ND’s deep freeze

Author: Jordan Gamble ’11

Polar Bear Plunge photo by Grant Tobin/The Observer

My Californian roommate — the same one who skipped around in sleet her freshman year, so excited finally to see winter precipitation — now starts most winter mornings by checking the temperatures on her laptop, peeking out the window with a resigned sigh, then pulling on boots, gloves and a hat.

But even she caught the snow-day crazies this February, when Notre Dame canceled classes for the first time since 2000.

The rumbles started on a Tuesday night. Students from winter-weather states experienced in this sort of thing led the way with their snow-day voodoo: flushing ice cubes down the toilet, sticking spoons under their pillows, wearing pajamas inside-out, and the capstone: waking up before dawn just to find out if you can sleep in.

At 6:33 a.m. on February 2, cell phones buzzed and email inboxes dinged with the news: “This is an ND Alert,” the message said. “Because of dangerous weather conditions, classes have been cancelled and the campus will be closed today.”

After a few more hours of free sleep, the snow day truly began. Tackle football had roughed up the quads by midday. A brave few ventured out on the maybe-frozen surface of Saint Mary’s Lake before Notre Dame Security Police shooed them to safety. Students sledded down the steps of Bond Hall on trays filched after breakfast — both dining halls were open for regular hours, thanks to a valiant “snow emergency” staff. By late afternoon, piles of wet sweatpants and dripping boots lined dorm hallways and students warmed up by watching TV-show marathons on DVD.

It takes the novelty of a snow day to elicit this kind of schoolkid behavior. The typical student reaction to the South Bend winter includes groans and lots of layers.

When the cold first settles in the waning weeks of the fall semester, it’s a Christmas decoration: comfortable, cheerful, another part of Notre Dame’s postcard aesthetic. In January, the permacloud seems to stretch as far as the expanse of time before spring break.

At least the football schedule chops autumn into palatable chunks, with each week punctuated by either a day of campus pageantry or an afternoon on the futon, catching the game on TV. But this comfortable rhythm doesn’t carry into the spring semester, when events are smaller and sporadic. A Legends concert here, a dorm dance there. Basketball and hockey games in the JACC can be raucous, but they’re over and done in a couple hours.

Football season parades our community spirit on broadcast television, but winter leaves us to our own devices. So we get creative.

The Keenan Revue still kicks off “spring” as it has for the last 36 years: mercilessly mocking life under the Dome. Junior Chase Riddle, the 2011 show’s producer, says the original Revue was just a talent show in the dorm’s basement, started because there was nothing else to do in January and February.

The talent angle was eventually dropped. “Turns out Keenan wasn’t as talented as they thought they were,” says director Grayson Duren, a junior. In its place grew a comedy sketch show satirizing the campus dating scene, arbitrary dorm stereotypes and all the usual fodder from the football media circus.

People take their Domer-specific comedy seriously, and tickets are a hot commodity. This year I showed up two hours early at the JACC box office, where the 4,300 free tickets “sold out” in about 10 minutes. Considering about half the student body sees the show, it’s no surprise the Revue’s jokes often enter the campus vernacular by the end of the three-performance run and stick around for the rest of the semester, if not longer.

After nearly 170 rounds of the frozen season at Notre Dame, you’d excuse students for running out of ideas to avoid the cold and just embrace it. Winter’s chill is an asset for campus fundraisers, such as the I-Domer-Rod, inaugurated in 2011 by Sorin, Pangborn, Lyons and Fisher halls, with entry fees going to the Declan Drumm Sullivan Memorial Fund.

Teams of two to six students playing sled dogs pulled student mushers who were trying to stay seated on plastic toboggans. Afternoon flurries made the already-deep snow all the fluffier for the 12 teams competing in the race down South Quad. Pangborn’s Team Cool Runnings won the women’s bracket and The Knott Men of Knott Hall prevailed over opponents who made the mistake of putting their heaviest teammate on the sled.

Of course, at Notre Dame, things quickly go to extremes. On the annual Day of Man, about 150 men from Siegfried Hall go about their business in flip flops, shorts and a T-shirt. They carry plastic cups to ask for donations to the South Bend Center for the Homeless. A rotation of Ramblers stands 20-minute shifts outside campus crossroads like LaFortune and DeBartolo Hall. For $10, some will even make you a snow angel.

“It’s Siegfried Hall’s way of standing in solidarity with the homeless who are cold every day,” says sophomore Andrew Ritter, Siegfried’s president.

In 2011, the Day of Man happened to be the coldest day of the school year. Ritter says the wind chill was 17 degrees below zero at 5 a.m., when some men were already outside the dorm talking to news crews. But the severe cold probably worked to their advantage. Ritter says the stunt raised about $5,000 just from the cup donations on campus, with even more coming from parents, alumni and people who saw the television reports.

The following Saturday, temperatures had climbed into the high 30s when some 250 beachgoers gathered on the shore of Saint Joseph Lake for the Polar Bear Plunge, sponsored by Badin and Dillon halls. Groups of about 20 took turns stripping down to bikinis and swim trunks, psyching themselves up for a quick dip. Each of the philanthropic masochists paid $5 for the privilege, with the proceeds benefitting the HOPE Initiative, an organization supporting education in Nepal.

