From My Window… A big difference between cold and frigid temperatures

Listen to this post

Sean McMahon, Editor
Sean McMahon, Editor
Whew! That was one cold week we just went through and I would admit I was ill prepared.
Having come from Arizona, my car was the first of my concerns this week. I knew I needed to change oil from desert heat to mountain frigid, but I didn’t get it done in time. Oil and antifreeze weights and mixtures vary widely, but the procrastinator in me won out.
Getting up and getting to work by 8 a.m. on Thursday just didn’t happen. My vehicle, a Chrysler Sebring convertible, just kind of let out a small snicker and then was silent — until about 1 p.m., when the thermometer said it was still a frigid minus-six degrees.
On that second attempt, the car started right up, which means its tolerance might be about minus-eight, at best.
I want to avoid having to plug my car in at night.
That was the strangest thing I ever had seen when I moved to Worland, Wyo., in 1977.
Everyone was struggling to keep their cars within about 100 feet of their homes because they all had extension cords running from their kitchens out to their cars, which had all been fitted with oil pan heaters.
It seems these heaters keep your oil pan warm, which makes it much easier to start in the morning — particularly after those really cold streaks that bottomed out at 44 degrees below zero during the winter of 1978-79.
How is it I remember the exact year when it got that cold? Because winter hit Worland on New Year’s Eve on the last day of 1978.
I was driving a Ford Pinto. It had a plug-in oil pan heater, but I had to work from 2 p.m. to about 11 p.m. at the newspaper there. There were no plug-ins for the employees’ cars, but they were only parked about five feet from the building — which meant absolutely nothing when it came to the outside temperature.
I was supposed to get off at 11 p.m. and proceed immediately to the Worland Elks Lodge to meet my then-girlfriend (currently my wife) and we would enjoy ringing in the new year.
All went fairly well. I did leave work at 11, the car started right up as I drove all four blocks to the Elks Club, parked and went inside.
We rang in the new year with a bunch of friends and fellow Elks members until the bar closed down about 2 a.m.
My girlfriend had gotten a ride to the Elks, and I had all intentions of driving her home after the festivities winded down.
In incredibly bitter cold and wind, we walked about a block to where the Pinto was parked. We both got in and I turned the key. I heard a loud sound and the car felt like someone had just broadsided the car. It lurched it seems like about six inches, then all was silent.
We both looked outside and neither one of us had a clue as to what had just happened.
“OK,” I said to myself, “we are going to try this again.”
I did. Once. Twice. A third time.
I was getting the idea that the Pinto wasn’t going to start.
I got out of the car and opened the hood. It really wasn’t very comforting, but I knew immediately what had happened.
The aluminum block on that Pinto wasn’t strong enough. Actually it was quite brittle.
What I saw under the hood was the entire engine block split in half. It looked kind of like a long ice tray that someone had taken an axe to lengthwise.
I could literally see through where the engine block had been — all the way to the icy street below. The only thing visible in that wide open area was a group of wires that previously led somewhere. Most of them were just hanging there; a few were connected from one side to the other.
That was the last time I drove that car.
The next day I was the proud owner of a used Toyota Celica.
In the spring I moved to Rogers, Ark., and that job led to a promotion to managing editor of a weekly in Eureka Springs.
I made trips back and forth to Boulder that next year to join the family for Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Thanksgiving was a wonderful time with the family (no disasters this time), then Christmas rolled around and I was a bit dubious. The weather at Thanksgiving was in the 50s and 60, but before I left for Christmas I noticed that a major storm was forecast to hit Colorado on Dec. 27. No problem, I thought.
I got to Boulder on Dec. 24 and the weather was sunny, relatively warm, and it was a great time to go skiing on Christmas morning at Eldora Ski Area, about 45 minutes outside of Boulder.
A great morning of skiing was enjoyed and I returned to Boulder just an hour before the day’s feast. It was a great day, but the evening was ruined because it was already time to pack to head back to Arkansas.
