Former Notre Dame football coach Lou Holtz knew how to weave a folksy tale and use a pithy phrase. “Act like you’ve been there before,” Holtz told his gridiron flock when advising them how to control themselves when they scored a touchdown.
Those were wise words, Coach.
He was also known to tell audiences how Northern Indiana with its lake effect snow and six-month winters came to be a permanent home for the earliest settlers. As Holtz told it, as our Hoosier forebears travelled west, they encountered brutal winter weather and hunkered down until the weather improved. Then the punchline: The weather never improved, so the settlers settled here.
Having lived in South Bend, most of my life, I know what’s coming. That’s why five weeks ago on a warm early October afternoon, I started my fall routine. I took the hoses off the outside spigots, drained them, and stored them in the garage. I shut the outdoor water off. I turned the air conditioning power breaker off. I emptied the flower pots of flowers that had managed to survive a few close-to-freezing nights. I replaced the fabric weather mats in my car with the waterproof mats. I covered the outdoor gas grill. I put the storm windows down on my screened porch. I stored all the patio furniture inside. I got the snow shovels down from the garage rafters. I put the ice-melt near the garage door. I put all my shorts in storage and replaced them with long-sleeved shirts and thick socks.
It all seems nonsensical on warm fall days. And yet, experience tells me it’s much easier to get this preparation done in nice weather. Like Lou’s early settlers, my parents chose Northern Indiana as their home and they stuck it out for decades. Every winter, my dad put chains on his car tires, until they were outlawed. My mom rode the city buses to and from work for years. The commute involved four buses with transfers downtown to make a two-mile trip. I walked a mile to and from Riley High School for three years.
Then there is the annual ritual I call “The Leaf Challenge.” The City of South Bend announces a curbside leaf pickup schedule that they never can follow or complete. As the maple trees dump their foliage en masse in one early fall week, the oaks and the poplars cling onto their colors even through winds that take full branches down.
Many of my neighbors and their lawn services dump mountains of leaves into the streets, against city rules. Leaves raked in the street can clog sewers. But tree-lawn grass might die under the leaf mountains, and we all know a perfect lawn is the American Dream, rules be damned. Usually an early snow comes and the leaf mountains are encased in ice until the snowplows dislodge them.
Temperatures aren’t the only thing that fall around South Bend in autumn. It seems many area residents have perfectly healthy trees cut down around this time of year, perhaps so they don’t have to rake leaves. How incredibly short-sighted! Trees are homes to birds and animals, provide humans with cleaner air, and keep the areas they shade cooler in the summer. They also change the complexion of neighborhoods for the better.
Many cities are encouraging citizens to plant more trees. Allegedly, South Bend has been designated a Tree City. Where I live on the south side of South Bend, I’ve seen mature, healthy trees coming down by choice almost every day.
Growing up in Northern Indiana, I didn’t let winter bother me that much. I earned cash shoveling neighbors’ walks. The 1978 blizzard was especially lucrative. I enjoyed sledding and tubing at Rum Village, Erskine Golf Course, and Bendix Woods.
During the winter months, I used to walk around my childhood house in shorts and a T-shirt without a thought. My mom would shake her head in disbelief. “Aren’t you cold?” Something changed when childhood passed to adulthood.
Winter around these parts includes the joys of driving and walking on icy roads and sidewalks, snow-melt residue on the carpets, driveway aprons that are walled in by snow plows (usually immediately after they’ve been cleared), scraping car windshields, snowblowers that won’t start, dry skin, and days with so little sunshine that if you blink you’ll miss it. In general, winter makes life more difficult for everybody. The unhoused population is particularly at risk during winter.
So yes, I am a winter sissy. I would be fine with the weather we experience from mid-June through September year round. Admittedly, spring has its moments of colorful early growth. Fall has its shortening days of trees putting on their end-of-year golden and red finales. As for winter, I don’t have much nice to say about it.
Because of the Russian-caused war in Ukraine, the world faces a cold and expensive heating season. My cold weather complaints are trivial. I am fortunate enough to have the money to heat my home. I have the means to dress for the cold and mostly avoid it except for brief excursions. Ask my wife; it won’t stop me complaining about how cold I am.
So for my wife’s sanity and the sake of our brothers and sisters around the world, let’s all wish for a brief, mild winter.