Jack Ohman

Baby, it’s cold outside ... but not in Sacramento

I hate to lecture Californians about winter. I really do, but will proceed to do so, for money. When I saw the story last week on sacbee.com about Dec. 11, 1932, being the coldest day in Sacramento history, 17 degrees above zero, I had to snort. A little.

I was born in St. Paul, Minn. St. Paul is cold. Like, dark-side-of-the moon-no-molecular-motion-deep-space cold. After we lived in St. Paul, we moved to Marquette, Mich., in 1962. For those of you unfamiliar with Marquette, it’s on Lake Superior, which frequently isn’t a lake as we know it. It’s like a giant blizzard machine set on high.

Many Californians aren’t familiar with the phrase “Alberta Clipper” or “Superplume,” which are weather systems associated with the Lake Effect in the Upper Midwest. Marquette is frequently at the tip of the Superplume, which made regular landfall at my house at 1018 Allouez Road. Marquette often sets the U.S. annual record for snowfall. People in tropical garden spots such as Cleveland and Buffalo think of themselves as the banana belt compared to Marquette.

Growing up in Minnesota and Michigan was a meteorological challenge every single day. In the spring and summer, it was death from above by tornadoes. From Nov. 1 to April 15 or so, anything could happen in terms of blizzards. I spent about a third of every summer hiding under a picnic table in the southeast corner of our basement avoiding tornadoes, which is kind of like hiding under a picnic table in the southeast corner of your basement if the then-Soviet Union dropped a 50-megaton warhead in front of your house. Parenthetically, in Michigan, we lived right by K.I. Sawyer Air Force Base, a B-52 unit.

My father, a scientist, used to tell me not to worry about nuclear war, because we would only see a blue flash, and that would be it.

Now go to sleep, son.

We never had the nuclear war, daytime high: 2 million degrees at ground zero, but we did have nuclear winter. Let me disabuse you of the notion that 17 degrees is cold.

I had a rule in Minnesota: I wouldn’t go skiing if it was 5 below zero. That’s not factoring in the wind chill, which no one I knew ever did. My friends went skiing in weather way colder than that. We had all sorts of ways to occupy our time in the Minnesota cold:

1. Eat scalding fried cheese things in bars.

2. Drive onto frozen lakes, drill holes into the ice, and pull small fish from the holes.

3. Groom each other’s mustaches and hair that had dramatic icicle formations.

4. Hope the Minnesota Vikings played the Los Angeles Rams and the San Diego Chargers in home games. We’d always win. We hated the Bears and the Packers because they were winterized.

5. Brag about our new snowblowers.

At 17 degrees, my reaction was, hey, the car is absolutely going to start. If your car started, that was a warm day. I had a headbolt heater, which you would plug into your garage power outlet to keep your battery warm. I never hear people talking about headbolt heaters in California.

I hear a lot of talk about pH levels in hot tubs. Or covering your lemons and oranges.

I grant you that 17 below zero is definitely, really, undeniably cold. I would certainly agree with that, but I experienced that temperature all the time. In fact, I have moved around in 35 below, which causes even hardy Minnesotans to remark about it. Not complain.


I once was in Chicago in January 1994 when they set the all-time record low: 20 below, not including wind chill. I had neglected to bring my lunar space suit from Oregon, and, of course, had no hat because I didn’t want to wreck my hair. I ran from doorway to doorway, covering my ears, shoving my hands back into my pocket, and then covering my ears again.

But my hair looked great.

Last week, in the category of I’ll Give You Something to Complain About With Reference to Cold Weather, the Earth set the record for lowest-ever recorded temperature: -136. Below. Zero. Fahrenheit. That’s 153 degrees colder that the all-time record Sacramento low.

That was in Antarctica, which is used to this sort of thing. You’re talking headbolt heaters, at the very least. And you better get the penguin bolt heaters fired up, too.

And you can kiss those lemons and oranges goodbye. That’s so cold, you may well welcome a nice incoming nuclear missile.

But watch out for skiing Minnesotans.