Letter from California

An archive of the weekly "Letter from Calfornia", written by Jim McCarthy.

Monday, December 20, 2004

Letter from California-December 20, 2004

I can remember the exact moment I decided I’d had enough of the cold weather. It was January of my junior year of college in Massachusetts. I was standing in student parking next to my dorm, hacking my way through a small glacier that had developed in the lot overnight. It had covered everything, including my 1974 International Scout, which you can think of as the prehistoric grandfather of today’s SUVs, without all the comfort, safety, or reliability. I was carrying an ice scraper and wearing about 40 pounds of clothes. It was dark, and after several minutes of scraping, shaving and frustrated stabbing through the ice, I was still only down to the Jurassic layer. I might have come across a fossilized mammoth at any second, but it was going to take a while to excavate the Scout. Even after I did, the old thing tended to be temperamental getting started in such weather. I gave myself credit though. After all, I was five years older than the car and I was already up. Despite my advanced age, I dug a tunnel through the ice, climbed onto the vinyl bench seat and turned the key.

Usually, disappointment followed in the form of the Scout not starting. After several tries, I’d pop the hood and climb out. I had this little trick to get the engine going when the temperature dropped to 150 below like it had this morning. I’d just siphon a little gas out of the tank, unscrew the air filter, pour a little around the filter, then pour the rest of the gas all over the engine and set the whole front of the car on fire. After a few minutes, this warmed the engine sufficiently that I could get it cranked up. I’d worry about the raging engine fire once I had the heater kicking in. After a little while, the engine would be warm enough that I knew it wouldn’t stall. I’d pass this interval either listening to the radio or reading the entire Old Testament. It took a while. Finally, the car would be ready to go and all I had to worry about was putting out that engine fire before the gas tank exploded.

Ah, the good old days. I immigrated to Southern California because I never wanted to have to torch my car in order to drive it ever again. In fact, I never even really wanted to have to put on a heavy sweater again if I didn’t feel like it. I believed the Beach Boys when they said that L.A. was the land of the “Endless Summer,” so I mothballed the ice scraper for good. I’m a little rusty on Ecclesiastes without all the extra reading time, but all in all, it was a good trade.

Here’s some advice: never trust a group of old surfer hippies. Los Angeles actually gets cold. I had envisioned people hanging around their beach houses drinking frosty beverages in total comfort and wearing only loincloths in mid-January. Imagine my horror when I learned that sometimes, you can’t do that. Usually, but not always. I felt like I was back in the parking lot glacier, digging out that Jurassic-era SUV with a pitiful Phillips 66 ice scraper.

Ok, that’s not really what I thought. First, I had safely repressed that horrible memory until I needed it again as the source of material for a wisecracking column. Also, it’s a bit of an exaggeration because people like the cold weather here when it comes. It’s just chilly enough that you can put on the goofy reindeer sweater your Great Aunt gave you without bursting into flames like an International Scout. Yet, the weather’s warm enough that you can take it off without freezing as soon as Great Auntie goes back to the Home.

My own kids have no idea about cold. To them, snow is just another Special Effect. Even my one-year old dog starting barking angrily and running in circles when, for the first time in his lifetime a few weeks ago, water started falling on him from the sky. Where was this impudent person with the hose who was so determined to soak him? Rain was something he’d just never counted on.

But, as with so many things in California, we seek the best of both worlds. Do you really have to suffer the inconvenience and discomfort of bad weather just to have a little Winter Wonderland? It turns out not. In fact, I’ve seen two approaches to breaking this vicious cycle recently.

Approach one: visit the snow. When the arctic wind chill factor took L.A. temperatures down into the high 50s a week or so ago, we noticed our dog was barking at the sky again. Rain and chilly temperatures here could only mean one thing in the mountains above us: the slim possibility of light snow. We drove 30 minutes up the Angeles Crest Highway, and just as we reached 5000 feet in elevation, tiny snowflakes started hitting the windshield. My kids asked me if this was real snow, and I said yes. They asked me a second and third time and I said yes. They just couldn’t accept that this was really happening. It’s as if you woke up at 2 on Christmas morning and walked out to your living room, only to see a fat stranger in a red suit putting presents under your tree. It might look real, but that doesn’t mean you’re going to believe it right away. Soon the white stuff was everywhere and they were snowball fighting like pros. We had our fun and got out of there just before a fast-moving glacier absorbed the SUV behind us.

Approach two: bring the snow to you. A couple days ago, the local country club imported a bunch of mountain snow and spread it around their parking lot in giant piles. You might call this Takeout Snow. Hey, at least we drove into the mountains. I had to turn on the rear defrost in the car. It was rugged. These people, they just rollerbladed down to the club in their loincloths and built a snowman. Is that fair?

No, it’s not, but that’s really the whole idea. Right now in Massachusetts, some poor kid is discovering the ‘set your car on fire to start it’ trick for the first time. Congratulations, young man. I admire your guts. You’re a fellow of great fortitude.

On the other hand, if you’re in that same parking lot reading Deuteronomy and holding an ice scraper once you graduate, I have another word to describe you.



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