If you step outside and walk into the driveway for the morning newspaper, tiny red lightning bolts flash in your eyes when you blink. Something invisible grips your throat. Momentarily you can't breathe.
This is not a predawn ambush. It's life in northern Minnesota in the middle of a cold wave.
There were warmer places this week on the Antarctic continent near the South Pole than in Embarrass, Minn., where the officially recorded temperature dived to 54 degrees below zero early Monday morning. No calls for disaster relief were heard from the frozen muskeg bogs where Finnish settlers built their little village on the fringe of Minnesota's great fir forests. What you did hear were a few moans of disappointment from competitive citizens who were shooting for the all-time record for below-zero cold in Minnesota. The record is held rather noisily by the citizens of Tower-Soudan a few miles away.
Nine years ago a temperature of 60 below was reported there by a person identified as a volunteer for the National Weather Service. Wails of protest erupted from frigidity boosters in Minnesota cities like International Falls and Bemidji, where the competition to be cited as the Cold Weather Capital of America is sometimes ferocious.
The mayors of International Falls and Bemidji once reportedly were on the verge of court action, if not blows, accusing their rivals of cooking the numbers. The same charge is sometimes lodged against Embarrass and Tower-Soudan. In those towns, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources discreetly noted, temperature-monitoring stations are located in low-lying basins, where dense cold air tends to collect.
The simple explanation for all this civic feuding is that winter weather in Minnesota historically spawns a kind of polar-bear perversity. The crown jewel of this condition is the annual St. Paul Winter Carnival, which celebrates ice, snow, and red noses. Years ago, before major-league professional sports and the Guthrie Theater arrived in Minnesota, it was generally understood that the most popular entertainment in Minneapolis, especially among ambitious Scandinavians, was to hike to the shores of Lake Calhoun to watch the ice form in December.
The children and grandchildren of those immigrants now finesse the Minnesota winter with a broader vision: Thousands of them lock the doors, prowl the Internet for the best rates, and head for Arizona, Florida, Mexico, and Costa Rica for the winter. Minnesota is a prosperous place. The Scandinavian immigrants didn't raise dummies.
No such creativity is demanded of the villagers in Embarrass, where the cold comes early and hangs around for four or five months. They survive it laconically and without groaning - using a strategy the football coaches of today would call "doing the little things right."
Mark Fabish, who with his wife runs a kennel outside the village, went down the checklist he uses when a big freeze approaches. He admitted Tuesday he doesn't have to make a macho statement by sticking his nose out in 54 degrees below zero. "I don't know what people get out of competing for the coldest place in Minnesota, but it was brutal cold for sure. People here do the usual things - go to the cafe, shop a little, keep their car's motor running. I handle it mostly by staying inside. One thing you better do is take care of the water pipes in the house. I keep a trickle going all day to be sure those pipes don't freeze. If they do, you've got a mess and a lot of money to pay. I bank snow around the place for insulation, or the heating bill can go out of sight."
The watchword in Minnesota in winter is "be ready." Years ago when you drove a car in winter, it was unthinkable not to load the trunk with blankets, flares, concrete blocks for traction, food for three days of isolation in snowdrifted cornfields and, for believers, such added life sustainers as Bibles and rosaries. The arrival of cellphones pretty much changed all that and reduced the prospect of a simple drive to Grandma's turning into a saga of high adventure.
Promoters of industry and tourism in Minnesota have always shrunk into depression when a cold wave or snowstorm hits the state. The national publicity was and is merciless. Millions of Americans still identify Minnesota with horrible winters, and the chamber of commerce people still feel martyred over it.
In the earlier days of mass communication, subzero cold in Minnesota was the signal for wire-service editors to order the stock photo shot from Minnesota - frozen long johns hanging forlornly on the clothesline. Each time it happened, the Come to Minnesota promoters needed a morale boost. After that came shots of traffic gridlock in downtown Minneapolis. Minnesota Viking zealots didn't help. In the 1970s when the team played outdoors, Viking fans - aware of the team's Super Bowl failures - shipped truckloads of snow to the Super Bowl practice site. "We didn't want the guys to feel homesick," the leader explained.
The Vikings, of course, lost. When they came home, the reception fell below expectations because of a January cold wave.
It gets warmer, folks, in March.