Chicago River iced up near Wells Street bridge.

Chris Diers

Chicago River iced up near Wells Street bridge.

A Wintry World of Yesterday

Fall and Spring Were Fine, but Winter?

WINDY CITY: As I write this, warm sun is beaming down on Santa Barbara, but my old home town of Chicago is shivering under (another) brutal winter storm.

It’s been over a half century since I saw the Windy City in my rearview mirror and began to forget the Cubs, White Sox (“White Snots” as I dubbed them when bugging my Sox-loving brother Bruce), and Chicago Bears.

Barney Brantingham

Since then, I’ve had no reason to regret leaving the rugged winters and beastly hot summers. (Fall and spring were fine.) But winter?

I can see it now: Cars buried under snow drifts, people slipping and falling on icy sidewalks, Lake Michigan icing up, the Chicago River freezing. So cold that the courts had to shut down and the mob had to fire half the judges, or so the rumors went.

Then there was the music of the city: Car chains slapping the icy streets, the sad hoots of freight trains up on the 95th Street “L,” the screams of steel mill trains dumping molten slag down the embankment a few streets away in an unforgettably colorful display.

In our third-floor apartment, radiators hissed welcome heat. We put our wet mittens on them to dry, producing the pungent aroma of wet dog.

Junkmen called “Rags, old iron!” as they sat atop creaky wagons pulled by tired-looking horses along the cinder alley, crunching through icy puddles. Cold or not, we kids would run to see if there was any scrap down in the basement to try to sell to him. But he never bought anything, just one of those disappointments of young life.

We’d grab our sleds and belly flop behind cars on the hard-packed snowy streets and catch rides by hanging onto their back bumpers. (Back when cars had bumpers worthy of the name.) When a car would slam to a stop, we’d risk being thrown underneath.

Bruce and I played football and baseball on the rutted, rocky field a block away. In the winter, he had more guts than I did, gearing himself up to play hockey up the street. They turned on the hydrant when the freeze hit, and a huge field froze solid. That’s where I drew the line.

It seems that it was down to zero every day. Jack Frost would paint the windows with bizarre shapes. For fun we’d go out to Palos Park, climb the toboggan slide, and steady the sleds for families. If there was a vacant spot, we’d get to climb on.

In those days, everyone heated by coal. When winter approached, my father would order a delivery, and on the appointed day, chunks would begin clunking into the basement from the back entry. It fell to Bruce and me to feed the monster-like furnace and bank it at night so there’d be heat on the frigid mornings. If we goofed, we’d all wake to a freezing house and have to work to get the fire going again.

The day we moved to a house with forced-air natural gas heat, I hugged my mom. Ah, the essential comforts of civilization.

On the other hand, my mother felt that it would be somehow morally wrong for me to laze around in bed on bitter winter mornings, so I had a paper route, trudging up the icy steps of apartment buildings to deliver them. It took longer than necessary because I’d usually sit down to read the paper. Already hooked, I guess.

Now, the wintry world of the Chicago I knew has disappeared in the misty decades, and I don’t know where they’ve gone.

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