Iron Worker crew was putting up a new bank building in southeast Milwaukee. They quit early because of the strong winds. Stefan and the other guys were using a crane to move the structural beams, but the gusts were too wild to keep the steel from twisting in the breeze. The lengths of steel were going to hit something or somebody, so they gave it up.

Stefan told us that it was also intensely cold at the construction site. The wind chill just made it worse. He could see white clouds billowing from some nearby smokestacks, and those streams of vapor were moving horizontally in the stiff breeze. Stefan had worn all his padded, insulated clothing to the job yesterday, and his hands were still going numb by the time he quit working.

I worked in the cold for many years. I know from experience that sometimes it is impossible to wear enough clothing to keep sufficiently warm. A person can only bundle up so much. Protective clothing may keep a person comfortable for a few hours, but not for an entire shift. I could never work outside for ten or twelve hours straight. I had to take breaks to warm up inside the office, at least for a few minutes.

I supervised a third shift dock operation at a trucking company. I opened up the facility every Monday at about 1:00 AM. In winter the concrete dock was dark and cold. On especially frigid nights, I would turn on the overhead lights on the dock and watch them flicker for a while. The fluorescent lights would struggle dimly until the ballasts warmed up a bit. The bitter cold was unpleasant, but the gloom of the dock was unnerving.

Nothing wanted to move on the really cold nights. Forklifts would not start (even if they had been plugged in). Overhead doors and dock plates were stiff and unwieldly. Both men and machines worked grudgingly. We would bring in a driver to do nothing but start up reluctant tractors for his entire shift.

When I ran that shift, I longed for daybreak. The darkness made the freezing weather somehow more unbearable. The sunrise didn’t really cause the temperature to increase. It gave the illusion of warmth, and sometimes that was good enough.

Dawn on a bitterly cold day is a strange thing. The air is clearer than usual, and objects in the distance have a sharp edge to them. The sun comes over the horizon like an orange ball of flame, but it gives no heat with its light. It is like a frozen fire.

I retired six years ago. One of the main reasons for quitting my job was to avoid working outside during another winter. Working in the cold drains the energy from a person’s body. At the end of a shift, I would go home, eat supper, take a shower, and go directly to bed. A few hours later, I would wake up and do it all over again. The winters wore me out.

I can see the same thing happening with Stefan. He is young, but the cold takes a visible toll on him. Eventually, he will be worn out too. There is no avoiding it.

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