The events described in Erin’s poem Feast of Holy Innocents are true. They happened to us. And while Erin has put the event out as a poem and I haven’t, it’s no less on my mind, two years after the fact.
I’ve come to the conclusion that Ontarians don’t know cold. I own an army surplus great coat — the really heavy variety that you probably saw worn on the eastern front. I’ve never once worn that coat in Canada. I’ve only ever worn it in Nebraska and South Dakota during my Christmas/New Years trips to visit my in-laws. Back in 1997, while I was attending my mother-in-law’s wedding on December 27 at her old home town of Vermillion, South Dakota, the temperatures started to dip, and a prairie wind started to howl. You could hear it in every house and even in the church itself. An O’Connor relative visiting from California commented on the cold, and then looked at me and said “but I suppose you must be used to it, where you come from.” I shocked the life out of her when I gave her a look and said, “No.” My part of Canada doesn’t know true cold. Only the Canadian and American prairies do (and the Arctic, of course).
South Dakota and Nebraska are cold. Their winters are such that they make you feel good about yourself for having survived them. South Dakota and Nebraska are the only places in the world that I’ve experienced Fahrenheit Zero (without wind-chill). South Dakota and Nebraska are the only places in the world where I experienced the white-out conditions of an Alberta Clipper. I can only imagine what poor North Dakota, Saskatchewan and the Northwest Territories are like in January. Alberta, at least, gets its Chinook winds. The Dakotas and Saskatchewan are the places where you find the real manly men and women.
Anyway, on the evening of December 27, we’re driving home from Platte, South Dakota, after visiting Erin’s paternal grandmother. It’s a six hour drive to Omaha, and I’m just outside Vermillion, about to head onto the Interstate. As I approach the onramp, I see silhouettes walking towards me along the shoulder of the country highway. We are six miles outside of a town, and the gas station behind them is the only sign of civilization nearby. Among the silhouettes are the smaller shapes of children. They are among the last thing I expect to see in my headlights.
In a matter of seconds, I’m past them. I haven’t been given time to react. In the seat beside me, Erin says, “was that a family?” and I know we’re thinking the same thing. I immediately do a U-turn on the four-lane country highway (which is, fortunately, empty of traffic), head back the way I came, do another U-turn and pull up on the shoulder.
The family are there, trudging through the snow. There are three adults (two men and a woman) and at least three children, if I recall correctly, all bundled up. One of the children is a baby lying in a hamper. It’s around 9 p.m., the sky is cloudy and there’s no snow, but the temperature is, at most, 0’F (-18’C) and there’s a steady wind from the west. There is no cover between here and Vermillion.
Erin does most of the talking. It turns out, the family’s van has broken down. Stuck for the last three days at the gas station/truck stop, they’ve decided to walk the six miles into Vermillion to look for some place to stay. Even I can tell this is foolish. Erin finally convinces them to go back to the gas station. Her maternal grandparents live in town, and the O’Connor family had its annual Christmas reunion that day. There are loads of people with cars ready to take them into town with just a phone call.
So, the family turns around, and I drive onto the gas station. The gas station attendant nods when I tell her what’s happened. She’s offered this family her apartment as a place to stay, but they’ve refused. Now, with my step-father-in-law Michael and uncle Tim coming over with a car, she makes the offer again, and they accept. The mother is grateful, and her brother is a pleasant talkative chap. The husband doesn’t say a word to us the whole time. The children are exhausted, too tired even to be cranky, and the baby in the hamper isn’t crying. Indeed, he’s not moving.
The car arrives and we pack the family into it. We drive the brother in our car, following Michael and Tim to the address the gas station attendant has offered. As we drive, the brother says that they’re from Minot, North Dakota, and they are arranging for somebody there to come and pick them up. Finally, we arrive at the apartment and pack the family of six inside a small, one-bedroom apartment. Returning to Erin’s grandparents’ place, we find much of the family still around, working to putting together the massive amounts of leftovers together in a care package to be sent to the gas attendant’s apartment.
This is the sort of place South Dakota is; indeed, much of the Midwest. South Dakotans never lock their doors, and they will stop and ask if you need help if you’ve stopped your car on the shoulder to look up at the night sky.
I think I’ve only scratched the surface of the story. When Erin suggested that the family might get in touch with traveller’s aid by calling the police, a definite tension could be felt in the air. The husband never said a word to us in the hour that these events took place. And, if they lived in Minot, North Dakota, then surely they should know that the isolation and cold of South Dakota would have been deadly had they kept walking the six miles to Vermillion.
After the care package went out, I drove Erin and I the rest of the way to Omaha. Erin was very upset, fearful for the mother and especially the children. She thought that we should have stayed in Vermillion with her grandparents that night. There was a bed available. I don’t know why I didn’t want that. I was also disturbed by what I saw, but my response, once everything was dealt with and safe, was to drive on and try to leave it behind. Why is that, do you think?
We never heard from the family again. Their ride apparently arrived from North Dakota and took them home. There were no newspaper reports of a family found frozen in the ditch, and South Dakota is the sort of place where such a tragedy would make the news.
Let us remember how lucky we are to have a place to go to when the weather gets cold.