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What I Learned from My Two Death-Defying Battles with the Polar Vortex

Polar Vortex

James Forsyth

Brantly Millegan - published on 01/09/14

You do not want to be stuck outside when it’s cold. You could die.

I was just a few blocks from my house when I noticed the lights in my car were dying down whenever I wasn’t pressing the gas pedal. I decided I better head home, so I pulled off onto a side street to turn around. As I was turning the car, the engine completely gave out. The lights in the car dimmed. With the sun just under the horizon and temperatures close to zero, the car came to a stop in a diagonal position in the middle of a residential intersection.

Uh oh.

Round I: If No One Can Help, What Do I Do?

Let’s be clear what “Polar Vortex” really means. The New York Times used the term to describe temperatures in New York City that dropped to – gasp! – 5 degrees overnight. That would be a rather mild day in a normal Minnesota winter. The “Polar Vortex” in Minnesota meant lows in the double digits below zero, with wind chill making it feel even colder.

On Monday, we discovered that our minivan wouldn't start. Nothing would turn on at all. We had enough food and supplies to make it a few days, and since the high was -9, we decided to just stay inside.

By Tuesday, it had warmed up to a whopping 8 degrees during the day, so after work (I work at home) I went out gave the mini-van a jump. My wife said dinner would be ready soon, so I said I would take the minivan for a short 15 minute drive to charge up the battery, and that’s when I got stuck.

The first thing I needed to do was move the car. It was blocking the road, it was getting dark, and the emergency lights were dying with everything else electrical in the car. I quickly shifted the car into neutral and was able to push it a little bit to the side of the road before it ran into a bit of ice. It still blocked one lane, but I wasn’t able to move it any further on my own. I was going to need help, and fast.

My wife was just a few blocks away at home, but I knew I couldn’t get help from her since she was watching our two small children and the car left at home didn’t have car seats. And I couldn’t just walk home because I couldn’t leave the minivan where it was.

I went to the nearest house with lights on and knocked on the door. No one answered, and its “Beware of Dog” sign made me not want to linger too long. I went across the street to another house. A middle aged woman came to the door. I explained my situation, but she said her husband had a bad back and couldn’t help me. I asked if there was anyone nearby she thought would be able to help me. She said almost everyone was elderly, except for maybe a Protestant minister that lived just a few houses away. When I knocked on that door, another middle aged woman looked through the glass. She wouldn’t open the door (I don’t blame her not opening the door at night to a young man she didn’t know), but I explained my situation and she mouthed the words “No.”

What was I going to do? I needed to move the car and I needed to get home. It was cold, very cold. My hat and coat were thankfully keeping my head and body relatively warm, but my hands and feet were starting to hurt.

I got out my phone and tried calling various friends that lived nearby. One person wasn’t in town, one had his phone off, and a few just didn’t answer. I had other friends in the metropolitan area, but I knew I couldn’t wait 20 minutes or more for them to drive to me in rush hour. I needed help now.

I got the idea to call a nearby parish priest I knew. As I was looking up the number, a police car pulled up. I turned, and another police car pulled up on the other side of me.

“Did someone call about me?” I asked.

“Yeah. When a young man is going door to door at night because his car stalled out and it’s ten below, we’re going to get lots of calls about that.”

Why hadn’t I thought of calling the police? I thanked them for coming, they helped me jump the minivan, and I successfully made it home. Some of my toes hurt for a little while into the evening, but I otherwise warmed up fast and everything was okay. Until…

Round II: Waiting, and Freezing

The next morning, the minivan was back to the same way it was before – totally dead. It was clear the car needed a new battery, and I figured if I could get it going again, I could drive it a few blocks to an auto-parts store where I could buy a new battery, and they could even install it for me so I wouldn’t have to in the bitter cold.

I jumped it and let it idle for a few minutes. Everything seemed fine, so I kissed my wife and kids goodbye and started down the road again.

But sure enough, just as before, the car started dying. Nooo! I was on a busy road, and I knew I needed to turn onto a side street again, but just before I could turn, the car stalled at a stop sign. Now I really needed to move the car quick, but I knew I couldn’t do it myself. I waved cars around me.

I called a friend, who thankfully picked up. He was already in his car with his wife and three kids on the way to daily Mass. He arrived quickly, parked nearby, and helped me push the car around a turn. The car was now parked in a no parking zone, but at least it was no longer blocking traffic. We decided jumping the car was probably a bad idea. Instead, I hopped in the back of their car, we drove to the auto shop, and I bought a new battery. Now we needed tools to install it.

We didn’t want the minivan to get towed, so I decided to stay with it while my friend went back to his house to drop off his wife and kids and to pick up tools.

That was a mistake.

There I sat in the car for 15-20 minutes, with the temperature near zero. My coat, hat, and gloves kept me somewhat warm, but it was my feet again that started having problems. My toes started hurting and feeling numb.

I had heard reports about how quickly a person can get frostbite in that kind of cold. How stupid it would be to get frostbite on my feet over a car! It was cold, and my body knew it. Very quickly I became fairly desperate. I felt every second go by as I waited for my friend to return. I started shaking my legs, rocking my body, and flexing my toes to try to keep the blood flowing. And I started praying out loud to God to help me, to keep me safe, and to bring my friend back quickly. I watched every car go by, hoping it would be him.

And then he returned! Praise Jesus! I jumped out and asked him to turn his car back on so I could warm up inside. The heat wasn’t too warm but it was better than nothing. While I sat there, starting to relax, he very kindly replaced the battery, and I made it home just fine.

The Homeless, and a Healthy Fear of Nature

People really do get frostbite, and people really do freeze to death. Thankfully, neither of these things happened to me. Nonetheless, I feel that I got a small taste of the experience. In my second situation, even though I knew I had a friend on the way, I was desperate and fearful. It opened my eyes just a little bit to the despair and fear a person must feel if they have no help at all.

I was also reminded of the awesome power of nature. I’m almost always inside a house or car with heat when it’s that cold. Being outside that long (which really wasn’t very long) quickly reminded me how dangerous it really is. Incredible technology, built up over millennia by others, shields us from nature, and we forget what the world is really like and how vulnerable we really are – until that shield is removed.

So praise the Lord I made it out okay. And please pray for those who aren’t so lucky.

Brantly Millegan is an Assistant Editor for Aleteia. He is also Co-Founder and Co-Editor of Second Nature and is working on a M.A. in Theology at the St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity. He lives with his wife and three children in South St. Paul, MN. His personal website is brantlymillegan.com.

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