topher

That’s a line from a very old hymn, describing things in winter.

Summer is not my favorite season. It’s hot, and uncomfortable. Sure, there are benefits. July is nice. It has the 4th, the 11th (anniversary), the 17th (my birthday). But June is pretty empty, and August is just too hot.

Fall on the other hand, has cooler weather, prettier scenery, and the anticipation of holidays; Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas. The Gospelcom conference is in September, that’s always fun, and football starts up. And best of all, the flannel sheets go on the bed. If you’ve never tried flannel sheets, do it. Really. There are few cheaper pleasures in life that great.

Snow is great too. It’s pretty, and REALLY fun to drive in. Granted, it’s hard work shoveling/blowing/etc, but even then it’s fun to watch my kids play in it.

Granted, there have been times when I’d have given anything to be someplace warm. The other night I had a dream, where I relived something that actually happened in high school.

When I was 15, I joined the Civil Air Patrol. For the uninitiated, CAP is an auxiliary of the US Air Force, comprised of both civilian and military personnel, whose purpose is to educate people in aerospace as well as serve as search and rescue for both military and civilian purposes.

I was a member of the Wurtsmith Composite Squadron, at Wurtsmith Air Force Base, near my house. My Squadron commander was a bomber pilot, and brought us the safety pins from the bombs he dropped on Baghdad during the first Gulf War. Alan may even have seen him on TV..

Search and Rescue training was a big deal in our squadron. We traveled to get mountain experience, spent a quality Christmas break up to our necks in snow in a cedar swamp looking for some poor fool who probably dumped his plane in the lake (no-one ever found him), carried 45lb packs for hours in desert conditions, traveled across country in the dark to precise compass points miles away, etc.

So back to my dream.

One time we went on a winter training mission. My squadron commander’s house was on the edge of “national”, that being National Forest. There was a power line that went through the woods there, and we often used it to go deep in the woods, since the county kept it plowed for maintenance purposes. About 5 miles in is a deep narrow valley with a small stream at the bottom. Dirt bikers in the summer, and snowmobilers in the winter call it “Bultaco Hill”.

We went in that night at about 9 o’clock, which is about 4 hours after dark at that latitude. There was a full moon that night though, and with a clear sky and sparkly snow, we could hardly tell it was night time. And it was cold. Really cold. Fortunately, we had several miles to hike with full gear and a stretcher, so we kept warm on the walk in.

When we got to the site, at the bottom of the Bultaco valley (about 45 yards wide at the bottom at that point), we set up camp. My friend Jason and I usually shared a tent, because he didn’t own one. He also usually borrowed a sleeping bag from me, also because he didn’t own one. There were two at my house, one mine, and one my dad’s. I always loaned him mine, and slept in my dad’s since I didn’t think it was right to loan out a bag that wasn’t mine. The drag is that my bag is good to 45 below, and my dad’s only to 35. It had never been an issue before though.

The guys with the easiest tents got done first, and had firewood duty. In the bottom of the valley with a stream, it was mostly cedar, which doesn’t usually fall when it’s dead, so it took some work. The snow was only about 8 inches deep though, so it wasn’t that big a deal.

Then we divvied up the watch schedule and hit the sack. Two guys every 2 hours stayed up and kept the fire going. We kept a small log of anything interesting going on (not much usually), and since the the snowmobile hill was only a few hundred yards through the woods, we paid attention in case any drunks decided to come try it.

Ever climbed into a high-end down or holofil sleeping bag when it’s cold out? They’re COLD. It only takes a few minutes to warm up, but that material is really really cold. I pulled the 2-4am shift (the worst) with Mike Pitre, so I went back to my tent, crawled in, pulled the hood around my head, and cinched it down so that the was just enough room to get air to my nose. Not the most comfortable way to sleep, but the alternative was worse.

My tent shook at 1:50, ad I woke up to an unusual sensation. I was cold. Not just my nose (which was VERY cold), but my whole body. I had never slept in my dad’s bag and been cold before. Jason (in my bag) didn’t have to get up, but had obviously been awakened by the shaking of the tent. I said “Dude, are you cold?”. He replied “Maybe a little, but not enough to keep me awake”. Odd.

