Warm memories of a cold winter: Jan. 20, 1985, when D.C. felt the big chill

John Kelly
Columnist January 7

What’s the coldest I’ve ever been? Thank you for asking.

It was Jan. 20, 1985. I remember the date because it was Super Bowl XIX, and the Miami Dolphins were playing the San Francisco 49ers at Stanford Stadium.

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

I imagine it was pretty warm in California. It was not warm in Washington, where I was. The mercury climbed to only 27 degrees that Sunday. The low was 2 below zero. It was the kind of cold that took your breath away, kicked it in the groin, covered it in menthol shaving cream and then shoved it back in your throat.

At the time, I was living with my college roommate, Pat, in an apartment in Langley Park. Pat and I had a bit of a ritual: We would clean our apartment twice a year, whether it needed it or not. It always needed it.

Every time we cleaned it, we were so surprised at how nice the apartment looked that we would decide to show it off by throwing a party. That would wind up trashing the apartment, and we would wait six months to clean it again. It was not an ideal system, but it worked for us.

The problem with having a filthy apartment — I mean, aside from the filth itself — is that one is loath to invite the landlord in for a look-see, lest he discover the beer-can ziggurats and the great, moldering piles of Rice-A-Roni and decide that you are not an ideal tenant. That was why, after Pat accidentally disabled our refrigerator while defrosting the freezer compartment with an ice pick (the Trotsky method, we called it), we endured an entire summer of warm beer and sweating lunch meat. We didn’t want a repairman to see the Superfund site that we called home.

So it was with the months leading up to Jan. 20, 1985. The flat had descended into its usual chaotic state, as if thugs had been looking for something small and valuable and had decided to ransack the place in search of it, emptying drawers and overturning ashtrays. Why did we decide to finally clean the apartment? Why does the first swallow decide to return to San Juan Capistrano? Who knows? All I know is that Pat and I were simultaneously gripped by a cleaning frenzy, and when we were done — and it usually took us a couple of days — we surveyed our domain and said as one: “Party!” And then: “Super Bowl party!”

There was just one problem: Our radiators weren’t working.

We told ourselves they needed to be bled. We didn’t really know what that meant, but we knew we couldn’t do it ourselves. And we knew that our apartment had been so messy over the autumn and early winter — the radiators barely visible amid the drifting detritus — that it was in no shape for that repairman. True, we’d finally cleaned the flat, but there wasn’t time before the celebration to get the heat fixed.

Besides, wasn’t our apartment on the top floor of a three-story building? Although I was an English major and Pat was an RTVF major (radio, television and film; it used to be a thing), we understood that heat rises. Wouldn’t the warmth ascending from the apartments below keep us toasty? After all, that principle certainly applied every August, when we’d be rendered insensate by the apartment’s sweat-lodge-like conditions.

The day of the party started off cold and got colder. So did our apartment. By kickoff, it was like a meat locker.

You know how when you go to a party, someone usually says, “Just throw your coat in the bedroom”? People kept their coats on at our party.

You could see your breath, as if we were at Lambeau Field.

We contemplated opening the windows, because it seemed to be warmer outside than it was inside.

There was talk of setting a couch on fire — and this was before that became standard for University of Maryland students.

I can’t say that anyone enjoyed our party very much. It’s hard to have a good time when you’re worried about losing your fingers.

In the end, Joe Montana passed for a record 331 yards, and San Francisco won, 38-16.

One thing I don’t remember about that day: “polar vortex.” I’m pretty sure back then, we just blamed Canada for our cold weather.

Children’s National

That January weekend was so cold in Washington that Ronald Reagan’s second inaugural parade was canceled, the first time such a thing had happened.

One thing that wasn’t affected? Children’s National Health System, or as it was known then, Children’s Hospital. You can participate in our annual fundraising campaign for the hospital by visiting www.childrensnational.org/
washingtonpost
or sending a check (payable to “Children’s National”) to Washington Post Giving Campaign, c/o Children’s Hospital Foundation, 801 Roeder Rd., Suite 650, Silver Spring, Md. 20910. Our deadline is Friday.

Your gift today can make a difference in the life of a child.

For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

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