Jerry Nelson: Cold snap

Jerry Nelson Special to the Farm Forum
Farm Forum

A recent cold snap is a reminder that our weather must be taken seriously, much in the same way that you must take seriously the sound of a ripping seam as you bend over to pick up a pencil in front of the roomful of coworkers who are waiting to hear your speech “Decorum In The Workplace.”

Living here in the North often means putting up with plummeting wintertime temperatures. Who needs an ice bucket challenge when all you have to do is step outside and feel the arctic wind blowing down the back of your neck?

Those who fail to prepare for winter must be prepared to fail. I know this from painful experience.

We had a brutal winter the year that I began dairy farming. It was cold enough to make a penguin wish he’d gone south for the winter. One particularly vicious blizzard covered my driveway with snowdrifts that were large enough to bury a mature mammoth. The mercury in my outdoor thermometer had to bore a hole in the bottom of its bulb to register the correct temperature.

The driveway needed to be cleared so the milk truck could make its bi-daily visits. My sole weapon in my battle against the snow was an ancient Farmall “M” tractor and loader.

The ramshackle farm I’d rented lacked a shop, so the “M” – poor thing didn’t even have a block heater! – had to sleep outside. The intense cold probably turned its engine oil into chocolate pudding.

The “M” was so old that it still had its original and primitive 6-volt starting system. Under ideal conditions, the battery would crank the engine only slightly faster than if you were to spin it by hand.

When I went to start the “M” in the subzero aftermath of the blizzard, there was a lot of moaning and groaning and creaking. The tractor also made some troubling noises. Getting it started would be no less of a miracle than Moses parting the Red Sea.

But I had two tricks up my sleeve. One was a can of starting fluid and the other was a set of jumper cables.

I sprayed liberal amounts of starter fluid – aka, flamethrower juice – into the tractor’s air cleaner and mashed the starter button. The engine slowly grunted over, growling like an old-fashioned coffee grinder. Just when the battery ran out of oomph, the engine fired a little.

This gave me hope, but the battery was now totally deceased. No problem. I started my pickup, parked it beside the “M” and hooked up the jumper cables.

The jump from 6 volts to 12 volts caused the engine to crank as if it had consumed large quantities of caffeine. It still wouldn’t fire, so I gave it another dose of ether. The engine produced a few hopeful burps. I wished that my arms were longer so that I could operate the starter button and spay ether at the same time.

But alas. I had no choice other than to spray, crank and pray. The engine’s coughs began to occur more and more frequently. Finally, after expending the entire contents of my only can of ether, the “M” sputtered to life.

Then came the task of hacking a path through the towering drifts. By the time I finished several hours later, my feet felt like blocks of ice. It was summertime before I regained all the feeling in my toes.

Flash forward a decade. I had gotten married and my wife and I have two young sons. Gripped by a severe case of midwinter doldrums, my wife has decided to rent a room at a local hotel and let our boys enjoy a day of frolicking in the indoor swimming pool.

I took a break from my farm duties and spent some poolside time with my wife. The air was hot and humid, with enough atmospheric chlorine to remove every last one of my nose hairs.

The boys were having a wondrous time. They clambered out of the pool every so often and ran over to us to issue breathless reports regarding their aquatic exploits. Their skin was wrinkled and puckered. They looked like giant pink raisins.

Outdoors, mere steps away, the windchill had plummeted to levels often associated with dry ice. Indoors, it felt like a tropical jungle that was bursting with chlorine flowers.

The kids begged me to join them in the pool. But I thought about the vast temperature difference between outdoors and indoors and the fact that I yet had to do the evening milking.

“You can’t be serious!” I replied. “Besides, I think there’s a rip in the seat of my swimming trunks.”