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He's Still The Coolest

Outside magazine, December 1996

He's Still The Coolest

A few moments with Old Man Winter, on his life, his loves, and the prospect of being phased out by a thing called global warming
By Bruce McCall

Old Man Winter is one of the best-known and least-understood figures in the annals of climatology--a household name even where there are no houses, yet so shrouded in legend as to be more hackneyed caricature than the hardworking, hands-on part-scientist, part-executive, part-artist that he is. The winter solstice was imminent, thousands of buttons in his master control room were blinking red and green, and the Cold Line linking him directly with Mother Nature beeped insistently. But the original abominable snowman graciously consented to this in-depth interview.

You're the living symbol of numbing cold, shut-down airports, dangerous driving, the guy who makes us buy antifreeze and earmuffs and spend small fortunes on skiing trips. Doesn't that relentlessly negative image rankle after a few thousand millennia?

You know Jack Frost. The crap he's taken over frostbite! Jack told me once, "Never confuse the image with the person behind it." I do a job, but I'm not defined by my job. Like, I bet you're surprised I don't wear a hooded robe, right? And it knocks people out that this Old Man Winter guy likes to kick back on some Caribbean island come March 21. Almost as much as that I happen to have a walloping case of SAD.

Seasonal affective disorder? Old Man Winter?

The Northern Lights--reflections from my SAD treatments. Scientific mystery solved! [Laughs.] Oh, yeah--bad SAD.

Then how did you get to be Old Man Winter?

Pure damn accident. This goes way, way back, almost within hearing distance of the Big Bang. The whole planet is one huge Turkish bath, a steaming, humid, primordial soup. Blagh! At the time I'm in Continent Planning, pushing and pulling land masses around like taffy. Well, across the hall is Climate, and I hang out there a lot, because of Tammy.


The very first weathergirl. She worked under the professional name of Mother Nature. Great-looking babe, ambitious and very smart. Anyway, Tammy's ratings are tanking because the weather never ever changes. Can't we do something to juice it up, she says. Give it drama. How about some variety?

I'm getting the picture!

Well, it happened that I'd had this weird idea in the back of my head for aeons. My feet always felt sort of odd. Poor circulation, as I found out much later, but I liked the feeling. Of course it was the feeling of being cold. So I say to Tammy, let's try making the whole planet feel like my feet!

And the rest is climatological history.

Whoa! Easier said than done! Nobody knew from cold back then, much less winter. No parameters. It was make it up as you go along. My first try was a full-fledged disaster--the Ice Age. Killed off all the dinosaurs. I still feel rotten about that. Tammy--Mother Nature, by then she was Management--was royally peeved.

But winter was here to stay.

Yeah, and my punishment was that I had to run it.

Our readers would love to know what's in store for this current winter. Any prognostications?

I wouldn't invest in any toboggan factories. Mother Nature's off on this damn global-warming jag because she got into computer modeling, ecosystems, macrosystems. Winter has to be dialed way, way back. They used to tell me how many megatons of snow I had; I'd work out a 120-day dump schedule and get rid of any surplus at the end with a few spring blizzards or cover a shortfall with an early thaw. Pure seat-of-the-pants stuff. Not anymore.

Long-range, then, we can look forward to milder winters?

Afraid so. And I can look forward to retirement. They'll be phasing winter out, and me along with it. My contract's up in the year 28,000. But I can't complain; it's been one helluva run.

Career high points?

The snowflake, definitely. Ingots, disks, little parachutes--we screwed around for epochs, working out a snow delivery system. Some kid over in Crystals finally cracked it. So elegant! But his prototype snowflakes were as big as dinner plates; it was Yours Truly who dreamed up miniaturization. Just couldn't stand the sound of thousands of those dinner plates crashing to earth.

And the Eskimos. They take everything I throw at 'em and come back for more. The Eskimos never call me Old Man Winter, you know. Just Neil. How are ya, Neil. Thanks for the polar bears, Neil. Hey Neil, how about a blubberburger? A great, great relationship.

And, let's see: The deep discounts on L.L. Bean and Eddie Bauer. Kris Kringle's office Christmas party every year--it just gets crazier and crazier.

Regrets? Disappointments?

Without a doubt, icebergs. What could I have possibly been thinking? The Titanic thing--a PR debacle!

And I'd have to say, the food. Frozen dinners, baked Alaska, cold cuts, Sno-Kones, and Fudgsicles. Monotonous.

And oh, yeah, the ingratitude. I made millionaires out of a lot of people. Ski resort owners, the Winter Olympics Committee, the guy who wrote "Frosty the Snowman." Not one red cent in royalties. Global warming will serve 'em right.

I guess the stereotype gets to me sometimes. Old Man Winter to most folks is just this cold-hearted old bastard, this spoilsport, maybe a nut. Do I look like a nut to you? I'm not even a natural winter person! Think I like shoveling snow? Taking the dog for his walk in a howling blizzard? It's no fun, knowing every Scandinavian and Siberian would like to see me lynched. Hey, people, cut me some slack! I'm just doing my damn job!

Any plans after retirement?

A condo in Boca Raton, playing golf where you can see the ball, fooling around with my investments. By the year 28,000, Baffin Island is going to be a summer resort, you know. Greenland too. I've been quietly buying up choice parcels of land.

Well, thanks so much for your time, Old Man Winter.

Here, stash this snowball in the back of your fridge. It's gonna be worth a fortune.

Bruce McCall is the author of Zany Afternoons and the forthcoming Thin Ice.

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