Backstory: Why Minnesotans don't wear long underwear

When the temperature reaches a certain point, only meteorologists care how much colder it gets.

It was cold enough in Minnesota this week that many locals decided to forgo the ritual of rolling naked in the snow after taking a sauna. They wore swim trunks instead.

It hit 42 degrees F. below zero in the tiny town of Embarrass, and at least one man was seen wearing a long-sleeved shirt. You get the idea: Minnesotans treat cold weather with a collective shrug of their flannel-shirted shoulder. I know this because I grew up in north central Minnesota, where the thermometer would turn particularly truculent for a few weeks every winter.

After the 20 below mark, most of us would stop watching the mercury. It didn't make much difference. The only ones who seemed to care were meteorologists (back then we called them weathermen) interested in impressing others across the country with the numbingly low numbers, and Don Staley, who trolled around town in his wrecker with a set of jumper cables looking to impress us with how much he charged to start our cars.

We intuitively knew what the temperature was, anyway. At 25 below, the car tires would squeak a certain way as they rolled over the snow. The pitch would rise as the temperature would drop, until, at some point, only dogs could hear you drive by. I remember whisking silently down streets and looking in windows and seeing beagles glaring at me with their ears up like tent flaps.

At 30 below, the fuel-oil delivery truck no longer made periodic stops at your house. The driver would park in your driveway, affix a hose to the spigot, and remain in your life permanently, like Regis Philbin.

At 40 below, Minnesotans would start talking in sentence fragments as their syllables congealed. Thus "yes, I did see that hockey game last night and the goalie played like a piece of lutefisk" became: "You betcha." Everything became "you betcha." Swedish meatballs for dinner again? "You betcha."

At 45 below, Minnesotans stopped aging. They went into a cryogenic state, which often coincided with Ted Williams playing that night on TV. That's one reason the state has one of the best public-education systems in the nation. By the time kids graduated from high school, they were actually 43 years old. The only noticeable anomaly was that well into adulthood they still liked Pop Tarts.

When the temperatures got too cold, we'd no longer repair to our fish houses on the lake. It took too long to fire up the wood stoves. Instead, I'd go out with Mark Hudrlik, who owned a Volkswagen. He had cut a hole in the floor and fastened an eye bolt to it. We'd drive out on the lake, drill a hole in the ice, and then move the car over the hole. We'd fish through the floor, with the heater – and AM radio – running. Over time, we learned the secret of drive-by fishing: Bass would bite to the sounds of "Duke of Earl," crappie were partial to Duran Duran.

The only other telltale sign that it was unusually cold would come when we tried to lay down a new sheet of ice on the hockey rink. The water would trickle out of the hose and harden before spreading out, bonding our boots to the surface. Once, I found myself cemented in place for six weeks, almost through an entire Hubert Humphrey speech, until someone found me.

Fortunately, I had been perfectly preserved.

You betcha.

Scott Armstrong is a Monitor editor in Boston.

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