Someone is going to freeze to death Wednesday; don’t let it be you
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“Freezing to death” is actually a misnomer, since humans begin to die if their core temperature drops below a summery 85, long before ice crystals form.
But it’s too common an error to correct now, and with Chicago expected to be plunged into a hellish 20-below-zero — the high Wednesday is predicted to be a record minus-14 — this seems an apt moment, among the warnings to stay indoors if possible (my plan) or dress in layers if necessity or foolishness lures you outdoors, to give careful consideration to the long tradition of freezing to death, and the rich literature it inspired.
“Hellish” for instance, was not casually chosen. Despite its famous flames, Hell is often frozen in Dante’s travelogue. In the 9th circle, he comes upon figures encased in ice, describing a scene that will be reproduced on CTA platforms citywide today: “I saw a thousand faces after that/All purple as a dog’s lips from the frost/I still shiver, and always will, at the sight.”
And in the lowest pit of Hell, Satan himself, buried to his chest in ice.
But those sufferings are fictional. Browsing over a century of Chicago deep freeze newspaper reports, those real souls most apt to die from cold tend to fall into several categories: the old; the poor; the impaired, typically drunk. The mentally-impaired are also vulnerable — in January 1979, two 8-year-old boys, clad only in pajamas, slipped out of their residential facility, were locked outside and froze to death on the stoop. It was 5 degrees below zero.
Hypothermia has been a form of both murder and suicide. In 1898, Maud Alexander, 30, “concealed herself in the dark entrance of the vacant Horse and Harness Exchange building, 1633 Wabash Avenue … and sought to freeze to death,” according to the Tribune. “I want to die,” she told the policeman who discovered her and saved her life, explaining that she was “friendless and had no money.”
About 25 people die in Cook County every year from exposure to cold.
What’s it like to freeze to death? Not bad, surprisingly.
“You will like it,” Capt. R.L. Zely wrote, recounting his experience in “the terribly rigorous winter of 1839-1840.” He was riding in the Maine woods, with the temperature at 20 below when his horse fell through the ice while crossing a river, soaking him. “I found myself growing drowsy … I knew that I was freezing but I labored hard to rouse my will and fight with it against my fate. … Finally, I found myself growing deliciously warm.”
The bad part was to come. The horse delivered him, insensate, to a house, where he was set before a fire and his agonies began, “suffering such tortures as the victim of the wrack might feel … suddenly at my feet, the prickling of a million needles assaulted my flesh.”
The definitive work of literature about hypothermia is “To Build a Fire,” by Jack London. Published in 1908, it can be read online while waiting for your cocoa to heat. But the key take-away is a reminder that freezing to death is often due to a conspiracy between natural extreme and human error.
“He was not much of a thinker,” London writes of his nameless narrator, trekking through the Yukon at 75 below. “The trouble with him was that he was not able to imagine.”
Which is what I would encourage readers to do: imagine the worst and avoid it. Do you know what is perhaps the most perilous activity you can attempt today? Taking out the trash. Slip on a back step and by the time someone notices you’re missing, you’re dead. Postpone that trip to the dumpster. Don’t die for the garbage.
Otherwise, if you must confront the cold, there are books to recommend. I have been enjoying “Ice: The Nature, the History, and the Uses of an Astonishing Substance”by Mariana Gosnell (on Kindle, $4.99, no need to go to the library). You can’t go wrong with “Endurance” by Chicago-born writer Alfred Lansing, about polar explorer Ernest Shackleton, who sailed toward the South Pole in 1914, only to have his ship trapped in ice, forcing him to set out for help in an open lifeboat across 850 miles of the stormy Weddell Sea.
Make the right life choices Wednesday — cocoa, couch, book — and let others make the mistakes. Not everyone has good sense, or a choice, but if you do, use both.