STARKWEATHER, N.D. — A couple of dozen farmers took shelter in the small cafe and played cards as the wind howled outside. The temperature was 15 below, the wind chill minus 45.
"Warm day," allowed the operator of the local grain elevator, Hank Schaack, 53. "It was 38 below last week with the wind chill of 74. Sometimes it gets so cold in Starkweather it turns your eyeballs."
Half the farmers were playing a card game called Smear, the other half a card game called Buck Euchre, as is their custom nearly every winter afternoon at Kathleen Besse's K-B Cafe. Besse, 83, has owned and operated the eatery since 1931.
"One good thing about a day like this, the mosquitoes aren't biting," farmer Dave Anders, 55, said with a laugh as the cafe owner made her rounds refilling the card players' cups with hot coffee.
High school athletic teams in Starkweather, population 210, are called Storm Kings and Storm Queens.
Cruel, cold, blustery winters are a way of life in North Dakota, the heart of the great central prairie where there are no mountains to break the fast-moving Arctic storms coming out of Canada. The storms blow in so fast locals call them Alberta Clippers.
Residents of the sparsely populated state (660,000) are hearty souls braving some of the coldest day-in, day-out winter-long temperatures recorded in America, as well as some of the fiercest storms.
And, the end is nowhere in sight. March in North Dakota is traditionally the month of the year's worst blizzards. North Dakota has blizzards in April. Sometimes in May.
It's so cold in North Dakota that undertakers place the dead in unheated concrete holding buildings at local cemeteries to await burial during the spring thaw. The ground here this winter is frozen four- to six-feet deep.
In Jack Case's "Etc." column on the front page of the Bismarck Tribune the other day, Case's parting peroration was:
"What's black and blue and bloody and crawls on its hands and knees in the gutter?
"The next S.O.B. who asks if it's cold enough for me."
In Bismarck, the state's capital, upwards of 500 hikers show up every day as early as 6 in the morning to get their exercise in the warmth of the Kirkwood Mall. Shops open at 10 a.m. but the front door of the mall is opened four hours earlier to accommodate the "wall walkers."
"They call us wall walkers because we walk through the corridors along the shop walls where distances are marked from one point to another," explained Wendelin Doll, 66, who walks eight miles a day inside the warm building. "Walking outside in this cold weather is unthinkable," he added.
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At Grafton (pop. 5,300), one of the coldest spots in the state, four mailmen are "out in it" no matter how unthinkable the weather every weekday. They each walk about 12 miles a day. They are Dennis Lykken, 44, 18 years on the job; Gene Pribula, 48, 27 years; Jim Byzewski, 44, 18 years, and Bob Mlcoch, 43, 21 years.
They claim to have the coldest foot-mail route in the nation.
"It's not an easy life, let me tell you," Lykken sighed. "People say they get used to North Dakota cold. The four of us have been out in it for years and we will never get used to it.
"We freeze our faces several times each year. It happens on a day when maybe the temperature is zero or as high as 10 above and there's no wind and we forget our protective face masks and a sudden Arctic storm blows in. Freezing your face is like getting a bad sunburn. The skin blisters and peels off."
Each Grafton mailman wears long johns, three pairs of trousers, a heavy shirt, two sweaters, a parka with a hood, boots and gloves. The snow and ice never melts all winter in most places in North Dakota.
"The post office shows us films every year how to fall on ice, what to do when you're going down," explained Lykken. "Trouble is we don't have the time to think about the right way to fall when we slip on the ice."
At Pembina (population 700), the coldest weather station in the state, weatherman George Motl, 52, who also runs the local water plant, noted that the lowest temperature in town was below zero every day from Dec. 16 to Feb. 20, and the highest temperature was below freezing every day from Dec. 16 to Feb. 20. Wind chill has been as low as minus 90 this February in Pembina.
On Feb. 21, the town had its first break in cold weather in nearly two months when it warmed up to a low of 10 above and a high of 33. This past Tuesday, however, the temperature again plummeted to below zero as the state was raked by blizzards.
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North Dakota is wide-open spaces, mile after mile of grain farms and a sprinkling of tiny towns, each with a grain elevator. The wind seldom lets up.
Snow is blown from one end of the state to the other almost incessantly. The countryside is desolate, empty and cold in winter with lonely farmhouses, barns and graineries dotting the prairie.