I have been this cold before. It was a long time ago, but I have been this cold before.
It was 1976 and “Silly Love Songs” by Paul McCartney’s group “Wings” was the top song on the charts. It was the year of the American bicentennial and everybody who was anybody was offering deals on items bedecked in stars and stripes. Cars, you could buy cars with star and stripes decals on them. It was ‘Murica back when we still called it America.
I had my own problems. I was in the Navy, and our squadron was assigned to an aircraft carrier out sailing the north Atlantic Ocean. On on hand this was pretty cool. Our typical duty was to sail the Mediterranean and do what aircraft carriers did in those oceans during those cold war years, namely be there. It had a certain routine to it, granted it was a routine which featured high-powered fighter bombers with after-burning jet engines and ordinance hanging from the wings, but once you got used to it the scene just unfolded before you.
Get the airplanes ready, the airplanes fly away, get the flight deck ready, the airplanes come back. Noise, really loud noise, the occasional industrial mayhem, but I was a kid and didn’t think about it a lot.
North Atlantic, however, that was a different set up. One, we’d never been there before. Something something cold war something something diplomacy and there had been no need to send a United States carrier battle group out that way. Somehow that changed and off we went, northbound.
It was interesting, a nice change of scenery. The United Kingdom, England, Scotland, interesting, France, beautiful, and so forth. But then came time to – and again these were decisions made many many floors above an airplane mechanic who worked on the fight deck – go way north, up to the Arctic Circle.
This is where the cold part of the story kicks in.
Because say what you will about cold, but the large flat deck of an aircraft carrier making way across the Arctic Ocean and making sure the wind was blowing fast enough across the deck to support ordinance-loaded airplanes taking off and landing, it was cold.
Oh wait, and it was colder than that.
Because say what you will about sailing the north Atlantic but, speaking of cold, there was a cold war going on and Russia had a habit of flying long range bombers to and fro in support of its version of the cold war.
And one of those little-discussed properties of more-or-less peacetime warfare, is the probing of your enemy’s defenses. This meant that sometimes Russia would send a bomber, or perhaps something smaller and more sprightly, in our direction to see what we would do. What we would do, of course, is send our own airplanes up to confront this interloper and such was the gamesmanship of military hardware in the cold war. Military strategists would make check marks on forms about the length of time it took airplane X to meet airplane Y and the cold war advanced another day.
Which meant that for extended periods of time we would have a plane set up on the flight deck, ready to go, full of fuel and missiles and pilots, and was for the word and launch the airplane to intercept the bomber/whatever airplane heading our way. We’d just wait, the airplane sitting there. Generally we were expected to go from “Launch!” command to airborne in five minutes, sometimes less if the plane was parked on a catapult, but generally five minutes. This was a “five minute alert” in the terms of the trade.
And those of us who had some role in getting airplanes ready to fly had to stand by with the airplane, waiting. On the flight deck, sailing the Arctic Circle, while the ship was underway.
So you’d put on your cold weather gear, including the heavy coat, then put your flight deck gear on over it, including helmet and goggles and the inflatable life vest (And heaven help you if you ever got knocked off the deck into that bitter cold water. You’d be an ice cube before they ever got a rope to you.) and gloves, and go lean on an airplane and wait – there in the cold arctic sea wind.
The trick was to take rags and tie them around whatever exposed flesh was there, the wrists between the gloves and coat sleeve for example (you’d flip your collar up to protect your neck) and try not to think about it. You couldn’t really talk because the helmet included covers for sound attenuation for your ears to protect from the noise when jet engines were running, and it was too cold to chat anyway. You’d just wait.
Nowadays, when I hear someone talk about how cold it is I remember those days, just like I did here.