Isherwood: How to Dress Warm

Weather forecasters like NOAA include advice of how to dress for a cold winter’s day. Never mind for Northerners alerting the hazard at a measly zero degrees seems a touch wimpy. Once zero wasn’t cold enough to be considered hazardous, and that with six volt batteries and a hand crank.

This warning demonstrates the remarkable concern of government to include advice to “wear a hat and gloves” on a day when the chill factor at noon is minus 35 that combined with a 20 knot wind installs a nice set of drifts exiting untended fields.

I do not understand why high-cap well permits in Central Wisconsin do not come with a requirement to hedge the field perimeter for the sake of snow drifts. I have never met a center pivot that made a field better to look at.

In the ancient apprenticeship, weather reports did not instruct us victims how to dress for winter. To suspect there was a bit of “survival of the fittest,” such that any kid not smart enough to dress warm was better left to the ice floe. It was about this juncture came the invention of the ducktail haircut as put even farmboys in jeopardy of their lives. Luckily, my family was under the edict of the griz so we had no illusion our heads were too beautiful for a hat.

The farmhouse did have a resource now absent from the modern house, an ante room simply referred to as “the mudder,” previously the back porch, subsequently fenced in, where seasonally resided a willful heap of winter gear, to include in this clutter an array of winter spares. Our mother, devoted to our survival, preyed on rummage sales for a surplus of great coats, ratty old quilts, well-used bibs, torn sweatshirts, odorous hunter coats, flea-bitten logger pants, these in any combination of fleece, flannel or wool. The more oversize the better. Same for shoes, galoshes, socks, stocking caps. A classic look came of it, to dress a kid in grown-up clothes until they resembled some slightly articulate igloo. Just ambulatory enough to accomplish chores. Two stocking caps on the head, overgrown by a fleece hood, this the true prospect of an alien life form survivable on Mars as well as the home planet. I recall much of my childhood was spent in the confinement of these rummage sale space suits slash transport cocoons.

Of the winter gear the most famous were the mittens, in country-speak, choppers. There should for the sake of salvation be a hymn of praise to choppers in the Methodist hymnal, if ever there was an item of human succor worthy of a full round of praise-the-Lords, it was those leather choppers. Massive things are choppers almost to resemble beasts themselves. Over-sized to fit a wool mitten inside, what they lacked in dexterity they made up in sheer gale force, sub-zero, headwind survival. Real choppers were not sized to fit kids so you had to wait until some less than your forearm fit into that mitten to inherit a pair. I got my father’s secondhand pair when I was ten and felt as if I had been dubbed a knight-errant in the realm of the agri-cult with my very own pair of choppers.

The downside of choppers was you couldn’t do any of a long list of rudimentary acts, including zippers, doorknobs, ignition keys, milking machines, but manure forks were manageable, also the splitting maul, the limbing axe, hay forks, steering wheels, stove wood, which pretty much covered the necessary duty cycle. Not, however, chainsaws or a deer rifle. It was much later that some genius or inadvertent gutting knife slit the mitten to allow the trigger finger to venture out and mostly survive the environment.

Winter dressing as I remember was not only layers, it was heaps, multiples of everything, explaining why a size 50 wool coat fit on an original kid size 10, because it was the third layer out, not including underwear.

I remember a specific winter night driving home on the tractor after one more lap with the manure spreader. The sun well gone, the stars leaking out in that spectacular unblinking way of cold winter. Across the field was the barn, its long row of windows ablaze, I sitting atop that open tractor, air temp minus twelve, a slight but insistent wind out of the west, the wind chill such that my eyes felt crispy.

There I was on that hazardous cold evening able to peer from under the clutch of my boa-constrictor scarf, past my double-decker stocking cap, past the hood, my great chopper hands on the wheel and I delusionally happy. It occurred to me then how if I was naked in this same circumstance for 15 minutes I would probably die. Yet here I was, age ten, so content as to be joyful.

When Neil Armstrong stepped on the Moon 13 years later, wearing his bulky space suit, I had the personal sensation of being there, that same cold, unsurvivable landscape on the open tractor, that same survival, that same joy, from knowing how to dress warm.


Justin Isherwood is an award-winning writer, a Wisconsin farmer, humorist, author and contributor to numerous collections and publications including: Badger CommonTater, Isthmus, and Newsday. His books include: Christmas Stones & the Story Chair, Book of Plough, Farm Kid, and most recently, Pulse.

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