Thursday, January 9, 2014

Cicero and Celsius

This past week has seen some schizophrenic weather in the Northern Hemisphere. If the “Polar Vortex” wasn’t a thing before, it certainly is now after pushing brutally cold air in the US further south than it has been in twenty years.

Meanwhile here in Helsinki, we’ve had only one small snowfall, which quickly disappeared, leaving us in the darkest part of the year with nothing white on the ground, a phenomenon I have not seen in the 29 winters I’ve lived here. It’s plain freakish. Last year this time, there was at least a foot of snow in our front yard.

The contrast is remarkable. On Tuesday, while it was a soppy wet day above freezing here in Helsinki, back in Georgia my hometown was crackling under lows of -18 C, one of those important benchmark temperatures for Americans.

Minus 18 Celsius happens to be roughly zero degrees Fahrenheit, a little bit of conversion trivia I always associate with a particularly miserable night a long time ago.

Back in high school and college, I did a fair amount of hiking and camping in the Southern Appalachian Mountains where I grew up. As we became more experienced, my hiking buddies and I graduated from venturing out only in the warm summer months to doing trips also in spring and autumn, and finally in winter, which is actually a great time of the year to go camping, if you’ve got the right equipment.

I took one such trip with my brother in 1976 just before Christmas. We traveled to a range of high peaks in North Carolina to spend a few days walking in Shining Rock Wilderness, one of the original areas of mostly untamed wildland set aside for protection by the federal government.

The area gets its name from the mountaintop outcrops of white quartzite rock can be seen from miles away. My brother and I camped in a gap just below these rock formations, after a fairly short hike with stunning views along the back of an open 6000-foot-high ridge. (Rare for the Southeast, a large swath of these peaks are treeless due to fire and over-logging some 100 years ago.)

The first night wasn’t too cold, maybe not even below freezing, despite the fact we were camping at around 5770 feet (over 1750m), basically a mile high. The following afternoon, as we explored and scrambled around on the rock outcrops above our camp, a cold front rushed in, pelting us with sleet. During the night, the temperature plunged, in fact, down to zero.

We had a thermometer with us, one especially made for camping. Keep in mind, this was long before there was a digital anything, so this was a classic glass thermometer, housed in an alloy sheath to protect it from breaking. I think we had ordered it from REI in Seattle. It wasn’t something you’d find in typical sporting goods stores in Georgia. The only problem was that, for some reason, the one we got was in Celsius. Maybe it was made in Europe.

Luckily, my brother and I still remembered enough of our chemistry classes to recall the formula for converting temperatures in Celsius (x°F = (y°C * 1.8) - 32).

It was a long, miserable night. We weren’t really worried about freezing to death (or so I recall) or anything like that, since we had good, down sleeping bags and probably enough clothes to put on, if needed.

In fact, I don’t remember being all that cold, totally encased as I was in my mummy-style bag with only my face partly exposed to the frigid air, but it was still impossible to sleep. For the entire night, the vapor from our breathing froze instantly on the inside walls of the tent, forming a thin layer of ice that was constantly shaken loose to rain down on us as tiny flakes as the wind thrashed the tent without ceasing. All night long, the miniature snowfall on our faces, plus the loud and constant battering the tent by the gale outside, did not allow any sleep.

We spent the night trying to doze between checking the thermometer and converting the temperature in our heads into a familiar Fahrenheit number that might tell us how close we were to possibly dying before daybreak. To this day, when it comes to temperature, it still sticks in mind that -18 equals zero.

Not that this was the only time we experienced such frigid air in the South. When I was growing up, my hometown was hit at least a few times with something like a Polar Vortex. Once was when I was working at the gas station my father ran at the time (pumping gas at zero Fahrenheit – now there’s some fun!). I remember my father, commenting on the exceptionally cold weather that morning, announced to the staff (that is, one or two young guys, not much older than me and just out of high school):  “It looks like it’s gonna get down to Cicero today.”

In response to the funny looks from his young employees, my father explained that by “Cicero” he meant “zero”. They laughed, not believing for a moment that he hadn’t just made that up on the spot. 

Not five minutes later, a customer walked in, an old-timer like my father, and by “old-timer”, I mean a guy maybe 50 something. Shivering from the cold, he promptly exclaimed to everyone, “Boy, feels like it’s Cicero out there.”

The young guys were dumbfounded.

Cicero? No doubt it’s only the similarity of sound that led to the name of one of Rome’s greatest orators becoming obscure hillbilly slang for “-18 Celsius”. 

After that cold morning at the service station, I probably never ever heard it used. But then again, this week notwithstanding, it rarely gets down to Cicero in Georgia.