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Frost Bites

We know you macho, just-gotta-learn-not-to-fight-it types are out there. We know you call toll-free snow-report lines to find out which slopes have the deepest base. We know you not only have a Ziploc full of Swix, you have all the colors. You own gaiters. In fact, you could host a Patagonia trunk show. You've shelled out for a phat Palmer board and some step-in Vans. Some of you have brains so warped by early exposure to subzero wind-chills that you actually count the days until you can pack your overswaddled, sniffling kids off on a sleigh ride like the one you think you remember fondly from childhood. We've seen you jogging around the lakes in tissue-thin reflective gear, sweat frozen in your nostril hairs.

And you know what else? We hate you. You can turn right now to page 23, where there are reams of listings devoted to events and activities that should keep you busy until tax day 2001, or whenever it is that the ice on the St. Croix finally breaks up.

The stories that follow, you see, are for the rest of us; glimpses into the lives of nine Twin Citians (two of them not even human) whose lives and livelihoods prove that winter is the cruelest season. Of course, there are other things normal folks can do to break up the monotony, like go to the theater. For that information, turn to page 36, where you'll find the most comprehensive preview of the season's plays, shows, concerts, readings, and arts events.

Steven Lenhart, Lockmaster

 

Stephen Lenhart's office is a small, spare room, furnished only with a metal desk, a few chairs, and some file cabinets. The walls are covered with aquamarine tile--the type you might find in a locker room from a 1960s YMCA. All in all, Lenhart admits, it is unremarkable. "But I do have a pretty good view," he says, as he steps out onto the concrete observation deck at the Upper St. Anthony Falls Lock and Dam. It is mid-November now; ice has yet to form on the Mississippi. But it feels like winter--raw and gusty. The sounds of traffic from nearby downtown Minneapolis are barely audible above a flock of squawking seagulls and the steady roar of the water rushing over the concrete-capped spillway of the falls.

Lenhart has spent 23 years working on the river, the last three as the lockmaster at Upper St. Anthony, the northernmost of the 29 locks the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers maintains along the Mississippi. Although it is near the end of the shipping season, a few stragglers are still wending their way to the river's commercial terminus, the Port of Minneapolis. "We'll stay open until December 2, but then we gotta close down and do maintenance," Lenhart explains, as a northbound tug, pushing two barges laden with scrap steel, sounds its horn. The three vessels squeeze into the 400-foot-long concrete lock chamber, the enormous, fortresslike gates on the downstream side swing shut, and then the water begins to rise. The ascent--at 50 feet, the steepest on the river--seems impossibly smooth and quiet, a marvel of industrial-age engineering that, Lenhart says with a note of pride, seldom breaks down and doesn't require a single computer to operate.

Most of the year, Lenhart can gloat about the virtues of his job. As a matter of course, he spends much of his workday both outdoors and near water. "Now and then I go over to the district offices in St. Paul, and everybody is stuck in their little cubicles, shuffling paper, and I think, 'How do these people live like this?'" he says, smiling amiably. During the height of shipping season, Lenhart and his 12-man crew fill and drain the lock up to 20 times a shift--barges, pleasure boats, even canoes pass through. Come winter, though, about half the staff is laid off. The rest, including Lenhart, carry out the routine maintenance on the subterranean network of hydraulic valves and tunnels that fill and empty the lock. "It can get pretty harsh," he says of the work. "We go down in these pits, and it's cold and dark, and sometimes you're working with electricity and standing in a puddle of water. You've got to be careful."

Like most of the other employees at the Upper St. Anthony Falls, Lenhart, 52, is a veteran of the armed forces, having served four years on a navy aircraft carrier during the Vietnam War. That experience, however, hasn't hardened him to one of the few unpleasant realities of his job. "A lot of debris comes through the locks, especially after summer storms," he explains, and then points to a pool 50 or so feet straight down, a frothing area of backwash between the dam and the lock. That, he says, is where stuff usually winds up. "We usually get three or four bodies a year--murder victims, people who drown, jumpers, whatever. We've had three this year. Last year we had five," he says. "You never get used to it." In the winter, he says, the river seldom surrenders any dead. Maybe fewer people choose to end their lives by leaping from bridges in the winter. Maybe evildoers dump their victims in different locales. Or maybe the cold water just keeps the corpses from surfacing. Whatever the reason, Lenhart says, winter is not without its advantages. (Mike Mosedale)  

 

 

Bill Spencer, grounds manager at Lakewood Cemetery

 

On a brisk, sunny day just on the edge of winter, Lakewood Cemetery is all serenity and solace, a haven in which to contemplate the mysteries of life and death. And as these heavy thoughts descend upon the mind, one must wonder: What philosophies of our impermanence on this earth has Bill Spencer developed through the years? What melancholic thoughts must plague his mind as he prepares the ground to receive yet another departed soul?

