I’ve lived in Wisconsin for most of my life, so I know cold. I’ve seen below-zero temperatures more times than I could count on my fingers, toes—or an abacus. I’m not very good with an abacus. I’ve seen Fahrenheit thirty degrees below zero more than a few times. I lived in northern Utah for two years, once going a week before temperatures rose above zero. But I’ve never felt as chilled as that night I spent in Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport.
I flew into O’Hare after spending a week auditing a federal grant project at Auburn University. I was supposed to meet a connecting flight at five-thirty, but as had happened several times before, my flight into O’Hare was late, and the airplane to Appleton, Wisconsin, had left. No planes would fly north until the next morning. It had been a hot week in late summer, so I’d dressed accordingly. I’d packed a light jacket in my suitcase—but who knew where that was?
I had to decide whether to find a nearby hotel or spend the night stretched out on an airport bench. Given that the airlines wouldn’t take responsibility for my mishap, and being that I’m a cheap guy, I decided to rough it in O’Hare for the night. All went well while hundreds of travelers milled about through O’Hare’s buildings. But as the numbers of people decreased, the temperatures decreased as well.
After a while, the building emptied, and I began to shiver as the air conditioning, without thousands of bodies to moderate its output, poured cold air down on me. Wanting to snatch a few hours of sleep and with no competition for space, I stretched out on a bench. As evening slipped into late night, the room got colder and colder. I had no goose-down filled jacket or insulated pants to keep me comfortable. And there was no warm fire to keep me warm.
I shivered so fiercely that the bench, sympathetic to my plight, vibrated in harmony with my movement. Unable to sleep, I left the bench and paced the corridor, trying to convince my blood to move faster to create a little warmth in my veins. But, like the rest of my body, my blood had become lethargic, so the pacing didn’t help much.
Although I never drank alcoholic beverages when on a trip, I thought that a stiff Seagram’s 7 & 7 might provide some mock body warmth, but I couldn’t even find an open bar. All business gates had been drawn and locked for the night.
I finally found a night worker who scared up a light blanket for me to use. I walked to an empty bench. I had my pick of the litter this night, so I didn’t walk very far before trying again to settle in for a night’s sleep. The blanket was more like a coverlet that you’d use on the beach to repel the sun’s rays. I tried using it as a cover, but it shivered along with me, so I folded it several times and used it as a pillow. It served better in that capacity.
I don’t remember how I survived the rest of that night, but I must have. I’m here writing this story.
You might think the night that hell froze over in O’Hare was about as bad an experience as one could have in an airport, but you’d be wrong. In another story, I’ll write about another missed flight in O’Hare that made me almost forget this first one.