Tri-Polar Express


jen at computer

Geoff Nate’s “Joy”

As my blog partner and I begin to work on our blog today January 27, 2014, it’s bright and sunny here in Malibu. The temperature is in the 70s and we will probably take a walk on the beach after lunch.

At this very moment there’s a blizzard blowing in Minneapolis. The temperature is 20 degrees below zero. The wind chill factor could be minus 30 degrees. Nevertheless, the schools are open, the plows are out, and the buses are running. And what’s most important, the Vikings have a game this weekend.

Minnesotans are a hardy bunch, and as I reflect back to the twenty-three winters I lived in the “Twin Cities” (Minneapolis and St. Paul) snow storms and bone-chilling temperatures went with the territory. Some of my early experiences with Minnesota winters are remembered here and also in the “Bits and Pieces” segment of Geoff Nate’s first blog, which can be accessed through the Archives in the “Paper Boy” segment of Geoff Nate’s first blog.


The Minnesota winters and the ice covered lakes in Minneapolis represented any number of challenges to the kids in our neighborhood. We couldn’t wait to test the ice in the late fall when the lakes were beginning to freeze over and later again during the spring thaw. The fact that there were “Thin Ice Unsafe” signs everywhere just heightened the temptation. We would sprint across the new ice, daring to pause for no more than a second or two. We did the same during the spring melt when it was crystalizing into what we called “rubber ice”.

The distance across the lagoon in back of our house varied from fifty to one-hundred-and-fifty yards. When the police ran down to reproach us we simply ran across to the other side, knowing they wouldn’t dare to follow. Sometimes we would get caught and reprimanded, and once in a while they might take us home in their squad cars and insist on seeing our parents. My mother would offer them some coffee and strudel; my dad, one of his best cigars, and I usually got off with a “you should know better.”

kids on thin ice

“Go ahead… give it a try… You can make it.”

Thin Ice 2

Don’t believe in signs.

It’s amazing that just about every kid tried it, and though we all fell in at one time or another, we never lost anybody. At least not in the winter. Later, as lifeguards on the public beaches during the summer, we weren’t so lucky.


There are no mountains in Minnesota, and hills are few and far between. In the winter when the frozen lakes were covered with snow, we would hike across them on skis to reach the closest thing to hills at Glenwood Park. The park was on the other side of Cedar Lake, a hike of three or four miles. We didn’t have cross-country skis or bindings or even ski boots in those days, and we used sticks for ski poles.

A beautiful morning for a ski hike

I think the closest I ever came to a “near death experience” was one winter day in late February on the way home from one of those hikes. It was bitter cold and almost dark and we, a couple of buddies and I, had to ski back across that lake against a biting wind. Though we stopped at intervals and helped each other as best as we could, all I wanted to do was lie down. I don’t know how we made it across the lake.

skiing across a lake

A dark and bitter-cold return

Did we tell our parents? Never. Did we learn a lesson? Certainly. Did we try it again a week later? Of course.

I guess you could liken those adventures to the kind of blind “It can’t happen to me” attitude of California surfers challenging the big ones against red flag or white shark warnings.

Actually, as the ice hardened on the lake, we would shovel off the snow and make our own hockey rinks. Nothing fancy, just a couple of boots or even chunks of snow as goals.

Geoff Hockey

Great “stick”… Weak ankles

I was an OK hockey player as a kid until my ankles gave out about fifteen minutes into the game. However, our neighborhood produced some very good hockey players who became the nucleus of our high school’s state championship team. Several members of that team went on to play hockey in college, and one was an All-American who played on the 1952 U.S. Olympic team.

Minnesotans are certainly a hearty bunch. For some, fishing is a year-round passion, even when the lakes are frozen over and covered with snow. I could never understand why a man would go out in below zero weather, chop a little hole in the ice, and wait all day for a fish to come along and take his imitation worm.

Some of the more ambitious, and perhaps more comfort-oriented, good old boys still drag little houses out on the lakes and spend the day smoking cigars, drinking aquavit and waiting for a random jerk on a line.


Just to give the reader an idea of how cold those Minnesota winters can be: I was on the University of Minnesota swim team. The athletic facility where the indoor pools were located was on the east end of the campus. The streetcar, as well as the closest public parking, was two long blocks away.

