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Far too much like that old-time hibernation


If we can believe the weather forecast, by the time you read this, the thermometer should have climbed well above the brutal subzero figures we endured throughout the dozen days just past. It’s a very long time since we had a long stretch of -30 degree weather and I hope we don’t see another for many years.

That kind of temperature, accompanied by insane wind chill, was nothing strange to us as prairie kids, and I don’t remember ever being kept home from school, unless the roads were so plugged with snow that the buses couldn’t get through. Buses ran regardless of the temperature, as long as they could be started, not necessarily easy in those days before block heaters.

My brother drove a school bus for a couple of years, and lived on a farm with no electricity or garage for the bus, and kept it warm overnight with a contraption involving a pail of kerosene or diesel fuel, a wick and a hole in the snow under the bus, plus a big tarp to keep the heat close to the motor. I’m fairly sure he wasn’t the only bus driver who did that.

Going places when the weather was that cold wasn’t something you did if it wasn’t necessary. My dad, who had a little potbelly stove in his drafty garage beside the 1937 Pontiac, kept the battery in the house and put it in if he really, really had to go to town, and if the road was plowed, which didn’t always happen until our road became part of the school bus route. He had a particular aversion to being out on the road in bad weather at any time of the year, and if that road wasn’t clear and the wind wasn’t likely to blow in a storm, he wasn’t going anywhere. My brother and sister, while they still lived at home, weren’t necessarily happy about being kept away from hockey games and dances, but they usually followed suit.

My family was generally well prepared for this enforced hibernation, with a garden full of potatoes and root vegetables in the dirt cellar, and the fruit closet filled with jars from my mother’s summer canning binges, along with pork and beans and canned milk by the case lot. The pantry would be well stocked with flour, rolled oats, sugar, coffee and tea, because well, you never know what kind of weather we would be subject to. A load or two of coal and a little drum of kerosene would also be brought home before winter to provide heat and light.

We would be warm, we would be fed, but if we were snowed in for a while, the diet would get a bit monotonous. The Sunday roast would only stretch so far into the week, and if we ran out of canned meat, it might be eggs, potatoes and pork and beans for supper. Thank goodness for hens! And, if we were too long without being able to go to town for groceries, Father might sacrifice one and we’d have a chewy old roast chicken to gnaw on for a couple of days, and then soup from the carcass.

The worst thing to run out of, even worse than Father’s cigars, was flour for bread. Mother and my sister would make beautiful homemade bread, if we were unable to go to town, but one time I recall they ran short of flour. My sister made some out of Sunny Boy Cereal that was a lot like the multigrain loaves we enjoy today, but when that ran out, she had Father bring in a pail of wheat from the bin, which she washed, dried and ground with a meat grinder type flour mill. It was better than nothing, but not too much, and also similar to today’s high priced artisan bread.

We were always very glad when the wind would go down and the snow stop drifting, because then the snow plow would open our roads and Mother and Father would go to town and replenish supplies, always keeping an eye on the weather in case another storm was on its way.

Then, as now, Alberta’s weather was unpredictable.

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