In the dog days of summer, “think January”

Today I mowed both my lawn and my dad’s lawn in 90-degree, near 100% humidity weather.

I sweated about two gallons. That was five hours ago, and I’m still trying to rehydrate myself. More water, please!

(Note: The only truly pleasant season in Southern Ohio is late autumn, from about mid-October through Thanksgiving. The rest of the year, the weather here swings between various disagreeable extremes. So…don’t move to Southern Ohio unless you have to. The weather here sucks.)

Today’s sweltering heat brings back a particular memory: In late August of 1982, I began my freshman year of high school. My high school had no air conditioning.

I recall taking an afternoon English class on the second floor of the school. It was hot, really hot. The entire class was sweating.

And let me be clear: this was 1982. It wasn’t as if air conditioning hadn’t been invented yet. So why wasn’t the school air-conditioned? I wondered.

Our teacher, in a wry acknowledgement of our suffering, wrote the following on the blackboard one afternoon before beginning the day’s lecture:

THINK JANUARY

That brought a laugh—or at least a chuckle—from every 14-year-old in the room. And for whatever reason, I’ve never forgotten it. Today, almost 40 years later, I shall be “thinking January” with the above photo.

(I actually took the photo on February 10th of this year; but that’s close enough.)

Wherever you are, dear reader, I hope the weather is more pleasant today in your part of the world. I repeat: don’t move to Southern Ohio unless absolutely necessary. The weather here sucks.

Two songs for Father’s Day

Today is Father’s Day, at least in the United States.

If you were fortunate enough to have a relationship with your father, and if your father is still alive, take a few minutes today to show him your appreciation.

I was blessed in this regard. I had a good relationship with my father (who is still with me) and my grandfather (who passed in 1998).

There are many memories of them both that I could relate. Perhaps I’ll get to that later in the day. For now, though, I’m going to leave you with two songs about fathers and fatherhood.

The first of these is Dan Fogelberg’s “The Leader of the Band” (1981), which explores the father-child relationship from the child’s perspective. The second is Harry Chapin’s “Cat’s in the Cradle” (1975), which looks at fatherhood from the father’s perspective.

Both are worth listening to and reflecting upon as you begin Father’s Day, 2021.

Diane Franklin and 1980s film culture

Diane Franklin appeared in a slew of memorable 1980s films. These included her breakout role as Karen in the surprisingly meaningful teen sex comedy, The Last American Virgin, in 1982.

That same year, she delivered a haunting performance as the doomed eldest daughter of the quasi-fictional Montelli family in Amityville II: the Possession. This film was loosely based on the infamous Amityville, New York murders of 1974.

Oh, also: Better Off Dead (1985), TerrorVision (1986), and Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989).

In this interview with Ray’s Happy Hour-ish podcast/YouTube channel, Ms. Franklin discusses some of her iconic roles, storytelling in the movies, and 1980s pop culture. She also talks about her recent and upcoming film projects. Enjoy.

1970s blizzard years

Those awful, wonderful winters from 1976 to 1978

This past week two consecutive winter storms dropped more than a foot of snow on Cincinnati. I managed to shovel two driveways, twice, without a.) throwing out my back, b.) re-repturing my 2005 hernia, or c.) having a heart attack. At my current age of fifty-two, I consider that a not unnoteworthy accomplishment.

The winter of 2020 to 2021 has been a rough one so far in Cincinnati, especially compared to the past three or four. Yet more snow is forecast to arrive later this week.

Of course, for American adults around my age—especially if they grew up east of the Mississippi—there are two childhood winters that stand out in memory: those are the back-to-back “blizzard winters” in the mid-1970s: the winter of 1976 to 1977, and the winter of 1977 to 1978.

The winter of 1976 to 1977

The winter of 1976 to 1977 was the winter of record-breaking, pipe-bursting, river-freezing cold. Here in Cincinnati, there were three straight days of record cold in January 1977, in which the temperature stayed below minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit the whole time.

The Ohio River froze solid—for the first time since 1958, and only the thirteenth time on record. In the Cincinnati media archives, there are photos of people walking across the Ohio River, and even driving across the ice that month. The freezing of the Ohio was quite a novelty, much talked about on the local news. One of my older friends has told me about driving his car across the Ohio River that winter on a dare. He was then nineteen years old, and he’s now in his sixties. So he obviously made it across.

January of 1977 was also a snowy one. Cincinnati had 30.3 inches of snow that year. (The usual figure for Cincinnati in January is six inches.)

Photo: Kenton County Library
Photo: Kenton County Library

The winter of 1977 to 1978

The following winter of 1977 to 1978 was just as bad, with almost as much cold, and even more snow. On January 25, 1978, one of the worst blizzards in U.S. history pummeled Cincinnati with almost seven inches of snow. There were already fourteen on the ground.

I remember the night of January 25, 1978 well. I played forward on our fourth-grade basketball team. That night we had a game at a rival Catholic school in the area, Guardian Angels. I remember walking outside at halftime with other members of my team. The air was not exceptionally cold yet by January standards. (It would soon plummet below zero degrees.) But there was a strange fog in the air. I think we all had the feeling that something momentous was imminent. On the way home from the game, the snow began. By morning, it was a whiteout.

Winter landscapes of the memory

At the age of eight or nine, one doesn’t have much life experience to draw upon. I could sense, though, that those two winters were worse than the handful of winters I could recall before. During those two winters, the outside air always seemed to be bitterly cold. Furnaces ran constantly. Fireplaces crackled nonstop. The ground was always snow-covered.

Many people are depressed by snow and cold weather, and winter in general. Not me. I will confess that some of my happiest childhood memories are winter ones, in fact.

