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Nine below Zero

Nine below Zero

By Bill Stork, DVM

Ain’t this a pity people, ain’t this a cryin shame,
Well it’s nine below zero, she put me down for another man         
- Mckinley Morganfield… aka Muddy Waters

With a foot of “lake effect” snow and the “Windy City” earning its doubly-intended moniker for the day, Anita was profoundly concerned that a trench coat, rubbers and wool hat would not be enough to get Kish to the “L” station. But Van Morrison singing "Caravan" through the hidden wires of his IPod would transport his soul to a warmer clime.

On the same day here in Wisconsin, I turned down Holzheuter Lane to the Haack farm to attend a sick cow. As I cradled the wheel and mashed the accelerator, the Cummins Diesel punched through a hood-high drift that rolled over the windshield like a wind tunnel. I kicked the barn door free and flung myself into the vestibule and out of the wind.

An LB White propane heater hung from a pair of old calving chains, pumping heat into the parlor like an eyedropper in the ocean. Ryan with a 5-foot pry bar, and Pete with a 16-pound sledge stood knee deep in the gutter, doing battle with a frozen barn cleaner, wearing greywater facials. Just short of noon, Ryan was starting his second eight-hour day and Pete was still in his muck boots and rubber elbow-length gloves from third shift at Oscar Mayer.

From Ace Hardware to Kwik Trip, “Merry Christmas” and “Fare thee well” have been supplanted by “STAY WARM”. As if “life-threatening wind chill” and “arctic blast” doesn’t get our attention, meteorologists use freshly minted terminology like “polar vortex” to accentuate the severity of the conditions.

As a practicing Catholic and cafeteria Buddhist, might I suggest that we become one with, if not celebrate the beauty of, the “polar vortex”. Above all else, dress right and be safe; the dangers are real. Square up, take big strides and swing your arms like you’re walking into the ring with Muhammad Ali. Talk about Super Bowl ads and ice fishin' as you walk from the calf barn to the milk house. It doesn't cost any more personal thermal units than to cower, and it feels good to not be defeated.

It’s fun just to say, but there precious few opportunities to truly “hunker down”.

It may be so simple as to buy milk, water and bread. For those with “W” or “N” before their fire numbers, there will be chipping ice, opening water tanks and securing wind breaks to protect the horses and cattle. We stack wood in the end loader and pile it in the garage until there is enough to last until the weather breaks. The steel handle of the splittin’ maul sinks the heat from our hands and we drum up images of the pioneers who came to this land 150 years ago. Any notion of kinship fades with the reality that the wood they burned was not for ambiance, but their only source of heat. They did not have a chainsaw, or a tractor to haul it and it was long before polypropylene, smart wool and fleece.

Contrary to our personal preferences, we need this weather. Majestic mountain forests of Colorado have been decimated, Wisconsin is stepping up laws to prevent the movement of firewood and there have been years when the prevalence of Lyme disease in Northern Wisconsin has approached 30%. Let’s just see how the Pine Bark Beetle, Emerald Ash Borer and Deer Tick like 48 hours of 20 below zero.

Wise men, namely Ryan Haack, have theorized that anticipation is harsher than the reality. When the day arrives, you find yourself dumping down to survival mode. Knowing that your bare hand budget is at an all-time low, you pocket your Leatherman in the “ready” position before leaving the milk house. You haul bales and turn your back to the wind. In one smooth motion you bury the gloved hand in your armpit, grab the tool, cut the twines, stow it and return to the glove. As quickly as possible you return to the dashboard of the truck your second pair of gloves.

A 2-foot glacier surrounding a cow tank and a pick axe are your best friends. Ten minutes of breaking and hauling ice, and your hands will stay warm long enough to set an IV needle and treat a cow for ketosis.

If there is a single reason to not trade ten below for a white sand beach and a rum drink with an umbrella…it is the brotherhood. At 2AM in a whiteout you’re are not headed to the Redbox to rent “The Titanic”. The lights in the distance are a county plow truck, milk truck, tow truck, plumber or line crew. You give as much of where you think the center line is and still stay on the high side of the ditch. Staring hard at the tracks you’re riding, you nod a silent “git ‘er done” as you pass.

A guy would never go as far as to look for outside jobs in the teeth of a polar vortex, but it does feel pretty good if somebody happens to bring up the topic. "Yeah," you shrug, "I was only out for a coupla hours, chippin’ ice, splittin’ wood and feedin' cattle."

As if you need any more reason to celebrate the weather we just endured, I offer 10:48AM, January 9th.  As I passed Dave Schroeder’s grain bins at 5:30AM Monday, January 6, my truck read -18F. Temperatures were to remain stubbornly below zero for most of the week. Four days later I passed Dave’s bins and it was -16. I was unfazed. I palpated a half-dozen cows at Gene Mess’, and it was “up” to -12. A quarter mile and 20 minutes later at Tim Claas’, it was -10. By mid-morning at the Haack farm Ryan and I still had to slow our pace, as to not generate wind chill.

In the space of eight miles and the ten minutes it took to drive from Oak Park Road to our home on Hwy 18, the temperature rose to 16 degrees F. Yellow boots, green coveralls and stocking hat, I spread my arms wide to absorb the splendor and did a little dance, right there in the driveway.

To be certain there are those for whom this weather is a true hardship. The price of LP Gas has tripled in 6 weeks. With thermostat set at 60, the furnace blows warm air and an impending sense of despair. Worse yet, there are those who have no furnace, no food, and no hope.

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