Of Refugees and Lands Surrendered to Winter

Midwestern people retreat from winter to the south and west, and by the time they reach Florida or SoCal or Hawaii they are pretty well thawed out and the defeat has left their bodies.

Here in Salvation Point, though, the average high this time of year is 54 degrees. That puts us a little closer to the front both in terms of geography and climate. We are not in the thick of it – no snow cover, no frost advisory – but close enough to the Occupied Territory that when people get here the scars of winter are fresh. We are a halfway house, a field hospital where warriors of the cold begin to heal.

They come from places like Milwaukee, Dubuque or Omaha. Places where this year Cold means the kind that makes the hair in your nose recoil and where Snow means a crackling gray-black mass of sorrow that will remain on the lawn – quite unfashionably – past Memorial Day.

They are not from the Northeast, where people are comforted by a sympathetic media that makes big news from each snow event and wind chill warning, as long as it occurs on EST. They are from the Midwest where it is just as cold and maybe not as snowy but they understand that unless you live there, you don’t care. They just battle on in flyover country and when they have had enough, they take the train west.

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Two such trains arrive every day in Salvation Point, and judging by the hollow eyes and slumped, parka-covered shoulders, things aren’t going well. So many refugees have arrived here we wonder who is left to hold the fort.

The doors of the Amtrak Superliners whoosh open and the dark forms stream out, and to them 54 degrees is heaven. They shed heavy coats dappled with salt residue and hurl them to the curb, kicking giant boots after them. Other items are discarded more reluctantly – nobody is sure what their hair looks like anymore so hats stay firmly in place, flaps down.

They gather in little groups and share stories of heroic episodes with snowblowers. They count the schooldays the kids have missed due to cold and snow, and try to calculate the makeup days and when summer vacation will actually start. (August.)

They chronicle the erosion of their will to fight. December snow is cleared enthusiastically – snowblower first, then the fine trim with a shovel, a good spreading of salt and finally around with the roof rake to prevent ice dams. Snow in early March gets driven over. The roof rake got left out sometime around MLK day and is now entombed under 18 inches of ice and the dams are well formed anyway so it’s better to just stay inside.

Like veterans who have shared combat, they won’t talk about the worst of it. They just exchange knowing glances and look timidly up at the sun as though they expect it to wink out at any moment and plunge the temps back under zero.

Re-acclimating to a state where water can exist in liquid form outdoors is a lengthy process. They come around slowly – a kid tosses a Frisbee, another looks on until his mother coaxes him out from under her coat to retrieve it. Small steps, a little more pale flesh exposed every few minutes until they are in shirtsleeves.

A day or two here and then on to San Diego for a week, maybe from there a cruise to Cabo, and in time they are restored.

The Midwest is vital to the nation for the amber waves of grain, the Great Lakes, the hearty people who know how to get things done. But holding the territory against an onslaught so vicious as this winter comes at a staggering cost. We need spring soon, or the Heartland may be lost.

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