Thursday, December 23, 2010

December 23 in North Dakota History

December 23, 1983, dawned cloudless, cold and windy in Jamestown, North Dakota. I remember well waking that morning and turning on the local radio station only to learn that at 8:00 a.m. the temperature at the airport (which was one mile from where I was then living) was a brisk -42 degrees F. That's right. The air temperature was 42 degrees F below zero. The radio then reported that the horrific cold was accompanied by a sustained wind of 40 miles per hour. The wind had arrived on what was known as an Alberta Clipper. Making matters even worse, if that is possible, was the calculated wind chill of -106 degrees F. Yes, you read that correctly. The wind chill was one hundred six degrees below zero.

Twice in my then-young life in my home town in northern Wisconsin the temperature had reached -62 degrees (January 1 1974) and -60 (January 11, 1977). However and thankfully when it was that cold in Wisconsin there was no wind. The bitter cold was just that. In North Dakota on December 23, 1983, it was a different story.

By 11:00 a.m. I had been able to get my car started and it sat in the parking lot warming up. Back in my apartment my phone rang. It was a friend in Jamestown who lived with her three sons on the south side of Jamestown. She reported that she had plugged in her head bolt heater or block heater but despite it being plugged in and working, the horrific windchill had conspired to freeze her engine. She wanted to know if I would come over to see if I could get her car running.

I dressed entirely in wool and went to her house. I had on a wool watch cap, a wool scarf over my face, a wool shirt over an insulated undershirt, a woolen jacket, wool pants, wool socks, Sorrel boots (with their felt liners) and wool mittens under deer skin outers. I was ready for the Arctic. However I wasn't ready for -106 degrees F.

As diligent as I was in trying to start the car I could be outside only 5 minutes and then had to come in her house for 10 to 15 minutes to warm up. After two hours of this nonsense and despite being layered in wool, the wind was cutting through my clothes and I felt frozen to my skeleton. I gave up and went home. Carol's car started three days later when the temperature was a bit more hospitable.

I don't think I'll ever forget that day. A year to the day later I was in the Bahamas and a year after that in the Turks and Caicos Islands. Despite my Nordic heritage, and despite having grown up in the frozen north woods of Wisconsin, and despite this frigid day in North Dakota, my subsequent time in North Dakota convinced me that living in cold climates was not the thing for me. I wonder how much that day influenced my decision to now live among the palm trees in Florida where, as the Jim Morris song states, "75 is mighty chilly to me."


  1. Better Thee than me. I spent some cold days in Wisconsin, especially the first 10 years in central and northern parts of the state, but never like that. I simply shiver at thinking of what I had to endure as a cub insurance adjuster while learning the ropes. Great story!

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