So I crawled out and got dressed. It felt REALLY cold. I hustled over to the fire, and noticed that my squadron commander was up and about. This was notable because he had neither the previous shift nor my shift. As it turns out, his military issue bag was “winter” weight, as opposed to “Arctic” weight; it was only good to 20 below. So he had put on all his clothes, and intended to stay up by the fire all night. This wasn’t bad for me, he’s a pretty entertaining, intelligent guy. I felt bad that he was staying up all night though, and wondered if he’d be in a bad mood the next day. Training missions could be hard if we did something stupid.

So, the previous watch went to bed, and we settled in to make sure the fire kept burning. It got quiet, and all of a sudden there was a crashing in the brush about 50 feet out.

“I wouldn’t have expected the deer to be moving now”, I said.

“They’re not, the trees are exploding”, our captain said.

I knew they did this in extreme cold of course, I’d simply never experienced it for myself. It was then that I knew it wasn’t just me. It was truly colder than I’d ever experienced.

Captain Sebring (our squadron commander), is a pyromaniac. He’s the one that showed us that the non-dairy creamer in MRE’s is highly combustible. This night he was standing very close the fire to keep warm. He’d stand facing it for a few minutes, and then turn to toast the frozen side. In the course of our chatter, he’d occasionally kick a small end of wood into the fire, or even step on the center to push it down before piling on more wood. The culmination of our even though, was when the fire was quite low, and he straddled it.

His outer pants were a Korean War era pair of 100% cotton BDU’s (Battle Dress Uniform). They were pretty thin, but they were big, so they could go over lots of other clothes. But, thin, dry, old cotton should never be that close to a fire. In mid sentence, his pants ignited up the inseam of his left leg, from boot to crotch, in about a quarter second.

He kept a pretty cool head. He leaped off the fire, and fell to the ground to flop around. Of course, all of us standing near the fire all night had packed it down, so flopping didn’t do all THAT much. I jumped over the fire pit and started beating it out, and it only took us a few seconds. No harm done, but the pants were hosed. I looked around for Mike, because he hadn’t come to help, so I figured he was going to try something else. As it turns out, he’d fallen backward off the log he was sitting on because he was laughing so hard.

The only reason he’s not still doing push-ups is that it WAS funny, and no-one got hurt.

Things settled down, and we settled into that silence that sleepy people do. We couldn’t see much of the sky due to the trees, but what we could see had the super bright stars of a cold northern sky.

When my watch ended, I headed back to my tent, though without much hope of warmth. I shook Jason awake, and he said “NOW I’m pretty chilly”. I crawled into my dad’s bag, and lay there shaking, and thought long and hard about my warm soft bed at home. I thought about it in the same manner that a starving man thinks of food. And I promised myself that every time I lay in a warm soft bed, not just every real bed, but the opposite of that experience, I would think of that night, and appreciate my fortune to have a bed like that.

The next thing I knew, my tent was shaking again, and it was 6 am, time to get up. I really didn’t feel like running search patterns in that cold. But I got up and got my gear together. Then I got the news I’d secretly been hoping for, but didn’t have any real hope of. We were going home. It was the first time Captain Sebring had ever ended a mission prematurely due to cold, but he hadn’t slept all night, and he knew the dangers of frost bite.

So we packed up and hiked out. It was still cold, and much of me was numb when we got back. We had a Stokes litter, like a stretcher, but make of fiberglass and aluminum, and spots to tie it to ropes from a helicopter. Cold aluminum will freeze your hands FAST.

We found out later that it had been 45 below at the base that night, and it was probably colder in the bottom of the valley.

So, the other night I dreamt through all of that again, and I think it was because before I went to sleep I was feeling REALLY comfy, which made me once again thank God for allowing me to be comfortable one more time.

2 thoughts on “Earth as hard as iron, water like a stone

  1. Hey topher, I was in the Civil Air Patrol as well. I think I was 14 or so when I joined – and 15 when I left. Not the longest career, but it was worthwhile experience.

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