Kentucky is having a bit of winter this week. It's nothing like the snow days of my childhood and unlike any kind of Louisiana winter my kids are used to. I know some folks may think I'm crazy but I sure missed the cold all those years I lived away from home. I missed the feel of the air and the crunch of ice beneath my boots. I missed snow days and snow cream. Mostly I missed the deathly quiet of the world when it is buried beneath a thick blanket of snow. It's a stillness that is unlike any other. To me, it is perfect peace.
This particular weather is different in that it isn't simply snow. It is mostly ice. The air is still crisp and the world is still fresh, but it's dangerous.
This evening, I was deep in thought about the menace of winter and the people that die by exposure. Of course, the saddest, most preventable cases, are the homeless. And it was easy to consider deaths such as those that perished at the sinking of the Titanic or famous explorers and mountaineers that met their demise doing what they love. Wildly popular stories form history such as the Donner party are frequently remembered and discussed at length. The iconic moments in cinematic greatness like Jack Torrance frozen upright in the maze in The Shining, or Herman with his watch in Scrooged. Even Preston Blake popping out of his casket whilst still fixed in his solid state in Mr. Deeds is memorable.
One story that always fills me with a sense of bleakness is Green Boots. If you ever dare to climb Mt. Everest, you will encounter him. He is an unidentified hiker that is one of a couple hundred corpses that remain stranded on the earth's highest mountain. Green Boots holds the distinction of serving as a macabre marker on the Northeast route up the mountain, forever frozen and unmoving but letting hikers know they are at 27,900 feet, just shy a couple thousand feet from the summit, their ultimate goal. You can see pictures of him online if you are curious.
I wondered if there were other famous frozen deaths and began digging around. I found just that kind of list on Wikipedia and spent the evening reading story after story of well known casualties of the season when Persophone returns to the underworld.
From children lost in blizzards who are remembered in folk songs to barbaric practices like starlight tours in Saskatchewan, my mind was blown by the equitable nature of winter's frigid kiss. It would be incorrect to blame the weather entirely though as mankind has used it in the art of war for years. Nazi's often sprayed naked prisoners with water and left them to the elements. Our own C.I.A. has used this same torture in recent years; if the articles I am finding are correct.
But even when the battle is valiant, the truly brave have fallen to the ravages of exposure. I was inspired by Sister Serife, a heroine of the Turkish War of Independence. At just twenty one years of age, she traveled sixty five miles, with her child, to deliver ammunition. She died on her mission and is now celebrated and commemorated in the Republic.
Then there are the unusual stories like the Alabama murderer Aubrey Marie Hilley who died during an escape from prison. She was serving time for the arsenic poisonings of her husband and daughter. Or Kenneka Jenkins that was found in a Chicago hotel's freezer after disappearing from a party. Or the two teenage boys that stowed away on an airplane from Guinea to Belgium in 1999. Or, Lucia Zarate, the world's lightest adult at 4.7 pounds, who perished when her circus train became stranded in the mountains in 1890.
Every story was tragic, regardless of the circumstance. The cold knows no boundaries in terms of age, race, gender, intelligence, or stature. Even the most experienced, most prepared, and most knowledgeable of society is susceptible to the chilly fingers of wintry death.
The process of dying by freezing is a strange one indeed. Even mild cases of hypothermia can wreak havoc on the body but moderate to severe cases are truly terrifying. Imagine being so cold that you become confused and forgetful before losing the ability to control your fingers and hands. You may hallucinate, become combative, and even remove all your clothing in what is called paradoxical undressing.
Yes, you can become so cold and your body so disrupted in its normal processes that you'll believe you're are burning up. You'll shed what little protective layers you're wearing and speed yourself to an icy grave even faster. A grave that you'll create yourself because in your final moments of life, you'll experience hide-and-die syndrome, or terminal burrowing. You'll instinctively seek out a small enclosed space to prepare for death, like an animal going into hibernation.
This is a truth about death that isn't properly portrayed in film. Folks freeze in meaningful ways that will carry the story forward, or set the tone for the end. Just imagine how much more ominous it would have been had Jack Torrance been naked and curled into the fetal position in one of the maze alcoves. I personally would have found that to be much more disturbing.