by Gwen Wolfgang
I vividly remember 28 noses pressed against the windows of Poplar Street Elementary School, in Central City, PA, as my entire fourth grade class marveled at the appearance of the first snowflakes of the season. I am not sure of the reason for this fascination. Living in the mountains of Somerset County, we had all seen more than our share of one-of-a-kind snowflakes. They usually floated into town in late October or early November. Soon their snowflake buddies would crowd the skies, cover the ground, and we wouldn’t see a blade of grass until May. Winter seemed much longer in the fifties.
Everyone in Central City had a coal furnace that was banked at night. We had no heat upstairs except a few adventurous puffs of warm air that found their way up the narrow stairs and into our bedrooms. Most mornings, I could see my breath. The thought of crawling out from under the covers and putting my feet on those frosty hardwood floors still makes me shiver.
By the time I got downstairs, the furnace fire had been stoked and glorious hot air was spewing from the register in the kitchen. That was my favorite place to stand to get dressed. If I ever lost a button, it went straight into the blazing bowels of the furnace, never to be seen again. By the time I was dressed for school, my scrawny little legs were baked to a bright red.
First came the snow pants. My mother took hours starching and ironing my cotton dresses. I wore at least one crisp crinoline slip under my skirt. All of that voluminous material had to be stuffed into my wool snow pants so that I could pull the straps up and adjust them tightly at the shoulder. With my skinny legs and my pants full of cotton and crinoline, I looked a lot like Tweedle-Dum.
Next came the boots. Mine were brown rubber with obviously imitation fur around the top. They were worn over my school shoes and zipped up the front. By the end of winter, they would chafe a black ring around my lower calf. Nothing could be done to wash away the line so my legs always looked dirty.
After putting on my coat, mittens, and hat, my grandmother would pin a white wool scarf around the lower half of my face. As I began to walk to school, my warm breath would condense and the scarf would freeze to my lips. I had perpetual chapping on the lower half of my face for five months every year. It was a nice match to the scaly chafing around my ankles.
When I arrived at school, I hung my coat on a hook in the cloak closet at the back of the room. If I removed my snow pants, my dress and crinoline were a mass of wrinkles. If I left the woolen wonders in place, my legs would sweat all day until the flannel lining of my pants could be wrung out. Neither choice was a very good one.
Every girl wore same rubber and faux fur boots. Every boy wore “artics”, black rubber boots with buckles all the way up the front. How did Mrs. Bantley ever figure out which boots went on which feet? They don’t teach you things like that at State Teacher’s College!
Every day, we put on our coats, boots, hats, and mittens and went outside for recess. Don’t tell Grandma, but I never put my damp scarf around my face. We played in the snow piles until our mittens were soaked and covered with tiny ice balls. In my memory, I can still smell the essence of wet wool. Sometimes we played on the swings and our hands would freeze to the ice coated chains. The wind created by swinging made my chapped face sting and my sweaty snow pants even more uncomfortable. It never occurred to me to complain.
My trip home was about a mile, all uphill. (I will confess that the morning walk was all downhill.) Plows had cleared the roads and ashes were used to provide traction on the ice. With so many coal furnaces in town, ashes were an endless natural resource. Chains slapped on the ashy pavement as cars passed me on my homeward trek.
When I got home, my friend Donna and I got our sleds and headed out to play. We made snow men and snow angels and enjoyed every minute of the winter.
A wall of icicles formed on the lower side of our back porch. They extended from the roof to the ground, ten feet below. Often we would break off a chunk of and suck on it like a water flavored Popsicle. The treat would leave a residue in your mouth of little tiny asbestos beads from the shingles. You could either swallow them or take off your mittens and pick them out of your teeth. They were crunchy and had a metallic taste. No one told us they were dangerous.
Now I get in my car in a warm garage and turn on my electric seat heater. It is reminiscent of the hot register. I park near my destination and run for the door. In fact, now that I am retired, I don’t even go out if I don’t absolutely have to. I have much more natural insulation than I did then. You would think it would keep me warmer. But as I shiver today, I will just close my eyes and let my memories keep me warm.