"It's not personal," he rumbles as he glances down today's burial list, "We're just digging a hole in the ground."

Spencer doesn't get particularly mushy about death. After all, during his 35 years at Lakewood, death has kept him in steady work: He's done just about every job, working his way up to grounds manager. As he makes his daily rounds in his van, Spencer monitors the cars winding around the cemetery road. "You have to watch out for drivers," he comments gruffly from behind thick, tinted glasses. "They think once they're off the streets they don't have to obey traffic laws, that they can go wherever they want to."

While death may not be very momentous for someone whose workplace is a graveyard, it can be a trial to work with in the winter elements. Burial takes harder work--and heavier hardware--than in other seasons. Back before there was equipment capable of digging through frost-encrusted earth, cemeteries stored bodies during the winter months (Lakewood's storage area held 300 to 400 corpses). These days, by state law, cemeteries must offer winter burial. As can be expected, most families choose to bury their dearly departed right away.

So every year Spencer and his crew haul out the unwieldy winter equipment, composed chiefly of the two pieces kept in the cemetery's shed. The "Frost Hook," a cranelike structure with a powerful metal claw, will slice, tear, gnaw, and gash out a resting place of eternal peace in less than 45 minutes. A similar contraption has a concave, coffin-lid-shaped metal beam, heated by a torch connected to the rear of the machine. The groundskeepers fondly call it the "Hood"; it is used on the double-depth graves (those with multiple "inhabitants") in place of the Frost Hook to ensure that the previously interred are not, uh...

"Torn through," as Spencer explains. "You just fire it up and let it sit overnight over the gravesite, and after 12 to 14 hours you can dig with a backhoe."

With all the work and equipment involved in winter burial, a completed job is understandably a relief. But there are times when the job isn't as final as the crew would hope.

"Sometimes the relatives don't think the person is buried in the right place, and we have to prove to them that they are," Spencer says with slight hesitancy in his steadfast rasp.

Which means?

"Occasionally we have to re-dig (the grave) and show them." (Julie Madsen)

Thomas Scaramuzzo, snow fighter

 

Thomas Scaramuzzo is a snow fighter. On this November day he is engaged in his first significant battle of the season. Two inches of snow fell overnight, enough to potentially turn the morning commute into a chaotic adventure for drivers with dim memories of how to navigate icy roads.

Fifteen of Scaramuzzo's trucks have been on the streets of St. Paul throughout the night dispensing sand and salt in an effort to ameliorate the slippery conditions. He's already been on the horn this morning ordering more anti-icing supplies, all the time keeping an eye on the weather radar in search of future trouble spots. "I have got to be focused and continually adjusting to changing conditions," says Scaramuzzo, a stocky, curly-haired, 47-year-old veteran civil servant. "Not only dealing with what currently is a problem, but anticipating the manpower and equipment needs of the next shift and the day after."

Scaramuzzo's official title within the St. Paul city bureaucracy is "Public Works Supervisor III." But for all intents and purposes, he is a snow fighter. For ten years he has been in charge of acquiring and dispersing thousands of tons of salt, sand, and liquid magnesium chloride in an attempt to keep the streets of St. Paul safe from frost, ice, and snow. Scaramuzzo proudly notes that in five of the past ten years he has attended the North American Snow Conference. He has received training in coping with natural disasters from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.  

Scaramuzzo knows snow.

On the grounds of the North Dale Street public works complex are the detritus of the snow-fighting trade. A massive wooden shed houses white mountains of salt, 1,000 tons or more. Also scattered about are 30-or-so-foot-high piles of sand waiting to be scooped up. Sand is cheap to acquire, but it has the downside of being insoluble. At some point, Scaramuzzo's unit will have to return to the streets to pick it up. "As soon as weather conditions allow, we're going to be out there sweeping the streets clean again." he notes.

