The dangers of being too cool

Posted Jan. 16, 2009, at 7:44 p.m.

The television reporter standing on the street of a Midwestern city was reporting on the early hours of the cold snap that would come to torment much of the country for too many days.

The temperature was way down to 10 degrees and predictions were that it might plunge as low as zero overnight, she excitedly declared. One could almost see the frozen exclamation points suspended in the frigid air at the end of each sentence.

Since the temperature outside my kitchen window was roughly four clapboards below zero at the time — without the infamous wind chill factor that serves mainly to scare the hell out of people — I was sitting here wondering how on earth those poor goobers in the Midwestern city could be expected to cope with the looming zero-degree temperatures.

Truth be known, of course, the average Midwesterner was likely chuckling at the aforementioned extravagant television report of relatively balmy low-digit temperatures every bit as much as his northern New England counterpart. Each species is acquainted with real cold, and zero degrees does not qualify.

It appeared that the reporter had the misfortune of being assigned to hype the cold wave before it was hypeworthy. A couple of days later, her frozen exclamation points would become legit, as serious subzero temperatures — no laughing matter for man or beast — descended upon her Midwestern city and spread eastward.

By yesterday morning, temperatures in some areas here in the northland had nudged 40-below zero, or lower, matching those recorded earlier in the west — dues we pay for the privilege of living where we do. Television Weather Guy has promised relief by the start of the week, by which time 20-degree temps will seem like 70 degrees.

Unless I miss my guess, 20-degree temperatures will compel hordes of college kids to traipse across campus dressed in Bermuda shorts and dubious footwear on their way to class, an indication that all is right with the world again.

Surely I jest, you say? If school is in session the next time the temperature is in the 20-degree range and the north wind is whipping snow about, take a tour of most any Maine college campus. If you don’t spot at least one kid trudging onward in shorts and hoodie sweat shirt, cell phone glued to one ear and book bag slung over his shoulder, you obviously are not paying attention.

The college kids, trying to be cool — and unwittingly succeeding in the original sense of the word, when cool meant lack of warmth rather than “fashionable” — are cousins to bare-armed football players trying to impress one another as to their toughness quotient when playing in weather such as that which presently besets us. When it comes to such things, machismo trumps common sense.

And it often seems to, as well, on the presidential inauguration platform in Washington, D.C., when a newly elected president takes the oath of office in lavish ceremonies such as those planned around Barack Obama’s coming-out party in Tuesday’s anticipated cold weather.

Presidents since World War II have seemed to tempt fate by taking the oath of office in dead of winter, often hatless and clad relatively lightly in order to appear fashionably hip. Each got away with being cool in the eyes of the electorate, although a mid-19th century predecessor was not so fortunate.

William Henry Harrison, inaugurated on March 4, 1841, as the nation’s ninth president, was, at 68, the oldest to be sworn in up to that time and eager to show that he was not the frail old woman his political foes portrayed him to be.

A macho dude in an era when to be so was even cooler than it is today, Harrison stood in the cold rain for two hours to deliver the longest inaugural address in American history. Then, still coatless, he rode off in the traditional post-inaugural parade and presumably partied into the night. Not surprisingly, he soon came down with a wicked cold, and exactly one month later died of pneumonia. So much for excessive masculine pride.

And so much, as well, for the inaugural speech too long by well over half.

BDN columnist Kent Ward lives in Limestone. Readers may reach him by e-mail at olddawg@bangordailynews.net.

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