Bundled up and burning

Occasionally during the winter-especially a bitter one like we’ve been experiencing these days-I remember the story someone told me about what he remembered happened to him one bitter cold day at country school.

That was when youngsters wore layers to keep warm in the winter, perhaps not much different from now, when we are all advised to dress in layers as a good way to ward off the cold. Only most of the time now those layers are on the top half, not the bottom.

On this day, though, this young student had on two pairs of pants, corduroys and denim jeans. He got cold and just a little damp while he was outside for recess, so when he came back into the school house, he backed up close to the wood stove that heated the building. Closer and closer he got, until he finally felt warm. . . so warm, in fact, soon someone yelled “Your pants are on fire!”

Sure enough, his pants were hot enough to smolder, pretty exciting for everyone involved. What to do? Simple. The boy quickly started to pull off the pants, much to the consternation of the embarrassed female teacher who wanted him to stop. That was, of course, before she realized that her young student had on his jeans, too.

I wonder if, like me, you think about how lucky we are to be here now, with amazing fibers and materials that can keep us warm even during the most bitter of Iowa winters. We have synthetic polar fleece, down parkas with fake fur, nylon windbreakers, and all are superior to the heavy, wet wool of the past when our grandfathers got along without insulated coveralls when they went out to do their chores.

One hazard of our winter outerwear, though, is that the nylon can melt if it gets too close to a heat source. It happened to me once about ten years ago. It was the start of my son’s holiday break from college, and he had arrived while I was gone. I was excited to see him, so I went charging into the family room as soon as I got home, leaving my coat on. Only I was still cold, so as I stood there talking to him I backed up close to the wall heater.

You guessed it. I melted the back of my coat, but just the outer nylon later. I realized it the next time I had on that coat. I think it was my teenage daughter who pointed it out before I got out the door. And, regardless of how warm it was, that was the last time I wore that coat.