Volume 12, Issue 3 ~ January 15-21, 2004

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Burton on the Bay

Cold Is a Matter of Degrees

Baby, It’s Cold Outside
—1949 song written by Frank Loesser, made famous when sung
by Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald

Baby, is it really cold outside? It depends not only on the outdoor temperature at the time one asks but also on whom one asks. Like last weekend at Timonium Fairgrounds.

I spent much of that time at the Cow Palace, where I was conducting Bay fishing seminars at the 20th annual Fishing Expo & Boat Show. As smoking no longer is allowed indoors at such places, not infrequently I slipped outside to stoke up the pipe. I had lots of company, mostly cigarette puffers making small talk.

Most, of course would bring up the topic of the weather, which went something like this: “Cold isn’t it?” or “It’s not worth coming outside to light up, is it?” Hey, they were asking a guy from Vermont who in his 50s headed out backpacking in a wind chill index of 96 below, and who newspapered a year in Alaska in the mid-’50s.

My response — and in my shirtsleeves — to those bundled-up smokers was “It’s not bad, and it’s worth it.” To which they gawked at me with that you’re-some-kind-of-a-nut look, which probably wasn’t too far from hitting the mark. End of conversation.

As I said, it all depends on whom one asks. If they were looking for sympathy, they came to the wrong person. Incidentally, the weather was just what a show promoter relishes. Cold is a boon; but not rain or snow, which cuts into attendance. When it’s real cold, patrons don’t stay home to wash cars, do outdoor odd jobs around the house or go fishing. It’s let’s go somewhere where it’s warm, and what’s better than indoors where there’s a trout pond, seminars and exhibits. So why not the big and heated Cow Palace?

Cold Enough for You?
In the Saturday morning drive from the Burton homestead at Riviera Beach in North County to Timonium through the city, there were sure signs winter had swept into Maryland. Ice was forming on Stoney Creek. Emissions from the smokestacks were black and thick. Liquid, presumably from a water-main leak, had turned to a stack of rippled ice. A few cars were getting battery hot shots. What pedestrians were on the streets had bundled up in hooded parkas as if readying for the big Alaska sled-dog race. No one fished the warmed waters of the Inner Harbor.

The thermometer showed temperatures in the high teens, which might be downright cold by Marylanders of long standing. But when I called Aunt MiMi in Vermont before I left home, she told me it was 15 — that’s 15 below the big 0 — which is where the mercury stood at noon the previous day.

On the Road to Warmth
Basking in the warmth of my new Saturn, I thought back to the 1940s. You might find this difficult to believe, but back then new cars of the economy models — Chevies, Fords and Plymouths — came with standard equipment, and standard equipment did not include heaters. Box-type units on the passenger side, which incidentally didn’t heat much, were options costing, as I recall, about $45.

Some cars still utilized manifold heaters that got their warmth from the manifolds of auto engines. To clear frost from windshields and rear windows back before World War II, the standard defroster consisted of hot wires in a frame stuck to the glass via suction cups. Defrosters were usually hot-wired to the electrical system. They were usable only early in the drive because that was also before alternators; generators could be fickle, and clearing the glass might mean a low battery.

But many a driver wasn’t concerned about warmth inside the family jalopy, and the frost could always be scraped off whether inside or outside the windshield. The big problem was just getting the damned vehicle percolating. Today, it’s pretty much turn the key and listen to the smooth hummmmm. Turn up the heat and defroster, and you’re on the road.

There were the occasional mornings on the farm when tea kettles of hot water were boiled to heat the engine block. The water often had been drained the previous night, for not always during the Great Depression could motorists afford enough inexpensive alcohol-based anti-freeze to keep the radiator and motor from freezing. But with this risky technique, if the vehicle didn’t start quickly, there was the possibility (make that probability) of a cracked motor block or radiator.

Some drivers who were able to park close enough to the house ran an extension cord to the jalopy and placed a 100-watt bulb under the hood, which was covered with a horse blanket. That helped a bit. Whether or not a light bulb was used, when the temperature got more that a few degrees below zero, the hoods of most cars parked overnight were covered with blankets.

Wise motorists lugged their batteries indoors for the night to get that extra oomph when the starter foot pedal was pushed in the morning. Batteries were only six volts, with not nearly as much oomph as the 12-volters that came later, and if the engine didn’t catch on the first kick-over or two, you stayed home.

You might say it was as much trouble keeping a flivver operating in the dead of winter as hitching up a team of horses to get from here to there, and the riding wasn’t that much colder. There were times when, as a kid, I saw that alternative transportation go by. A horse would always start.

It would be cold enough that the wires on telephone poles (as we called them, though they carried more electricity than voices) actually hummed loudly. We knew it was cold when Mother would say “put on your hat, scarf and mittens, the telephone poles are singing.” At houses where milk was delivered by farmers, if the residents didn’t bring it inside quick enough the caps of bottles on porches could be seen sticking far above the neck of the container, the cream at the top frozen solid. Some kids (not me; I never liked milk or cream) considered that free and instant ice cream.

Anyhow, there wasn’t time for treats; getting the car started took priority. Those who had jobs generally planned on getting up at least an hour earlier to get that accomplished. Once on the road, they couldn’t wait to get to work where it would be much warmer than in the car.

Well Heated
One fella I recall must have been pleased as he had a car with a heater. One day when the utility wires were singing loud, I tagged along behind Grandma Burton when she headed out to find Gyp, her Airedale canine, who hadn’t turned up that morning.

In the woods a pheasant was flushed near us, alerting Grandma that hunters were around. She encountered them, explaining that she’d prefer no hunting: She enjoyed the pheasants and grouse.

A portly and pompous man from the city told Grandma he was Judge Something Or Other, fully expecting her to back down. Boy, was he in for a surprise. Said Grandma: “If you’re a judge you should know better than to hunt on a farm without asking permission.”

Whereupon she told the two accompanying the judge they could hunt long enough to give chase and try to flush the ringneck again, but the jurist could hunt no more. He could sit and wait in their big shiny Buick parked in the nearby lane.

I remember that car well. In the Depression we didn’t see many Buicks in the country, certainly not many new ones (anything less than five years old was considered new). Also, fancy cars had better heaters, and after we found Gyp, we passed the car with its engine running. There sat the judge cozy, but on his face was an expression suited to the sentencing of a kidnapper.

See: It’s not so cold now after all, is it?

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Last updated January 15, 2004 @ 12:13am.