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Bandicoots. blondes and Chicago's coldest day ever, by John McGauley

We’ve just been through a cold, bone-chilling week.

A few months ago, I mentioned in a column what I call “whopper-toppers,” where somebody one-ups your good story about climbing Mount Monadnock by expounding on their perilous slog up Mount Kilimanjaro, chased by a vicious herd of bandicoots. Hopefully, no readers know bandicoots are marsupials native only to Australia.

I’m going to do some whopper-topping now, and it’s mostly true. You know, these days truth is what we say it is, so I can proclaim this true. Mostly. There’s no way to fact-check it anyway, so what I say goes.

You think it was cold here this week? You think those big stories about how cold it was in Chicago this week were big news? Well, gather round the campfire children, wrap yourselves in wool blankets, and I’m going to tell you a tale about really cold weather. Cold like the old days, before global warming, before all you sissies talked about wind-chill factors.

It happened way back on Jan. 20, 1985, in Chicago. And for you, my children who have matriculated through some of our high schools and liberal arts colleges in the past decades, that was a couple of years after the end of World War II when Rosie the Riveter and the United States and Japan teamed up to defeat Germany.

I was working at the Chicago bureau of The Associated Press, the elite of the media, which back then was called “the press.” It was a Sunday. I was low man on the totem pole, so I had to work the early swing shift. At the door this tall, svelte blonde appeared. “Come on in, honey,” I said, because you could say “honey” back in those days. Does that sound noir enough? OK, there was no blonde, svelte or otherwise, and no door, either. But the rest is true.

The office in which I worked was on the 15th floor of an Art Deco skyscraper on Michigan Avenue that had been completed just before the Great Depression, shortly after the Civil War. Little did I realize that the building a block north of me, The Monadnock Building, was named for the territory in which I would in later years find myself living the life of a gentleman farmer and noted collector of medieval armor.

I’d awakened very early that morning, in my dingy apartment on the north side of Chicago, $100 a month and all the roaches I could kill. It was still dark. I smoked a cigarette, then made coffee in the percolator. I could tell it was cold outside; my furnace had croaked and there was a patina of ice in the toilet bowl. I cracked the ice with the plunger and threw my cigarette butt in there.

I knew I had to get to work, but I’d heard on the radio that the el wasn’t running, the switching tracks had frozen. Only a few buses were operating. But I had to get to work, I’d been warned that if I was a no-show one more time, my job would be on the line. I couldn’t afford that, rent was due and the roaches were scarce.

I searched my apartment floor for warm clothes. Two pairs of socks, a Chicago Bears watch cap, three sweaters, a couple pairs of pants, gloves, scarf, and a big hooded coat I’d gotten from the throw-away bin at Salvation Army. I shoved old newspapers in my tennis shoes.

The first whiff of air outside caused a coughing jag; it was that frigid. I walked three blocks and my eyelids froze; saliva and snot iced up around my nose and lips. No one else was outside except me.

I spotted a bus coming, but it wasn’t slowing down. I didn’t blame the driver, I wouldn’t want to open the door to anyone and let the precious heat escape. It buzzed right by me, a couple of the passengers gave me the look of “Sorry buddy, you’ll probably die out there.”

There were two cops in an idling car and I motioned for one of them to roll down his window. I asked if I could climb in the back seat to keep warm.

“Shove off,” he said, rolling the window back up.

Another bus came by, and emblazened on its front marquee was “NOT IN SERVICE.” But its driver stopped.

“Get on,” the driver said, “quick.”

I sat at the first seat, across from the driver.

“Any chance you can take me to work,” I asked.

She looked at me, with only a portion of her face showing, the rest covered by a Russian-style hat from the Siege of Leningrad. She was cute, the kind of gal I’d like to get to know, although I realized I was no prize with snot frozen to my face.

“Where you going?”

“Michigan and South Water.”

“That’s pretty far out of my way. But, there’s nobody out today, anyway, they’re not going to know where I’m driving this bus today.”

She took me as far as Lake and State. “Got to get back. Good luck,” she said.

I tried to slide her a fiver, but she refused. What an angel.

Ten minutes later, hands frozen numb, I was in the office. No one was there. Well, there was somebody, a photographer way in back. But he never talked to anybody.

There was a note for me on the news desk, in big block letters: “You’re it!”

I filed the story of the coldest day recorded in Chicago history. My fingers never did work right, so the story took me longer than I’d anticipated. Minus 28. Without a windchill. The records now say it was only minus 27, but my story said 1 degree colder because I was using recorded temperatures by Lake Michigan downtown. I smoked cigarettes and drank a lot of coffee.

No svelte blond ever showed up. Just a couple of ugly guys in big, ratty coats.

John McGauley, an author and radio talk show host, writes from Keene. He can be reached at mcgauleyink@gmail.com

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