December 22, 2013

COMMENTARY: Winter was much different before synthetic fabrics, snowblowers

Theodora Kalikow

Sometime back in the 1970s when we were reading the Whole Earth Catalog and Firefox and learning how to keep bees, preserve our home-grown vegetables, milk the miniature goats and all the rest of it, I recall reading easy-to-follow directions about how to build your own igloo. Darn, I thought, this comes about 20 years too late.

click image to enlarge

click image to enlarge

I wished I had that information in about 1950 when the neighborhood gang tried every year to build an igloo — and failed every year, too. We never did solve the engineering problems. The thing would get about waist-high and then we were stymied, and it would devolve into a snow fort. Or two. And then there would be a snowball fight and we would all go home with wet mittens.

It was a tough childhood, all right.

Before Gore-tex, polypropylene, polar fleece, wind-blocking and waterproof fabrics, winter life was a series of challenges. It took forever to get into your snowsuit and then you couldn’t even bend over, it was so bulky. Girls had to wear skirts to school, and if you put your snow pants on underneath to stay warm, you looked like a goon and a loser. And if you rolled in the snow like you wanted to, everything would get wet, and your mother would yell at you. We rolled often — at least, I did. And then I came home and dripped on the kitchen floor for good measure. The promised maternal vocalizations arrived on schedule!

Winter life without synthetics! Torture for mothers and children!

Skiing also was hard. Those things were wooden. If you didn’t slather them with paraffin, they would ice up and stick to the snow so that you were frozen in, and then finally when you herringboned up a hill, and if you were lucky, going downhill you could get those clunkers into a snowplow and descend without killing yourself. Screaming was required.

It was practically child abuse. Many years later, we learned that it was now called cross-country skiing.

And then there was shoveling. Snowblowers did not come to my neighborhood until long after I had grown up and left. Maybe they had not even been invented. Ergonomic snow scoops also hadn’t happened. If you wanted to clear the driveway, shoveling was the way. And how was Dad going to get to work (food on the table, roof over your head, etc., etc.) if you didn’t get out there and do your part? We all prayed for a teen-age boy to show up and offer to help, for a modest fee.

Plus don’t even get me started about the tire chains. Definitely not pretty. God help you if you ever needed to put them on.

So this is my holiday present to you, dear reader, my special “gratitude in the form of historical kvetching” reminiscences. All those winter adventures with snow and skiing and ice-skating on frozen lumpy ponds, snowball fights, endless shoveling, and little clumps of ice all over mittens, coat, pants and hat — if I even had a hat on (No, Ma, I am not cold!) — all that stuff is the reason I live in Maine, and I don’t want to move away at all, at all.

I hope it snows a lot this winter. I intend to be grateful every time it does, and possibly even roll in it from time to time. If there is enough snow, and it sets up just right, I want to try making an igloo, too. There are waterproof mittens now!

Have a lovely holiday season and a happy and healthy 2014.

Theodora J. Kalikow is president of the University of Southern Maine. She can be reached at
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