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More Stories - The Way We Were
During my early teen years we lived in Lincoln, Nebraska in the next to last house on the outskirts of the city, backed up against great flat fields. It was a long trip home from school or downtown.
Sometimes early winter storms came blasting down from Canada almost before farmers' crops were harvested. Some years the first snow didn't arrive until Christmas or January, often foretelling a dry summer to follow. The first blizzard might start as a dust storm, turn to sleet and leave everything coated in mud, as happened our last winter in Nebraska. Mother packed endlessly inside while my Dad and I loaded an open truck, the car and a closed trailer with all our belongings. Storm warnings were out and we hoped to leave before it arrived, but didn't finish in time. Lacing a tarp over the truck, we went to sleep. A dust storm hit, turning to sleet and then back to plain wind. At dawn everything was covered with a thick dried coat of mud; it had blown its way into every crack and crevice of the truckload. We cleaned the vehicles' windows and grills and I finger-painted "Florida or Bust" through the dirt on both sides of the trailer.
A few hours out, as was usual in our family when it came to childhood diseases, we discovered that my six-year old brother Nathan Williamson, who we thought was cranky due to being uprooted, had actually come down with the mumps. This was especially stressful for my mother, bringing back unwanted memories. She had come down with the mumps during her second pregnancy when I was four years old, and as a result, the baby died. Nathan rode with my father in the truck cab, while I cared for the other two children as my mother drove the car and trailer, both of us hoping the others didn't get the mumps, too. It didn't rain or snow again as we limped south, arriving in Tampa looking and feeling sadly like distressed refugees from the 1930's dust bowl.
In between snowstorms in Nebraska, the temperature could warm just enough to turn everything to nasty, chilling slush. Before this could melt and run off, you could take bets it would freeze into a hidden hazard under the next layer of snow, waiting to sling the unwary off their feet (my wrist hurts again just remembering). Blizzards made traveling hazardous; whenever snow storms raged across the great plains of central USA with nearly hurricane force, visibility dropped to a few feet and the snow crystals could almost blast one's skin off. If the clouds cleared at night in the country, though, one could stand beneath the great silent bell-dome of the sky, lit with a million bright stars; the air being so cold, dry and crisp that one could imagine if the bell were struck, the very air would shatter into shards.
Although I haven't experienced a snowy winter for almost fifty years, viewing the news on television about great blizzards I can almost feel the cold again, the numbness of nose and toes, the ache in the eardrums when the wind blows and the smell of the clean winter air. Sometimes, I'm told, the Arctic wind blasts away the pollution, leaving the bright winter sky almost as transparent as it was when I was young.
Dark came early in the winter. I usually worked after school, and that meant a bus transfer downtown after nightfall, with the temperature dropping and the wind rising. I used to take shelter in a drugstore that boasted a huge magazine rack and a lunch counter where travelers, cold and tired, would be fortifying themselves for the trip home. Some would drink coffee, tea or hot chocolate, but many would order chili con carne, a specialty in wintertime. A packet of saltines was included, and if hungry and short of money, one could usually talk the waitress out of a second packet. Different styles of consumption were evident. Small children often were given oyster crackers and the chili became entertainment as well. Some diners ate the crackers out of hand along with the chili, some crumbled pieces discretely atop the dish, and a few noisily crumpled the whole packet and dumped it into their bowl, mashing and mixing to make a nasty-looking mess. But all ate it with gusto, taking peeks at each other's choices: the brotherhood of chili.
Maybe it's the calories or the warmth, or perhaps it's the chili peppers, but there's something about this humble dish that braces one for the cold and wet, and seems to repair one's weariness. Every time I serve it, I remember how good that hot, nourishing lunch-counter chili tasted on cold Nebraska evenings.
Winter is already fading again into the hope of spring, but sloppy, cold weather is still in store for a large part of the country. Chili can remain in style for a couple of months more. Try this recipe for Chili con Carne during the next cold spell. You'll see what I mean.