The first winter in Texas is supposed to be the toughest. This was my first. It was harsh and unforgiving, but now the ordeal is over, the countryside rejoices with soft fields of Indian paintbrush and bluebonnets, and I see by the calendar that spring has sprung. It is truly amazing what the human body can endure when survival is at stake.
Winter was only a few days old when the weather forced me outdoors to help my wife wrap presents. It was Christmas Eve. We sat on the stone front porch that afternoon, wearing shorts, our toes and noses nipped by the Texas sun. Ten days later, the natural elements compelled me to play nine holes with my son and a neighbor at the municipal golf course. We had no choice: it was 75 degrees. Shanking seven-iron shots was no way to start the new year, I agree, but pity is not yet in order. Things got worse.
On Jan. 20, after a too-brief respite in cold, gray, drizzly Washington, our former home, I was back in the Sun Belt and feeling obliged to skip out of work early to go swimming at Barton Springs, Austin's natural, spring-fed swimming pool approximately the size of two football fields. It was no easy task finding a parking space within walking distance of the water that 80-degree midwinter day.
Later in January, my travels took me to the far reaches of Texas, but they afforded no relief. On South Padre Island, the Gulf Coast's winter gale whipped across my hotel's swimming pool, and the wind-chill brought the temperature down to the lower 70s. The only colors in Odessa were brown and silver, and the glare from the West Texas sun was so strong that I had to conduct interviews from behind sunglasses. Winter is expensive in Texas, by the way. Good no-glare shades cost $60.
Then came February. Ooooffff. I recoil at the thought of that month. First there was the Sunday afternoon we decided to rent a canoe on Town Lake, which for no good reason is what Austinites call the Colorado River as it wends through their city. Have you ever been in a canoe traffic jam? It was Bumper Canoes up and down Town Lake. Especially crowded was the stretch under the MoPac railroad bridge, where college students were fishing. A few days later, I faced another one of those typical winter crowds, this time as I searched for a seat at Disch-Falk field for the season opener of the University of Texas baseball team. Coveted seats were in the shade.
The pain and suffering was getting old by the time Prince Charles arrived for one of the weirdest weeks in the 150-year history of Texas. For three days as the prince ogled drill team girls, braved the stench of the Houston Ship Channel and chewed discontentedly on his piece of the biggest cake ever made, the temperature never fell below 90 degrees. Never before in Texas had there been three straight 90-degree days in February. On the third day of the prince's sojourn, it hit 97. A woman fainted in one of the royal crowds. The sun made her swoon, not the future king.
Suffice it to say that nature got things all screwed up in Texas this winter. Figuratively speaking, these were the months when the Sun Belt was cloudy and cold. The oil industry went down the tubes, month by month. The state government slipped into a billion-dollar debt. But it was so sunny and warm outside, no one seemed to care. I knew that Floridians and Californians tried to tan their troubles away, but Texans? In winter?
What winter? I never know what month it is here. During my boyhood in Madison, Wis., the Austin of the Upper Midwest, each winter month had distinguishing characteristics.
December meant frostbite. Getting frostbite in December was a matter of pride. Remember Ray Nitschke's hands and toes during the NFL championship in the Ice Bowl? That was immortal Packer frostbite. Each morning during the four-block walk to school, I would get normal, regular-kind-of-guy frostbite.
January meant 24-inch snowdrifts and, very occasionally, no school. In Wisconsin in January they canceled school only when they couldn't see the school. When I moved to New Jersey, they canceled school when there were snow flurries. In Washington, they canceled school when snow was forecast. Winter in Texas seems especially tough on kids. It takes away all hope.
The children of Del Rio, Tex., of all places, at least had one lucky day. A freak storm on Jan. 7 dumped 7.2 inches of snow on the Rio Grande border town. It made the front page of USA Today, quite an honor seeing as how that newspaper is the Bible of weather much as The Sporting News is the Bible of baseball. And Wichita Falls, while not getting USA notice, recorded 2 inches of snow on Feb. 10. That about wrapped it up for Texas snow this winter. Austin had not a trace.
In Madison in February, snow never fell. It just sort of hardened on the streets and sidewalks, accumulating more layers of guck and dirt. February snow in Madison was gray with black specks. That is what February was known for up there -- its colors. And March brought the first sign of slush. In March, Madisonians could shovel their sidewalks without using hoes and ice picks. In Austin, we've mowed our lawn twice already, and March isn't over yet.
Thank God spring is here.