- Guy Martyr
COLD - 3 experiences of being cold, from my life
i) A Cold Day in Belgium
Mid winter; dad driving us to Switzerland to go skiing. The sixties. The car is a Jag, 3.8. Driving through Belgium, the car developed a fault: limped into the next village. Dad needed to jack the car up. On the edge of the road. Us 4 kids, my dad’s wife, waiting a while beside the car, while the quick job was done. Waiting. It’s always longer when you’re about 9. Cold. Cold pavement. Thin shoes. Sixties anoraks. Won’t be long. The cold slowly starts to seep through your shoe soles. Feet freezing. Can we sit in the car? No. Won’t be long. There’s a café over there . . . Shouldn’t be too much longer. Café will be too expensive. Then, I think, dad had to go and find a garage, for a spare part. More waiting. I can’t remember. All the walking up and down had been done, the scrunching toes to keep them warm, concentrating on the self, against cold entering from all directions, through thin garments, through hood, through floor. Can we go in the café? Sit in the car? No. Not yet. Not now. Won’t be too much longer. The spare part should be here shortly . . .
The day had not got off to a good start: off the ferry, into the Belgian countryside! Us 4 kids in the back, dropping off to sleep. Sudden jolt, waking up, dad! car slewing sideways, out of control, skidding on black ice, coming to rest safely, at the edge of the road.
“Everyone all right?” he asked.
ii) Whiteout on the Alps
On skiing holiday, early seventies, the Alps, in Italy, on the border with Switzerland, at the base of the Matterhorn. You can go up on a ski lift, then up and up, to a plateau, on the Swiss side, I think; ski up there, using ski lifts to take you back and forth, then ski back down to town on your side of the mountain.
Up we go, up and up. A long ski lift, then perhaps another, then a bit of a trek, to a top point, a café. Skis and skis are parked outside. Me, aged about 13, my dad, a brother or two. Bright blue sky. Cold. Swirly gusts of wind. Take the first ski run towards the Swiss side. Not too steep. Good for powder snow skiing, my dad’s dream. Look around you: mountains to left and right, up and back. A wilderness. A long way from down there, safety, home, anywhere. At the foot of the run, starting to get spread out: where’s dad? where’s everyone? The snow started coming in flurries, and a wind, so you couldn’t really hear. Visibility was becoming limited. I found my dad - a few mouthed words sounded something like “go back up on the ski lift.” On I got. All alone. The snow coming down in now complete whiteout. The wind blowing ice straight into my face. Ice into my frightened face. And it just got stronger, and stronger. I looked down, back, away, but couldn’t evade its reach. I started screaming. For what? At what? Saying what? I don’t know? Help? Deliverance? All utterings were carried away on the wind.
I made consideration: continue up into hell, or try going back down again? I let go the ski lift seat, and was on the slope, alone, whited-out, lost, 13. I reconsidered. Back up I decided. I looked towards the hardly visible ski lift. Not possible. I saw a form, a person: I grabbed them. “Zeilbahn? Zeilbahn bitte?” Nothing.
Freezing, white, nothing.
Something impelled me forward. Was that the dark shape of the café? Is this my father come to put an arm about me and guide me in.
“Where’ve you been? We’re all in the café . . .”
So, here I am, callow 18, at Nottingham University, and I’ve joined the OTC (Officer Training Corps). You drill one evening a week, and have occasional week-end camps, and a week-long summer camp. This was a week-end camp in Leek, Staffs, the dead of winter, cold cold concrete, and huts. We went for a hike - a tactical hike, with rifles, and rucksacks, webbing pouches. In those days, the late 70’s, the army marched on thin, poor-quality-leather boots, with no heed paid to water-proof tongues. Trousers were double thickness cotton. Issue socks were acrylic. The shirt was thick itchy wool, topped off with a ‘woolly pully’ and a cotton camouflage jacket. So: cold, wet feet, and sweating on top. And a nylon poncho. And green, acrylic gloves. So: the Staffordshire moors, above Leek, and it was chilly already. And you march along, and get sweaty, and you stop, and the sweat gets cold. It starts to snow. Hard. Stop. Put on the poncho. Somewhere under all of this the tactical aims, map reading, intelligence gathering, were getting lost. A gaggle of new university students, hardly hardened walkers, carrying weight, under various time pressures, trying to navigate, do things, on a heath, blasted by freezing wind, and ever heavier falling snow. “Stop to make tea” came the command. The thick cotton webbing material had shrunk in the wet, and couldn’t be made to release water bottles, or undone to obtain the small, tin, solid fuel burners, without the greatest difficulty by frozen fingers momentarily released from soaking wet gloves. Some of the directing staff maintained the proper cheerful military leadership, but people were being taken off in Landrovers.
At that point I thought it was the coldest I had ever been.