Geoffrey Swimming

‘Butterfly’ soon to be grounded by weather

The Big Ten intercollegiate swim season was in the winter, of course. As a team member I was expected to work out four days a week. My routine was to swim a mile or two after classes, walk over to the streetcar stop, ride it downtown and transfer to a bus that would take me home.

Phi Epsilon Pi

Frat pin

When exiting the pool building during those bitter cold winter months, the temperature was always below freezing and often below zero. Cap or no cap, my damp hair would freeze. It was dark, of course, and if I was lucky, my wait for the streetcar wouldn’t be more than fifteen minutes. As happens, there was a fraternity house between the athletic building and the streetcar. I stopped in one day to thaw out my head. Fortunately I met some nice guys and, though fraternities were out of fashion for “jocks” in those days, I pledged the next semester.



Beautiful 1947 Torpedo Back Buick Super

My dad was a Buick man. I think he had an old college chum whose family owned a dealership in downtown Minneapolis. He had taught me how to drive a few years before in his 1939 Roadmaster. If there were driver training classes in those days, I never attended one. Most of the year learning to drive around the Lakes in our part of town was easy. Traffic was almost non-existent, and you could drive a mile or two between stop signs.

Winter driving, however, represented more of a challenge, as I was to learn the hard way late one bitter cold evening in December of 1948. It was a cold night, and I was returning home from a date driving the family’s beautiful navy blue torpedo backed Buick “Super”. The city had done a pretty good job plowing its streets. Nevertheless, what was left by the plows was an icy glaze which is usually treated by a city truck spreading sand or rock salt.

terry moore

Terry Moore fantasy?

But there’s some history involved here, which dates back to a little dalliance that had occurred one evening a few weeks before when my parents returned home earlier than usual. They found me asleep in a compromising situation with one of my baby sister’s attractive young nursemaids, who looked a lot like the actress Terry Moore. There was an embarrassing confrontation, and needless to say she was asked to leave the next day and was replaced by a squat Norwegian woman in her fifties.

The cute little brunette had no trouble finding another nursemaid job in St. Paul, and our romance continued on the sly. At least until that fateful evening when I took my Terry Moore ‘fantasy’ to the “Minnesota Theatre”, one of the country’s largest movie houses. To this day I remember the picture, “Portrait of Jenny” starring Jennifer Jones.


What happened to those wonderful movie love seats?

We found our way down the aisle in the semi-darkness and settled into one of those special seats for two, a popular feature in movie houses at the time.

I don’t know what I said as we snuggled into our “love seat”, but the woman directly in front of us turned around and glared. Impossible! It was my mother, who, with my father, just happened to be at the same movie on the same night at the same time… and right there in front of me with my “forbidden fruit”.

Without hesitation, after prodding my father to turn and confront the evidence, my mother declared that if “I wasn’t home within thirty minutes” after the movie’s end… “Don’t come home at all.”

Not another word was said, except my illicit date and I moved away to conventional seats on the other side of the theatre. Though I certainly did not, my date loved the movie, and probably enjoyed the confrontation. That incident was only the beginning of one of the most terrible nights of my young life. After dropping her off in St. Paul, and knowing I was probably never going to meet my mother’s impossible time table, I decided to take a shortcut home.

My timing was terrible. It was snowing heavily, and I found myself driving down the Franklin Avenue hill; one of the few hills in our part of town. It was after a snow storm and between that hill’s plowing and its scheduled sanding or salting. I didn’t have a chance. I never should have touched my brakes, because I was immediately thrown out of control, bouncing off a snowbank on one side of the road and into a tree on the other.


“Beautiful Buick Super”… Minnesota weather casualty

Buick made a tough car in those days. The bumper, hood and fender absorbed the brunt of the collision with that tree. Though I was certainly shaken up, I got out of the car without so much as a scratch or a bruise.

Luckily, there were no other cars driving up or parked on that hill. With the exception of my self-esteem, the damage was confined to my dad’s 1947 Torpedo-backed Buick Super.

Smashed as it was, I was nevertheless able to drive the car to the Kenwood Garage which was less than a half mile away. However, what with the left fender rubbing against the tire, I was forced to leave the car parked in the garage lot.


The other way home

Our home was on the other side of the lake and a good mile away. It was below zero, and the buses were few and far between. I was lucky to hitch a ride home, but it was well after midnight. I slipped into the house and climbed up the stairs to the room I shared with my brother.

“Where have you been?” he asked.

