Constable: Remember January 1982? Winter gripes drift to fond memories

  • We complain mightily about snow and cold, but years later we brag about it. This trio tries to keep comfortable in unmatched cold in January 1982. But that record of 26 below fell just a few years later.

    We complain mightily about snow and cold, but years later we brag about it. This trio tries to keep comfortable in unmatched cold in January 1982. But that record of 26 below fell just a few years later. Daily Herald File Photos

  • Somewhere under that blowing snow is Bill Martinez pushing the snowblower to clear off a sidewalk Monday in a shopping complex in Arlington Heights.

      Somewhere under that blowing snow is Bill Martinez pushing the snowblower to clear off a sidewalk Monday in a shopping complex in Arlington Heights. Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

 
 
Posted1/29/2019 5:33 AM
We'll gripe about #PolarVortex2019, but we'll proudly tout our past horror stories, like the Januarys of 1982, 1985 ... @BurtConstable

If Chicago winters were on trial, this week would be the prosecutor's closing argument.

"Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I present to you victims crippled by Monday's 8 inches of snow, whipped by 35-mph winds, just in time for the soul-crushing commute. Not content with that heinous act and the misery it creates, Chicago winter follows that up with today's subzero temperatures and a windchill of 55 below. If that isn't a crime, I don't know what is."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Guilty as charged.

We complain mightily about the cold and snow, with social media giving us the outlet to share stories of our winter woes with a wider audience. But years later, we brag about it. Besides, as nasty as it seems today, we've seen worse.

On Jan. 10, 1982, because my Renault Le Car started when other reporters were stuck at home, I got the opportunity to write the "Coldest day ever" front-page weather story.

"The coldest day in Chicago area history made a winter wasteland of the Northwest suburbs Sunday. Fires, broken water lines, power outages, traffic accidents, stalled cars and frostbite were among the problems caused by the arctic conditions," I wrote, taking notes in pencil because the ink in all my pens froze. The temperature was 26 degrees below zero, and, using the dubious calculations of the time, meteorologists set the windchill at an unimaginable 81 degrees below zero.

The previous record low temperature of 23 degrees below zero was set Dec. 24, 1872, so I figured my story could last for another century or two. Instead, my chance at immortality didn't last as long as my Le Car.

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Three years later, on Jan. 20, 1985, other reporters got the honor of writing about Chicago's coldest ever 27-below.

But I can boast (admit) to being in the crowd with my girlfriend (now wife) on Jan. 27, 1986, when a couple hundred thousand people lined the streets to watch the parade honoring the Super Bowl Champion Chicago Bears, who shunned 30 open convertibles to sit comfortably inside enclosed buses. The temperature was a tolerable zero, but a whipping wind made it feel like 30 degrees below zero.

Did these stalled cars on a day when temperatures plunged to 26 below in January 1982 result in epic tales that their owners are still telling today?
Did these stalled cars on a day when temperatures plunged to 26 below in January 1982 result in epic tales that their owners are still telling today? - Daily Herald File Photos

During my freshman year of college, when I walked to classes battered by wind off the lake, Chicago recorded 43 consecutive days when the temperature never got above freezing. This week's snow is nothing compared to January 1979, when a New Year's Eve blizzard started us out with a blanket of at least 8 inches of snow, which stayed put, growing harder and grayer. Fresh snow started falling on the night of Jan. 12 and didn't stop until just before sunrise on Jan. 14 when it upped the total to 18.8 inches. Before it started drifting.

And nearly half the days in snowy January 1979 recorded a temperature of zero or colder. The total snowfall for that winter was 89.7 inches, making it our snowiest in recorded history. Students walked around the campus in puffy down coats, hats and scarves, leaving only the space between the eyebrows and the lower eye lashes exposed. I was unable to tell if the person approaching me on the tiny path bordered by walls of snow was that cute student from history class, the guy who worked beside me in the dining hall basement dish room or the Michelin Man.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 
As nasty as it seems today, we've seen worse, says Burt Constable, who recalls reporting on one of the Chicago area's coldest days.
As nasty as it seems today, we've seen worse, says Burt Constable, who recalls reporting on one of the Chicago area's coldest days. - Daily Herald File Photos

Fortunately, we all owned the right winter gear because we had fresh memories of Chicago's second-snowiest winter, which came the year before with 82.3 inches.

What was the worst soon gives way to a new worst. We castigate conditions, only to see those details become part of the stories we can't wait to tell. I'm writing this column before my long, cold, snowy commute home, so I can't say for sure that I woke up this morning with another good Chicago winter memory. But last night, my wife and I took my mom out to dinner for her 92nd birthday, and I know she has stories from that blizzard of 1967.

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