here are moments that—for whatever reason—stick with you. Flash memories fixed in form by some casual happenstance of time and space. Frozen snapshots or animated gifs that insist on installing themselves on your mental hard-drive. A winged Pegasus against a crystal blue sky. My infant brother pouring orange soda into blindingly white sand. A green bottle uplifted under an orange-colored sky. Colored leaves swirling in a circle on a concrete playground. Sunbeams shining through the curtains on the morning of my fifth birthday.
There’s got to be some sort of reason, some explanation, for why these particular memories get filed while others of more importance get thrown out as cerebral trash. If there is, I don’t know what it might be. What is the selection mechanism? It’s not obvious, whatever it may be. It seems arbitrary. Capricious. Pointless.
In one of these bits of frozen time I am walking home from school with my best friend Bruce on a hellishly cold winter Friday. A stiff wind is blowing in our faces; it cuts through my warm red parka-like jacket as if I was wearing nothing, and the cold is so intense I keep having to stop and turn my back to it. Bruce periodically turns and walks backward to keep the wind out of his face. At one of these points, about half-way home, when I was having serious doubts that we were going to make it, he said something to me that I have never forgotten: “It’s not the cold that’s so bad—it’s the way the wind blows it at you.”
It was the very thing I was thinking about at the moment. The cold was manageable on its own, up to a point, but there was something about that goddamn wind that made it intolerable. Maybe that was the first time it had really been driven home to me the difference between just plain cold and the relentless cold of a chill wind. Maybe that’s why the remark stuck with me—I don’t know.
According to my best recollection there were two incidents of intense cold during my years at John Rogers, one in fifth grade and one in sixth. They were strange times; we were allowed to dress oddly to stay warm, even in violation of the dress code (girls could wear pants, for instance), and recess was indoors. The landscape became alien, like something on another planet; the ever-present puddles froze solid and the dirt path to school cracked under your feet as you walked on it. If my memory is to be trusted at all the first time I was caught unprepared; the second time I had thermal underwear, uncomfortable but warm.
A few years ago it occurred to me to wonder whether I might be able to establish the exact date of the incident, based on the handful of clues embedded in the memory itself. I mean such incidents were rare in Vancouver, and it being a Friday might help to limit it. That stiff wind blowing in our faces might be a clue, too—we walked east to go home, so I’m looking for a cold period with a significant east wind. I turned to the weather archives and started poking around.
Turns out that during my grade school years there were indeed two such episodes—one in January 1962 (fifth grade) and one in January 1963 (sixth grade). That much was gratifying, in that it matched what I recalled—but both of them started on a Friday, and both of them involved a stiff east wind. It was colder in 1963 (21° vs. 25°) but the wind was a bit stiffer in 1962 (25 vs. 18 mph), so that’s a wash. In my memory it was colder when we left school than when we came, but in 1962 it was about the same and in 1963 it was actually warmer.
But I’m going with wind over temperature, and voting for 1962. Besides, as I said, in 1963 I was better prepared, and had insisted on having thermal underwear. I was obviously not so equipped on that particular walk home. So, in that case, if my memory is to be trusted and the available information is correct and my deductions are sound, it was exactly fifty-five years ago today that this memorable (for whatever reason) incident occurred. 19 January 1962. At twenty-five degrees, with a wind of twenty-five miles per hour blowing in our faces, we would have felt at least ten degrees colder, I imagine. And, as my friend observed, it wasn’t the cold that was so bad—it was the way the wind blew it at us.