“You don’t want to know,” I replied.


Gilbert Nathanson, “Class Act”

My mother wasn’t talking to me the next day, of course, however my dad and I discussed the accident over breakfast and what I might have done to prevent it. We drove over to the Kenwood Garage in my mother’s Studebaker convertible.  My father, class act that he was, simply told me to write it off as “unfortunate timing”.

“It’s OK,” he said. “It could happen to anyone.”

Any questions about why I revered my father?

There is no real postscript to this story except to say my father, coming from a family of six brothers, loved retelling it to his friends in front of my mother. From his perspective I was just maintaining the Nathanson family reputation.

Mud Season


First sign of spring

My next adventure with that torpedo backed Buick occurred later that spring. Inevitably those Minnesota winters pass on. The snow melts, the ice thaws, the cardinals arrive, and Minneapolis enters its famous mud season.

Winter Storm

Lover’s Lane nemesis

Our city, with its beautiful lakes, offered many lovers’ lane opportunities, even in the winter. As one might expect however, the most popular sites were often patrolled by the Minneapolis Police Department. Finding a patrol-free private spot to park with your date was always a bit of a challenge.

One unforgettable incident occurred on a spring night while parked with my then ‘great love’ in an old abandoned gravel quarry that was well off the grid on the east side of town.


“Sunday Monday and Always”

As I remember it was a beautiful evening. The radio was playing a new Frank Sinatra number during a magnificent meteor shower. It was a night to remember. It was getting late however, and my friend, looking at her watch, remembered that she had an early morning class.

“Sorry about that,” I said, starting the car and beginning to back up.

stuck in the mud

Torpedo Buick in deep

Not to be. The wheels were turning, but we were going nowhere. In fact, the more I gunned the motor the deeper the rear wheels sank into the mud. Note: Standard passenger cars didn’t come equipped with four-wheel or even front wheel drive in those days.  I climbed out of the car to examine the situation. Our rear tires were deep in mud. It was 10:00 at night and we were stuck down in that gravel pit, a half mile off the main road and at least twice that distance from the nearest phone.

“We’ll  have to get help,” I told my date. “You stay in the car and lock the doors. I am going to hike out of this place and try and find someone to give us a tow.”


To the rescue… well, almost.

It must have taken me at least fifteen minutes to reach the highway where a good-Samaritan drove me to a phone. I called an all-night garage who sent out a tow truck. We drove back down into the gravel pit to a point about twenty feet from my car, to which the driver connected a heavy chain.

“Ok,” he said, “put your gears into reverse, but don’t step on the gas until I blow my horn.”

We felt the tug as the tow truck driver began backing up. You could hear and feel the chain straining. He blew his horn, and I gunned my motor. My wheels spun, but we were going nowhere. We tried it several more times, but with the same result.

He turned off his motor, got out of his truck and shook his head. “You are really stuck,” he said, adding that we would have to try it again tomorrow with bigger equipment. He unleashed his chain, and suggested that my date and I get into his vehicle. We squeezed into the cab of his truck. He started to back out. His wheels began to spin only to discover that he too was going nowhere. Like my Dad’s Buick, his tow truck was, itself, stuck in the muck.

What with the muddy trek out of that gravel pit and the long cab rides, it was after midnight by the time my date and I reached our respective homes. The following day, my dad called for another bigger tow truck which, with the use of a longer, stronger chain, managed to haul the first tow truck and our Buick out of that mud hole… a project that, in the end, cost me $75 plus cab fare, which would be like $500 in 2014 money. It was a fortune for a college kid in those days.  For comparison, unlike today’s highly inflated cost of a so-called higher education, my tuition that year at the University of Minnesota was $49 a semester.

Epilogue: Though my folks shrugged off, what to me was certainly the most embarrassing experience of my young life, my girlfriend’s parents weren’t so understanding. It would have taken the muscle of ten tow trucks to save that romance.

Want a taste of Minnesota’s famous Polar Vortex without leaving the comfort of your computer? Click “Play” below.

“The Chinese General”  [Open]


4 thoughts on “Tri-Polar Express

  1. Sandra Joy

    Loved these stories. What a childhood you had. And, what a memory!

  2. Thomas Nathanson

    Late night car crashes and a ‘Class Act’ Father! Sounds pretty familiar to me. I now see where your compassionate and forgiving nature comes from. Thanks Pop!

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