I was particularly close to my maternal grandparents. During those blizzard years of the 1970s, they lived just down the street from us. When school was canceled due to inclement weather, I got to pass the day with my grandfather, who had recently retired. We spent a lot of time together in those years. I’m grateful for all the snow.

The cyclical nature of winter weather

It has been my observation that bad and mild winters tend to alternate in cycles. From the mid-1970s through the early 1980s, the winters were harsh, with record cold and snow.

The winter of 1981 to 1982 was cold. The Cincinnati Bengals went to the Super Bowl that year. On January 10, 1982, the Bengals won a key home game against the San Diego Chargers. The air temperature at Cincinnati’s Riverfront Stadium on game day was minus nine degrees, with wind chills down to 35 below. That game has gone down in NFL history as the “Freezer Bowl”.

I was in the eighth grade in 1981-1982, and going through a (brief, in retrospect) rebellious adolescent phase. This included hanging out with an edgier crowd, and embracing a short-lived fascination with smoking cigarettes and drinking alcohol.

Even in 1982, smoking and drinking weren’t acceptable pursuits for eighth graders. But hiding these illicit activities from adult authority figures was half the fun. I have many memories of shivering outside that bitter January, as I sipped a furtive drink of whiskey, or smoked a Marlboro. Even today, when I happen to smell someone else’s newly opened pack of cigarettes, or taste an alcoholic beverage, I’m transported back to that brutally cold winter of 1981 to 1982.

The last bad winter I remember from that larger cycle was the winter of 1983 to 1984. That winter brought record cold and snow to the entire United States, including Florida and Texas. As I recall, there was a lot of anxiety about the citrus crop that year, and skyrocketing prices of orange juice.

Over Christmas break in December 1983, my parents decided to embark on a rare family trip to Florida. When we reached Macon, Georgia, it was 4 degrees, with 23 degrees forecast for our destination in the Sunshine State. After spending a night shivering in a Macon hotel room with an inadequate heater, my parents decided to cut our losses. We headed home the next morning. We could freeze in Ohio for free, after all.

But the weather is no more constant than anything else in this world. That cycle of severe winters, from 1976 to 1984, transitioned into a milder pattern over subsequent years. The winters of 1984-1985 and 1985-1986 weren’t exactly balmy; but they weren’t severe, either. Throughout my last two years of high school, classes were rarely canceled due to weather. This was fine with me, because I generally enjoyed high school more than grade school.

And during my college years, spanning the winters of 1986 to 1987 through 1990 to 1991, the winters in Cincinnati were notably mild. I did not go away for college; I lived with my parents and commuted to two local schools. I did not miss a single class due to bad winter weather throughout my entire college career.

That mild cycle continued through the early 1990s, only to go the other way again in the middle of the decade. The winter of 1995 to 1996 was an especially bad one for the entire Midwest, resulting in a rare shutdown of the University of Cincinnati in January of ’96. By this time, I was a working adult in my mid-twenties.

The winter of 1995 to 1996 drew comparisons in the media to the blizzard winters of the mid-1970s. I remember scoffing when I heard this. Having been a kid during those fabled winters of the 1970s, I never took the comparison seriously.

But then, everything seems to happen on a larger scale when you’re a kid…even the weather.

Scary Christmases gone by

Krampus, Dickens, and what I saw on Christmas Eve, 1976

Merry Christmas, everyone!

Yes, I know this has been a lousy year. It’s almost over, though.

Christmas is generally a festive holiday, but there are some macabre Christmas traditions, too. And they didn’t necessarily begin with this very macabre year of 2020.

Consider, for example, the Dickens tale, A Christmas Carol. This is one of my holiday favorites. Who can forget the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, which reminds us of the Grim Reaper? Or, for that matter, Marley’s ghost?

Krampus and St. Nicholas

In some parts of Europe, Christmas includes the Krampus, a horned creature that incorporates both Christian and pre-Christian (pagan) traditions. In Germanic folklore, the Krampus works in conjunction with St. Nicholas, rewarding children who have been good, and punishing those who have been bad.

Let me tell you about something that happened to me on Christmas Eve many years ago…in 1976.

I was at my grandparents’ house in the suburbs of Cincinnati, Ohio. The family had just had our Christmas Eve dinner—Grandma’s turkey, stuffing, and mashed potatoes. (My grandmother also used to prepare a festive gelatin salad made with raspberry Jell-O, diced nuts, sliced carrots, and Cool Whip. (I realize that might not sound very tasty, but it was.))

Anyway, I had just left the table for a call of nature. This took me to a hallway in another part of the house.

There in the semidarkness of the hallway, I saw the shadow of a small, gnomish creature. It was right there, within lunging distance of me, cast on the wall.

I was startled—though not necessarily in mortal terror. Being eight years old in 1976, I ran back into the dining room, and told the adults.

There was something in the hall!

They accompanied me back to the hallway where I’d seen the unusual shadow. Needless to say, it was gone.

But there had been something there. I know there was.

My grandparents lived in that house for the rest of their lives. I was close to my grandparents, and visited them often, well into my adult years.

I never saw anything there resembling that gnome shadow figure again. Nor did I ever see any other other strange phenomena in the house.

But I know that something made a brief visit there on Christmas Eve, 1976.

A bad elf, maybe? I don’t know. But like I said, I saw something.

McDonald’s Arctic Orange Shakes

My coming-of-age supernatural thriller, Revolutionary Ghosts, is set in 1976.  The tale’s hero, an Ohio teenager named Steve Wagner, has a summer job at McDonald’s. 

One of the recurring jokes in the book surrounds the Arctic Orange Shake, which McDonald’s did indeed introduce in the summer of 1976. Continue reading “McDonald’s Arctic Orange Shakes”