Not even Texas Blue Northers prepared me for Chicago in January

“Holy cow, it’s ‘I can’t feel my face’ degrees out here.” 

—Heard somewhere north of Plainview during every Texas Blue Norther.

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Here in East Texas, it’s a balmy mid-60s Sunday afternoon as I’m finishing up this week’s missive. When I started Friday night, temps were in the 20s

Forecasting Texas weather is easy. Just pick something, anything. It changes hourly, so you’re sure to be partially correct. For the record, cold is my least favorite forecast. I’m good until the temperature on my East Texas front porch dips below 50. But the coldest I have ever been in Texas was during a Panhandle Blue Norther.

If you’ve never experienced a Texas Blue Norther, my all-time favorite Texas Monthly writer Jan Reid, once described them best. Reid was my favorite Texas Monthly writer, at least partially because I met him when he started his career at the Mount Pleasant Tribune in the 70s on his way to writing for Texas Monthly

“Kids in the panhandle climb windmills and water towers to watch the northers blow in,” Reid wrote. “On clear fall days a white cloud rises from the prairie and quickly envelops the horizon, the upper part of it assuming the shape of an anvil. Because the low clouds are wet and stormy, the horizon often turns bluer than the sky above the cloud mass—hence the term ‘blue norther.’ With a plunge of temperature and a zoom of barometric pressure, the norther hits: a shock of dry, clean, Arctic wind.”

That was always my concept of cold … before I went to Chicago. Not even Texas Blue Northers prepared me for Chicago in January.

Forecasted temps of the 20s didn’t seem ominous as I prepared for my business trip. “I’ve seen 20s in Texas,” I said while packing half the contents of my closet just in case.

Arriving at O’Hare Airport was chilly, but not that bad. “Piece of cake,” I thought when I turned out the lights at the hotel that night. It was about 4:30 a.m. when noises outside abruptly interrupted my slumber. Pulling the drapes aside for a peek, I saw blinding snow in the pale parking lot lights. It was blowing one direction and a snowplow scraping the parking lot was pushing it back the other.

Ol’ Man Winter had conspired with Mother Nature to dump heavy snow on Chicago during the night. However, where a quarter-inch “dumped” on East Texas brings life to a standstill (except for the run on bottled water and toilet tissue), an estimated foot of snow seemed of no concern in The Windy City. News reporters knee-deep in drifts assured viewers that sunup would see clear roadways.

Charging out of the hotel lobby into the parking lot after sunup wearing everything I had packed, two sensations were instantaneous. One, where my car had been the night before, there was nothing but a massive snowdrift. However, what turned out to be the more significant concern was the wind off Lake Michigan. Before I could suck in my first breath of sub-zero air, the Arctic blast cut through every garment I had on. Every thread I was wearing, from my J.C. Penny’s suit to my Burlington Coat Factory “on sale” overcoat to my East Texas long johns and in between, was no match. It blew through every layer like Sherman marching through Atlanta.

Any East Texas postnasal drip I may have had disappeared with my first breath. Everything from the tip of my nose to the back of my eyeballs was crystallized. My whole body was turning blue. My legs were growing numb. I had visions of my frozen body being found on the Homewood Suites parking in the Springtime. Right next to my airport rental car still accruing credit card charges.

Unlike Sherman, I retreated at the last moment. Once inside the hotel watching coffee slosh out of the cup in my shivering hands, a different vision appeared. I had survived Texas Panhandle Blue Northers. Surely, I thought, I can tough this out long enough to find my car, start it, and try to make my meeting.

Just as the icy auto fired up, I heard a clattering noise. “Oh great,” I thought. “This car is frozen.” Relief came quickly when I realized the clattering noise was just my teeth.

Business meeting over later and escaping Chicago winter on a warm flight out, I silently offered thanks that I was headed back to warm and balmy 20s in Texas.

I still don’t like cold weather. And I’ve never been back to Chicago except during their summer: the month of July. It remains the only place I’ve been that makes a Texas Blue Norther feel like an “Easter snap” in East Texas.

—Leon Aldridge

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Aldridge columns are published in these Texas newspapers: The Center Light and Champion, the Mount Pleasant Tribune,  the Rosenberg Fort Bend Herald, the Taylor Press, and the Alpine Avalanche.

© Leon Aldridge and A Story Worth Telling 2022. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Leon Aldridge and A Story Worth Telling with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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