During an average winter, the Twin Cities receives about 50 inches of snow. To battle this foe, Scaramuzzo expects to use approximately 20,000 tons of salt, 10,000 gallons of magnesium chloride--mainly used on bridges to combat frost--and 10,000 to 15,000 tons of sand--depending on how much it snows and how often. "Four ten-inch snowfalls are a lot easier to deal with than forty one-inch snowfalls," Scaramuzzo observes.

Also on the grounds of the public works complex is an immense brick of soggy leaves, a testament to the city's recent street sweeps. This part of the job, however, obviously pales in comparison to fighting snow in Scaramuzzo's mind. "While we certainly want to have clean streets, the ramifications are much more serious with ice control," he says. "If we're not doing our jobs, people get hurt." (Paul Demko)

 

 

Dan Bourgeois, Zamboni driver

 

With a top speed of 12 mph and the cornering ability of a three-legged hippopotamus, a Zamboni isn't considered a high-performance vehicle by most people's standards. But most people aren't Dan Bourgeois, who for more than a quarter of a century has driven and cared for Zambonis, and who, during that tenure, has developed a keen appreciation for the machine's happy marriage of form and function.

On a typical morning Bourgeois is ambling through the tunnels beneath Mariucci Ice Arena, where the rink's two Zambonis are stabled. He is, in appearance, the human opposite of his 6,500-pound charges: a gruff, rumpled man with skin chapped from the cold, dry air inside the arena. Bourgeois's uniform is a blue jumpsuit emblazoned with "Dan" and "Icemaker" over the left and right breast pocket, respectively. Though he says that he fell into the job by mistake--he was a logistics major at the University of Minnesota after serving as a helicopter-rescue crewman in Vietnam--he also figures that "Lead Icemaker" is an ideal position for someone who enjoys machinery and solitude. "I suppose it was a comfortable environment," he explains. "Working alone is the biggest thing."

Because the recipe for ice is fairly simple (add one part oxygen, two parts hydrogen; apply cold), you might also think that Bourgeois's job is a simple one. But to properly groom water in its solid form, one must develop an intimate knowledge of the medium, as well as a symbiotic partnership with the Zamboni. "The skill or art of driving the machine," Bourgeois explains, "is using it according to the conditions. You have to learn how to read the ice."

The iceman leads the way to a bay in Mariucci's empty guts, where he begins what he calls a "pointy-talky," explaining, as he points and talks, the machine's inner workings in exacting detail. Powered by a 1.8-liter, 4-cylinder engine and equipped with liquid-cooled hydraulic lifters, the Zamboni's 77-inch blade scrapes across the surface of the ice. While a vertical auger spits the collected shards into a 100-cubic-foot storage box, Bourgeois explains, water sprays from a 273-liter storage tank to smooth the ice's surface. Bourgeois climbs into the driver's seat and starts the engine. The hydraulic pumps open the jawlike box at the machine's prow, and for a moment the Zamboni appears to be growling.

Bourgeois's interest in Frank J. Zamboni's brainchild--invented 51 years ago--extends beyond its various ice-related functions, however, and he has recently embarked on a project that, when finished, will introduce the humble machine to a new arena. For the past few months, he explains, he has been working on a secondhand Zamboni at his in-laws' farm near Mankato, replacing the chassis with that of a pickup truck and installing a 350-horsepower engine. Though he estimates that it will take at least five years to finish, he figures that when his dream machine is assembled, it should top 90 mph. He has even picked a name: the Cold Rod.  

Not surprisingly, the Department of Motor Vehicles has yet to approve a tricked-out ice-making machine for highway transit. Bourgeois's wife, too, remains nonplussed. "Let's just say she's amused at this point," he grins sheepishly before heading back to work in the quiet warren beneath the ice. (Peter Ritter)

 

 

Dr. Marla Spivak, entomologist

 

Dr. Marla Spivak has unintentionally made herself a target. Wearing black, she scans the snow-covered bee yard for just the right hive. Research scientist Gary Reuter is shivering at her side, holding a tall metal can from which wisps of acrid smoke--meant to keep the bees at bay--are escaping. They decide on a hive near the back and Spivak gently lifts the flimsy cardboard cover revealing a stack of wooden boxes painted pink. "I forgot I was doing this today and I wore black," she explains picking at the sleeve of her baggy fleece coat. "Bees see black, especially if it's kind of fuzzy material like my jacket, and they think you are a predator, like a bear."