I awakened to an overcast day; it was fairly warm and the sun would shine for a few minutes here and there. About 10 a.m., I started packing the car and an hour later I was on the road.
What I hadn’t done was keep track of the weather. If I had, I would have known that the major storm had speeded up and was supposed to move into Denver around noon that day instead of on the 27th.
Off I took with great haste, hoping to get ahead of the storm and sail all the way back to Arkansas. The reality was that it had started snowing just as I left the east side of Denver on Interstate 70.
It snowed. And it snowed. And it snowed harder.
It seems like I was the only one on the road and there was really no traffic. I kept heading east at a pretty good clip, but I couldn’t help but notice the snow increasing in intensity.
I had good tires, however, and really wasn’t worried.
I was approaching the town of Strasberg without any problems except poor visibility.
And you know, way back then, all of the Colorado Highway Patrol cars were white.
As I approached the Strasberg off-ramp with no intention of getting off the highway, I strained to see something strange in front of me.
It was a highway patrolman standing in the middle of my lane.
I noticed him, I am sure, less than 100 feet away and discerned that he was trying to wave me off at the exit.
I had a choice. I could run him over or I could crank my wheel right at about 60 miles per hour and shoot — hopefully there was time — up the off-ramp without shooting off the roadway into what was by now about 10 inches of snow.
I cranked right, but as soon as I got on the off-ramp, I plain and simply lost control of the vehicle. I did two 360s and one 180 on the ramp and came to rest with my car pointed straight down the ramp I had just come up.
No more sign of the highway patrolman, so I spent the next few minutes trying to clean the … oops … cobwebs out of my head. I got back into the car, turned it around and headed the rest of the way up the ramp and took a left into Strasberg, where I found the last hotel room in town.
I felt pretty lucky to have survived that entire ordeal and to have gotten the last hotel room.
It continued to snow all night in Strasberg, so after I walked about a half a block to the motel’s cafe, I went back to my room, watched TV and finally went to sleep — a little rattled by the day’s events but happy that I was comfy in a Strasberg motel.
Morning came soon enough. I got up slowly, got dressed eventually and walked cautiously to the cafe for breakfast or lunch only to find out that Interstate 70 was still closed and was supposed to remain closed that day and possibly into the next day.
I paid for another night in the hotel and did about as little as can be done on any given day in Strasberg — and that is a whole bunch of nothing.
I followed the previous day’s schedule except I did awaken fairly early. I figured I would get up, get packed, start the car and drive it over to the cafe, eat and then get out of town.
I got up, got packed and attempted to start the car. I had parked the car with the driver’s side catching the east-blowing wind, so I had to break the ice off the entire mechanism before I could insert the key.
That complete, the key still wouldn’t go in the keyhole.
I heated it a bit with a lighter, and that didn’t help. I heated it again and the key finally slipped all the way into the keyhole. But it wouldn’t turn and open.
I heated the key again and stuck it in the keyhole and tried to turn the key. The key made it about half way to unlocking the car when the button on the door shot out of its hole in the handle and shot about 20 feet across the parking lot, landing in a snowbank. It was just the button and some attached rod of metal that must have snapped when the heated key hit some part of the mechanism.
I spent about 20 minutes looking for the button in the snowbank. But that was an exercise in futility because not only wouldn’t the rod go back in the door, but the door button wasn’t even close to going back where it should have gone.
I went into the motel, ate my breakfast, paid my bill and got into my car. I entered through the passenger door, climbed over the console between the bucket seats and headed back to Eureka Springs.
Every time I had to stop and get out — for a restroom stop or for a meal, etc. — I climbed back and forth over the console and got out of the passenger side.
When I got back to Eureka Springs, the mechanics never did figure out how to get that door open without it costing more than the car was worth.
So I drove that car for two more years because I didn’t have the money to fix it or to pay it off and get a new vehicle.
I got pretty good at getting in and climbing over the console. The only real embarrassing time was when I went to pick up a date.
They always thought I was a gentleman because I would hurry up and open the door for them. But I did have to explain that I needed to get in first and climb over the console before they could get in.