So maybe there is something about South Bend’s numbing freeze that makes us want to experience pain — or at least watch others inflict it on each other. The Bengal Bouts boxing tournament, raising money for the Holy Cross Missions in Bangladesh for the 81st time, is easily the most widely attended charity event of the semester. Sure, most of us know someone fighting in the preliminary rounds, but there’s also the factor of seeing that guy from calculus class wearing gold boxing shorts and whaling on the kid who works at the Starbucks in LaFortune.

“To be honest, a lot of them don’t know the best technique . . . so people just like seeing guys beating the crap out of each other,” admits co-president Dominic Golab, a senior. “In the prelims you see a lot of brawls.” By the finals, when the fights are more evenly matched, attendance reaches 3,000 as people turn out to cheer on their friends and support the cause — but also to appreciate the sport.

Even so, few Domers are content to be spectators. Jennie Phillips, the assistant director of campus fitness facilities for RecSports, says cold weather and New Year’s resolutions push many to the gyms. In the fall, Notre Dame’s 8,300 undergrads and 3,300 graduate students are either wrapped up in start-of-school activities or stay outside to exercise, but RecSports recorded almost 53,000 different entries into their facilities in February 2010 — about 18,000 more than the previous September.

Rush hour hits about 3:30 or 4 p.m., Phillips says, although the gym buzz starts in the wee hours and goes late into the evening.

RecSports’ indoor intramural competitions are a bit more eclectic in winter, too. Ping-Pong and innertube water polo are popular, but broomball is a senior-class favorite. It’s basically hockey, but with tennis shoes instead of skates, a ball instead of a puck, and “broomsticks” with a triangular rubber mallet on the end. There are no referees for the midnight games, and the required helmets do little to protect the rest of the body from bruise-inducing wipeouts.

RecSports also offers more than 50 fitness classes from indoor cycling and ballet to Zumba. Phillips notes that attendance drops sharply after spring break, when course work heats up and motivation for a beach bod cools. But it’s certainly not because the break actually coincides with any return of the warm weather conducive to outdoor exercise. “Spring semester” really is a misnomer. In South Bend, winter clings late into March, as do the displays of winter rebellion.

Every March 27th, North Quad becomes a battlefield for one final bracing event, Zahm Independence Day, a water-balloon fight commemorating the Student Senate’s passage in 2007 of a resolution officially recognizing the dorm as “Zahm House.”

Residents divide into two teams — Americans (upperclassmen) and Redcoats (freshmen). Tricorn hats are donned, speeches are given and the lunchtime crowd leaving North Dining Hall stares as the mayhem commences and the Americans force the Redcoats back to the steps of Haggar Hall.

“I guess maybe people just love any excuse to chuck water balloons at freshmen,” says junior Chris Kratschmer, Zahm’s president.

When warm weather does finally come, we students tend to overreact. Anything above 32 degrees and we break out the cargo shorts, flip flops, lacrosse sticks and Frisbees. If the snow melts and sunshine bakes the muddy quads enough, some even lay out a blanket and start their homework.

Indiana being Indiana, these warm snaps are just punking us. More than once I’ve stowed away my parka, just to pull it out again days later when a new snowstorm rolls in. I’ve lived in this state my entire life and have seen my share of horrendous winter weather, but South Bend is a whole other monster. Lake-effect snow piles hip-deep. The air can get so snot-freezing cold it hurts to breathe. The land is so flat the wind has no place to go but faster.

Still, surprises sneak through the gloom. Winter nights are the brightest, with the lamplight shimmering off the snow blanket along the quads, bouncing back into the crisp air. Pinkish hues from South Bend and Mishawaka outline the rooftops in all directions.

I first saw that perpetual dawn over South Quad four years ago when my mother had dropped me off for an overnight visit set up through the admissions office. I’d seen campus the previous August, but that sweltering summer day had nothing on February.

My host, Amy Holt ’10, then a freshman in Badin Hall, showed me around: a theology class in O’Shaughnessy, Latin dance aerobics at Rolfs, dinner in South Dining Hall with her friends. She gave me a lot of valuable advice I’m still using today. For instance:

Hockey games are worth the wait in line for free tickets.

Cut through the engineering building on super-cold days.

Invest in a pair of insulating leggings to wear under jeans.

Take all your visitors to the southwest corner window on the 13th floor of the Hesburgh library and watch their jaws drop at the view of the stadium, the Dome and the whole of campus — especially when it’s sparkling under a fresh layer of snow.

After a late-night movie — Martin Scorsese’s The Departed, which has at least two Notre Dame references and therefore garnered a lot of cheering from the packed lecture hall — we did the requisite prospective-student thing and went down to the Grotto.

It wasn’t postcard perfect. One of the park benches appeared to have been uprooted by an enthusiastic snowplow. But the Grotto was still and quiet, and though I was freezing, I could pretend I felt warm with all the yellow light emanating from the racks of candles.

It was after midnight on the morning of February 2, 2007, and still a handful of people lined the iron rail in front of the candles, their knees dry on red cushions swept clean of snow, their toes in the slush.

I knelt down and, quite honestly, my first thought was not to pray but to wonder if people ever caught their scarves on fire when they bent over the candles to set their own in the rack. It was then that I realized I’d decided to come back for four full winters in this place. I was already thinking about the practicalities of a South Bend winter wardrobe.

The snow stood about 2 feet deep, the temperature hovered in the 20s, and I was in love.

Jordan Gamble is the spring 2011 intern at this magazine.