Slowly Spivak, an associate professor of entomology at the University of Minnesota, leans her head down close to the top of the hive. "Listen," she says smiling. "You can hear them buzzing in there." Reuter helps her lift the top box off of the stack. No bees. They remove the next one and there they are, clustered together in a dark brown circle the size of a large pizza. The group is in constant motion as those on the outside rotate into the warm center and back out again. Some of the older bees won't survive this cold.

"They're shivering to keep warm," Spivak says, placing her bare hand on top of the pile. "You can feel the heat coming off them." Bees crawl up onto her hand and coat sleeve. She picks a few off, holding them between finger and thumb and returning them to the pile. If the bees see the professor as a scary black bear, it doesn't show.

Spivak has been teaching entomology at the university for eight years. Most of her students want to do research or teach. Like farming, keeping bees to produce honey just isn't profitable anymore, she explains. It's a labor of love. "When I was a kid in college, about 18 or so, I just happened to go to the library and pick up a book on bees and that was it. I knew what I wanted to do."

She's glad to see that the bees are still in the lower portion of the hive. "We leave honey in there for them to eat during the winter," Spivak explains. "They eat from the bottom up. If they were any higher this early in the year we would worry that they would get hungry before spring."

The only trouble with all that eating is having to go to the bathroom. "Bees can't defecate in the hive," Spivak says. "They don't want to soil their nests, so they'll hold it all winter. It's not easy, but they can do it, because their rectums can swell to about the size of their bodies." (Meleah Maynard)

 

 

Scotty, earless cat

 

Growing up in Minnesota, we hear many a winter horror story about human idiocy--of kids' tongues congealed to street signs, of well-intentioned husbands lost in a blizzard, frozen to death between the garage and the back door. But bad-luck tales involving animals are the worst, because of the implicit innocence of the subjects who suffer for their owners' ignorance.

As a child, I remember hearing the whispered tale of a neighbor's ill-fated cat, who insisted, as only cats will, on stepping outside on a subzero day. After a spell out of doors, the cat returned to the house, whereupon the smallest human member of the household bent to welcome the kitty with a pat on the head. With this touch, the unfortunate feline's frosted ears fell off its head.

This scenario is not uncommon, says Dr. Michael McMenomy of the Kitty Klinic in Minneapolis. Cats' soft outer ear flaps are made up mostly of nerves, blood vessels, and cartilage, and they certainly can freeze--and fall off. "The blood supply is destroyed and the tissue just gets stiff like cardboard," McMenomy says.

If the ears are gone, there's no chance for reattachment. "Once the tissue is dead, it's gone," McMenomy says. "There's no gangrene," he continues. "I've never seen infection. I've never even seen [a cat] in pain because of it. They don't miss it."

This ear-detachment only transpires after repeated freezings and thawings, so it probably didn't happen suddenly, as was originally related about the neighbor's cat. Maybe it didn't happen to the neighbor's cat at all. Whether Northern urban myth or truth, since childhood I've refrained from petting cold cats in the winter. (Catherine Clements)  

 

 

Paul Coleman, impound lot driver

 

Nothing about the Minneapolis Impound Lot encourages repeat business. There are no benches in the dreary lobby where you pay to retrieve your towed vehicle. There are no seats in the cold room where you wait for a van to take you to your involuntary parking spot. As prominent signs remind you, the premises are under constant video surveillance. This is a prison, after all--a prison for cars. But if the city employees behind the bulletproof glass have only marginally better people skills than their private-sector counterparts (who, honestly, seem to spend too much time around attack dogs), the van drivers are a different story. These guys--both full-time drivers are guys--seem nice. Maybe they have to be. They're vulnerable.

"A guy took a swing at me once," says Paul Coleman, a scruffily handsome 30-year-old who has worked as an "escorter" for the past year. "If people are being extremely rude, I just tell them, 'I'm not your enemy.' When I first started working here, I started drinking a lot more from the stress."

Coleman says he was recruited for the job for being "good with people." But his warm smile--bright against caramel skin--belies a suitably firm manner. "You can tell right away, when they slam the door, if people are extremely angry. I've been called every name in the book. I'd say maybe ten percent of the vehicles are in there for the wrong reasons--police harassment, racial profiling."

Coleman adds he is not "anti-cop." An African-American Chicago native who used to spend a lot of time with local antiracist skinheads the Baldies, Coleman laughs that his best friends now are retired policemen. "It's mostly rookies that are the problem," he says. "I once asked for directions and almost got arrested."

