Door County Writes: ‘The Tween Who Came In from the Cold’

by Chuck Gress

Writing prompt: Tell a story about a time when you were very cold. Help your readers picture exactly where you were and what you were doing. You’re allowed to use the word “cold” only twice!

To some, the words “frigid temperatures” conjure up wild experiences of survival. An ill-planned camping trip to the Rockies or a night stranded in a blizzard on County T come to my mind. 

Although temperatures can plunge to limits that threaten our very lives, my story involves an existential threat of a different type of cold. The experiences of this past year have shaken me. A raging pandemic, a turbulent political climate and more have raised my anxiety to a level that I have not experienced since I was a child. 

I was looking forward to my 13th birthday. It was October 1962 and the era of the Cold War. TV reported that Chicago was a likely target in the event of a nuclear strike by Russia. My little town of Bradley, Illinois – just 50 miles south of the city – put us on the fringe of a direct hit. I did not understand why the Commies were so mad at us. 

For the last couple of years, the nuns in charge had been conducting disaster drills with us at school. Tucked under our desks in fetal positions, we prayed until the all-clear signal was given. Worried citizens around the country were building disaster bunkers while the government had identified shelters in public buildings marked with civil-defense symbols. Would we be killed by the A-bomb, or would we die of radiation like the Japanese in WWII? 

Each night I’d lie in bed saying the most fervent prayers of my young life. Please, God, don’t let us die from a nuclear war. This was my mantra over and over until I drifted off to sleep, only to be awakened from a recurrent nightmare by the crash of a train being coupled in a nearby rail yard. 

I was on my way home from school when a special news report came on the car radio. The Russians had missiles in Cuba that were pointed at us. President Kennedy had just revealed that he was meeting with his advisers to discuss what to do. I asked Mom what it all meant. All she could say through her tears was, “Pray real hard, son. Pray is all we can do.” 

There is no force greater in us than the threat of nonbeing. Most of us have found creative ways to mitigate recent anxieties: follow safety protocols, read a good book, go for a walk, do a good deed. As a retired teacher and a grandpa, I worry about what 2020 has done to the psyches of our young people, especially with the isolation from classmates and teachers. How can we respond to our children’s questions when we struggle to comprehend things ourselves? 

Listen to them. Make them feel safe. Love them. 

Perhaps we adults should do the same for each other. 

For more than 50 years, Chuck Gress has enjoyed the abundant nature, rich culture and friendly people of Door County. A retired teacher, he splits his time between Egg Harbor and Northbrook, Illinois. Look for Gress hitting the backroads on his old Trek or hiking the trails with his Door County grandkids.

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