All the snow this week in Texas reminded me of winters living in Kansas. I was always cold because we lived in old drafty houses that cost a lot of money to heat according to my dad. I hovered over the floor heating vent from early December until the spring thaw. I did my homework over the vent and created a tent with an old wool blanket to keep all the warmth inside my little, self-constructed igloo. My dad and brothers teased me about always complaining of the cold but dang, it was bone chilling.
When it snowed, it was expected that all of us Hauck kids, along with all the neighborhood children, would spend sizeable periods of time outdoors playing in it. It seemed like we were out there for days on end with coping strategies not too dissimilar to those seen on Survivor television episodes. At the first sign of snowflakes, Mom would assemble all the assorted black rubber galoshes with the gazillion hooks and snaps in a pile on the kitchen floor. We would layer up with woolen long johns if we could find them, then a pair of pants, then the pièce de résistance, our thickest pair of jeans. I didn’t wear any downy snow gear until I was in college after skiing my first time in jeans when I was in high school. I sprayed my jeans with some sort of water-repellent which didn’t work at all. Next time, I borrowed ski pants from my cousin.
Preparing for a snow day, meant pulling over your head two shirts and a sweater followed by a sweatshirt and then your wool coat. Layering was the key. After covering the core, our attention moved to the all important feet and toes. Frozen toes were always what did me in first and forced one of my brothers to walk me back prematurely from our day-long sledding outing at Wheat’s Hill. More about Wheat’s Hill in a moment.
The feet. First, we put on two pair of white tube socks (the kind with the two blue strips around the top), then we retrofitted a sandwich bread bag over the socks and secured it at the top of our calves with a large and very tight rubber band. Don’t do this at home, kids, as it plays hell with your circulation. Then, another tube sock goes on top of the plastic and then we pressed our foot into the warmest, water-resistant shoes we owned that winter. Most times it was our Keds. After that, we would try to insert, with great exertion, our bound foot into the black, rubber galoshes. This often required a brother or a mother to wedge it into the boot for you before snapping the hooks down tight. Your feet were filled with neuropathic pain at this point and you hadn’t even left the house.The most important parts of our bodies to keep warm were our feet, then hands and finally the ears. We often wore two layers of gloves and always a warm woolen hat and if windy, a wool mask that fitted over our faces with three holes in the places our eyes and mouth were supposed to be but never were. Back then, all winter garments were made of wool. And that venerable material had its downsides. It was notoriously itchy. When it got wet, it stank. And moths liked to eat it. My mom had a closet that we stored all the winter clothes in and it was toxic smelling due to buckets of moth balls she placed strategically around the enclosure.
Fleece didn’t appear on the scene until the early 80’s. The owner of a little-known mountaineering outfitter called Patagonia, first introduced fleece, called Synchilla (as in synthetic chinchilla). Within a decade, however, fleece had become an inescapable element of our daily lives. Eventually, Lands’ End, L. L. Bean, Gap and others incorporated fleece in everything. Even dogs are wearing it now. Of course, for $10 anyone can enjoy the Snuggie, a fleece blanket-cum-bag that a kid growing up in Kansas in the 1960’s had no way of even conjuring its comfort.
After all the winter garb preparation, you were not allowed to drink any liquid all day because it was impossible to take care of any bathroom business with this “get-up” on. Out the door we would all trudge, unable to bend our knees, so we kind of slid along the sidewalk with our wooden sleds behind us trudging the five or so blocks (seemed like miles) over to Wheat’s Hill. Wheat’s Hill is located in Medicine Lodge, Kansas, near the hospital, on the east side of town. The hill is really a road that was paved over the hill which created a perfect launching strip for sledding and other shenanigans. City road crews never cleared the hilly road but instead allowed the kids to pack the snow down tight. The town crew placed traffic barriers at the bottom and top to keep cars off of it. I didn’t know until much later that the hill was named for the family that lived at the top of the hill with the last name of Wheat. Mrs. Wheat was my elementary librarian but I never connected the educator’s last name with the sledding mecca as I thought it had something to do with the state’s plentiful crop known to every Kansan child as wheat.
We sled tandem on Wheat’s Hill, we made trains of sleds, we had races, we slid down backward and did “kitties”, and had competitions like who could make their sled go the farthest. If you could sled under the bottom traffic barrier, across the intersection and to the next street, you were the winner. Safe? Not at all but that was why we were having so much fun. We sled standing up and layering in threes like a fried bologna sandwich. Since I was the youngest, I had the thrill of being the kid on the top since I weighed the least. I was often perched on top of several kids as we slid down the hill which meant I often found myself sailing free form through the air if we had a malfunction (like unexpectantly hitting dry pavement or hidden rocks). I loved these days but I wasn’t as resilient as my brothers and the cold would ultimately and too-soon reach my toes and I would whine and beg for one of them to take me home. Eventually, my whining and tears would get their attention and one of them would peel from their pack and take me, grudgingly, home. That old drafty house felt so warm to me upon my retreat from Wheat’s Hill. My toes burned with the cold but each piggie slowly thawed out after discarding the layers of wet socks and plastic. I would place them strategically over the vent, rubbing the red ring, from where the rubber band had been, and I would read a book while my brothers continued their sledding expedition until my mother rang the dinner bell to bring them home. On nights like this, we ate vats of spicy chili or home-made beef stew and stacks of buttery bread to feed our young, growing bodies and souls and shared tales of the day’s events at Wheat’s Hill.