The Coldest Day of My Life

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Other  |  House: Two Rivers

It's funny how we remember certain things

It was January 14, 1963, when my Uncle Charlie died.  A few days later, we lay him to rest next to his deceased wife in Washington, Indiana.  It was dark, rainy, 36 degrees, and we shivered in our dress clothes at the grave site, giving family members hugs before loading up and heading back north to our home to Elkhart. 

I was eighteen and driving at the time when I realized we were nearly out of gas.  I had taken over from my sister, Mary, just north of Indianapolis, and evidently, she had failed to look at the gas gauge.  All the gas stations were closed, so I slowed way down in hopes of conserving the last bit of our fuel.  I crept along frantically trying to find something open.  I began to drain the gas out of the hoses on the pumps at the closed stations, putting the gas in a paper cup and then into the tank.  I did this several times, and then I noticed it was getting colder as we continued north.  We were just south of Peru when my mom thought she heard a thumping.  (A little side note here: Because we didn’t think my sister’s 1953 Chevy would make 550-mile-round trip, we had borrowed my brother-in-law’s 1960 Ford station wagon)  I got out to investigate.  We had a flat tire on the left rear.  I opened the back or the station wagon and putting our entire luggage on the ground to get to the spare tire.  That meant that the whole back end of the vehicle was open.  My sister reached over from the backseat and turned the heater on full blast.

The spare tire was frozen to the bottom of the tire well. And the lug wrench was mounted below it.  I threw everything back into the car and jumped in.  I was freezing!  Then I noticed the heater wasn’t throwing out any heat.  My mother said, “Well, we can’t just sit here.  Go up to that farmhouse and ask for help.”  I ran up the hill slipping and cursing the fact I hadn’t brought a warmer coat.  I heard the cows mooing in the barn suffering from the cold.  I pounded on the door.  After what seemed like an eternity, a middle-aged farmer came to the door.  He was shocked to see a young boy in dress clothes standing at his door at 2:00 am in the morning.  “Come in, come in!”  He beckoned shutting the door quickly behind me.  He looked over his kitchen sink to see the thermometer mounted on the tree outside.  “It’s ten below zero out there!” he said.  I tried to explain our situation.  “Anyone else out there?” he asked, cutting me off.

“Yes, my mom, my step-dad, and my sister,” I said.

“Well, get them in here!”  I rushed down to fetch the family.  My mother had an artificial leg and my step-dad and I guided her up the hill.  “I called a wrecker,” the farmer said, “he’ll be here in a few minutes.”

We sat at the farmer’s big, round kitchen table grateful for the warmth of his home and his hospitality.  He never offered us anything to drink and didn’t engage in conversation.  He just kept an eye out for the wrecker.  His family never got up, but I see toys on the living room floor, so he must have had kids or grandkids. 

When the wrecker came the farmer said, “There he is!”  We all got up, but he made everyone but me sit back down.  “You go and see how it’s going,” he said to me. 

I ran down the hill to the car, and the wrecker driver had the back open and had thrown the luggage in the back seat.  He was prying on the spare tire with four-foot pinch bar.  “Now, you have two flat tires now,” he said.  “I broke the bead on the spare tire.  I’ll have to haul your car to the garage.”  He threw the spare into the back of the wrecker and proceeded to move his truck to the back of the Ford to tow it.  “You can ride to the garage in the wrecker.”

“How about my mom, sister, and step-dad?” I asked.

“We can squeeze everyone in the cab,” he said.

I ran back up and got the family.  We helped my mom in first, and she sat next to the driver, and then my step-dad got in and then I sat next to him, and finally, my sister sat on my lap which felt kind of weird.  At his garage, he pulled the wrecker and the car both inside.  It was a huge building, and old.  While the others milled around and sat on his “vintage” straight back chairs.  I hung close to him to see what he was doing.  He left the back of the car lifted up on the wrecker and took off the flat and repaired it.  He then took the spare and put a used tire on it charging my mom five dollars for it, and another twenty for the wrecker service including a full tank of gas. 

I told him about the heater not working.  “Well, you’re just full of bad news,” he said.  He hot-wired the heater fan directly to the battery.  “Make sure you disconnect this when you get home, or it will run your battery down, okay?”  The heater ran full blast the rest of the way home.  At first, we would get too hot and open a window, and then we’d get too cold.  My mother suggested we just crack the windows to temper the heat.  We did and it worked. 

We got home at 6:00 am.  Just in time for my sister and I to ready to go to school.  I don’t know why it was so important that we went to school that day, except I had been working on a perfect attendance, and my sister, Mary, had something going on she didn’t want to miss.  I unloaded the luggage and went over to talk to my brother-in-law.  He was not happy.  He went out and cut the wire off the battery and told me I’d have to take him to work.  He’d been driving my sister’s car to work while we had been gone.  When I got home, my sister said she was driving to school, which she never did because it was only four blocks.  I moved over, and we headed to school.  We passed a friend walking, but she refused to stop.  “Hey, aren’t going to pick him up?” I asked.  “It’s freezing out there!” 

“I’m driving!”  That was her only answer.  At school, I found him and apologized for not picking him up.  He hadn’t noticed. 

“Oh, that’s okay,” he said.  “I just ran from store to store until I got here.”

I don’t know why the temperature of 27 degrees below has stuck in my head all these years, but when I went to weather history online the recorded temperature for that date was minus nine.  Then I looked at the wind speed for that day; the sustained winds were 14.96 miles per hours, resulting in a wind chill of 31 degrees below zero. 

I’ve been cold since, but maybe it was the trauma of the funeral, the emergency on the road, or lack of sleep but I’ve always remembered that day as the coldest day of my life.

Submitted: January 07, 2018

© Copyright 2021 DannyDee. All rights reserved.

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