Coleman can hardly be blamed for seeing few upsides to his social complaint-box on wheels. But there are some. "I've had a few women try to pick me up," he smiles. And old friends, lost to the years, occasionally climb into his cab. Everyone eventually comes through the impound lot, he says. And often under the worst circumstances: Coleman has driven weeping loved ones to cars involved in fatal accidents. He guesses that nearly a third of the vehicles go unclaimed, most of them caught up in legal actions.

At least the everyday abuse can be comic. "I had an 87-year-old lady call me a cocksucker," he laughs. "Can you write that? I thought there was a little-old-lady law where when you reach a certain age you can't say things like that. She was racist too: She wanted me to open the door for her like a chauffeur. And I was like, 'Ma'am, if you're waiting for me to do that, you're going to be standing there a long time.'" (Peter S. Scholtes)

 

 

Lt. Ken Schilling, cold-water rescuer

 

On a recent winter morning, Lt. Ken Schilling is getting ready to demonstrate one of his "Mustangs," sleek, yellow cold-water immersion suits. As head of the Hennepin County Sheriff's Water Patrol, Schilling and his deputies use the suits for cold-water rescues, fishing people who have gone through thin ice out of lakes and rivers. They just bought the Mustangs to replace their old, bulky orange "Gumby" suits, which sometimes took in freezing water.

Schilling is showing off the suits in the water patrol's immaculate garage off County Road 15 on the shores of Lake Minnetonka. Four brown Chevy Suburbans emblazoned with the sheriff's logo stand at the ready while a mechanic tweaks the engines of four purple Polaris snowmobiles. Behind Schilling, deputies Rick Waldon and Kent Vnuk pump air into something the rescue guys call the Zodiac--a small raft with a 25-horse Mercury outboard that scurries with equal ease over water or ice. The Zodiac must be inflated in several small sections, to insure that the air inside won't compress too much in freezing weather.

Schilling and Waldon have nominated Vnuk, who just joined the water patrol over the summer, as the luckless soul who should remove his snow boots, don the Mustang, and take the plunge. Vnuk appears completely unfazed as Schilling fits him with a safety rope. "I was in here testing the ice and the suit last night," Vnuk says, bouncing up and down on the balls of his feet. "It's frozen over thicker now, so I'll have to go out deeper." About 20 yards from shore, the deputy hops up and down about three times before he finally crashes through. He splashes around like a kid for a few minutes, then pulls himself out of the hole with the ice awls--sawed-off broomsticks with spikes on the end that rescuers use to pull themselves onto the ice--that were attached to the front of his Mustang. He slides toward shore on his belly.  

Fear has no place out there on thin ice. Whenever Schilling's on a cold-water rescue, his mind races through questions: Where's the hole in the ice? What's in the way? How do we get out there? Then it's on to the logistics of getting the equipment in order: Is the ice thick enough to sprint across? Where are the safety ropes and ice awls? And where is that damn helicopter? "There's very little information you get when the call comes in saying a person has gone through the ice," says Schilling, a stout man with a mustache that matches his sandy-brown hair. "You are thinking about that person, getting to the person. There's a certain amount of risk, but you want to keep everyone out of harm's way. Mostly you are just powered by adrenaline--a lot of adrenaline. But you must stay focused.

"Just putting on the suit and slithering on your belly across the ice can be exhausting," he continues. "And the ice is shifting and cracking beneath you. You just assure the victim that help is on the way."

Rescuers can be on the scene within minutes of receiving a call, but it only takes about 15 minutes for hypothermia to kick in. In the summer, water patrol officers can sometimes talk a person through a rescue, but not so in the winter. "Then we are dealing with an altered state of consciousness," he explains. "They may have a severe loss of motor skills, they may be unaware of who we are, and we have no choice but to really go in the water after them."

While there are roughly 15 to 17 water fatalities in Hennepin County annually, Schilling notes that only one or two per year are related to snowmobiling. One rescue a few years back was particularly gruesome. "It was a couple of 17-year-old kids who had been snowmobiling earlier in the evening, so we knew we might be dealing with a fatality," he recalls. "We get to the general area and see the trail and it just stops. All we saw were the helmets on the ice." Schilling rues those days--when a rescue becomes a body recovery. "It's always a great feeling when you have a successful rescue, but I can't even give you an estimate on the number of dead bodies I've seen over the years," he says, shaking his head. "I don't even like to think about it." (G.R. Anderson Jr.)


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