2017-01-05 / Voices

Whatever Happened to Dressing For the Weather?

Freelance Writer & Radio Producer
Making a Noise in this World

It’s not often that I’m up at “crack-of-dawn”. In fact, as a “late-night writer” I’m generally just turning in as the rest of the world’s alarm clocks go off.

But duty sometimes requires stepping outside your comfort zone. Thus I found myself driving north 2 hours before sunrise toward the small Black Hills town of Rockerville. The local volunteer fire department was scheduled to conduct a prescribed fire on a significant number of historic buildings there and I’d opted to cover the event for a radio story.

When I say “historic” I’m not talking vestiges of the Old West, but buildings that were part of the town’s 1960s tourist heyday and had since fallen into disrepair.

As I stood in the dark on Rockerville’s Main Street interviewing Fire Chief Gail Schmidt I realized that my gloved hand was growing numb while I held the microphone before her.

It was cold. Not “arctic tundra” cold. But definitely “those other gloves would have been much better except I can’t hold the mic or operate my phone video camera with them” cold.

I soldiered on for the 2 hours from the time I arrived, through the fire chief’s briefing and while waiting for everything to eventually come together for ignition of the buildings.

Yes, my car was there and warm – but you can’t cover a story sitting in your car. And I hate to miss anything.

Yes, I had a down parka on - but anyone who’s been in the military will recall how standing around waiting always magnifies the cold.

Fortunately, Chuck Little Bull had agreed to open The Gaslight restaurant much earlier than usual on a Saturday to accommodate the firefighters and anyone who arrived to witness their work. He kindly permitted me to step inside the Rockerville landmark before the doors were unlocked to warm my frigid bones.

Lakota hospitality.

When ignition finally came the buildings comprising the primary focus of the prescribed fire – a former strip mall – were slow to catch fire. Once they did it was like a scene from “Backdraft”.

And though I’ve covered fires before and been close to them, I’d never been this close for this long. Needless to say the more the buildings burned, the hotter they got. So much so that people felt the heat as they stepped out the front doors of The Gaslight – several hundred feet away.

Little wonder then that standing within 50 feet to capture sounds of the crackling flames I shortly removed my gloves, contemplated removing my parka and actually felt the hair on the back of my neck growing warm.

As I stood across the street a bit later observing the fire reduce what was once a local tourist draw to cinder and ashes, I fell to talking with a community elder. Conversations taking the turns they will - and perhaps because of the fire’s glow, the ascending sun and the impending cold snap – the topic eventually rested upon dressing for the weather and why so many don’t.

That young mother at the mall, for example, dressed in a t-shirt and jeans with two similarly clad toddlers in tow and no evidence of winter coats as I walked in chilled from single digit temps.

Or those teens the old-timer saw snowboarding near his home dressed like that young mother but for one wearing shorts.

As far as I’m concerned choosing what you wear - and when - is right up there with choosing your brand of toothpaste; whatever helps you smile. But I wonder what parents are teaching their children – or not – when they don’t seem to be able to properly dress themselves.

Overreacting? Hardly. Google “How to dress toddler for winter” and you’ll get 17,700,000 results – so there’s obviously a need for guidance.

Moreover, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has noted an increase in deaths from hypothermia across the country and in all age groups. The most recent statistics show more than 6,600 people died of hypothermia over a 4-year period, including 49 children, and nearly 700 in the “hearty, healthy” age range of 15 to 44.

Several winters back a young South Dakota man was found dead after his car broke down and he left it to walk for help – without a coat on. It wasn’t that he didn’t own a coat. He’d just left it at home. Who needs a coat when you have a car?

It’s one thing wearing the wrong winter gloves because they fit your work needs. It’s quite another failing to teach your children how to dress for the weather when the results could be fatal.

Jim Kent is a freelance writer and radio producer who lives in Hot Springs. He is a contributing columnist to the Lakota Country Times and former editor of The New Lakota Times. He can be heard on South Dakota Public Radio, National Public Radio and National Native News Radio. Jim can be reached at

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