Prairie Lights: Fleeting memories of terrible heat

I’m not usually one for looking at weather forecasts.

Ed Kemmick

I figure that because the weather is something you can’t change, what’s the point of reading about what it is expected to be? But it’s hard not to be interested in the near future when  you’re looking at a string of six days with temperatures of 100 or above.

That’s what my phone tells me anyway, courtesy of my Weather Channel app. On Saturday, it was forecasting highs of 103 on Wednesday, 100 on Thursday, 102 on Friday and Saturday, 104 on Sunday, and 101 on Monday.

On my laptop, the Weather Channel forecast was slightly less dire—showing a string of “only” four days at 100 or above.

The National Weather Service, meanwhile, said the hottest day through Saturday will be Wednesday, with a high of 99. The Billings Gazette’s seven-day forecast was showing Wednesday’s high as 101, and then 100 on Friday.

Hmm. I am remembering another reason I don’t often look at the forecasts—it is such an inexact science. For that matter, it’s not easy to find agreement on historical weather records, either.

The Intellicast website, which bills itself as “The Authority in Expert Weather,” whatever that means, has a list of high-temperature records for every day of July in Billings.As far as I could tell, not one of its daily records for July correlates with National Weather Service records for the same day.

Whatever the actual temperatures turn out to be this week and next, it seems safe to say it’s going to be damned hot, though we don’t appear to be heading for any records.

According, again, to the National Weather Service, there were four days above 100 degrees in 2002—including a streak of 107, 106 and 108 on July 12, 13 and 14. And that 108 record was the highest official reading in the history of Billings. In July 2007, there weren’t any record-breaking days, but the temperatures climbed to 100 or above on eight days.

The good news is that I was here for both of those terrible stretches, and yet I don’t remember either of them. Those three days in 2002, when the high didn’t dip below 106, must have been hell. I know we were living in a 1,200-square-foot house with a small air conditioner jammed into one living room window, but I don’t have a single memory of those three days.

If I scrubbed my mind clean of memories of the hottest day in the history of Billings, why do I have countless, vivid memories of the coldest stretch I have ever endured, right around Christmas in Butte in 1983, when it got as cold as 52 below?

Maybe because that kind of cold could kill you in a very short while, if you happened to be stuck out in it. So living through it seems like an actual achievement, rather than simply a period of agony. But 108? You could be really miserable for a very long time, but it’s not likely to kill you.

When the thermometer first hit 40 below in Butte, by the way, we all figured what the hell, even if the temperatures kept dropping, it couldn’t get much worse. It did, going deeper into your bones with every degree of cold, like the icy fingers of death.

I heard a weatherman saying something similar about the record 120 degrees of heat in Phoenix last week. People there, accustomed to triple-digit heat, told themselves a few more degrees wouldn’t make much difference. They did. He spoke of being outside for a little while and feeling as though your eyeballs were drying out.

So, yeah, bring on the heat, whichever forecast is correct. As long as we don’t break the record of 108, we’ll probably get through it. And then, some weeks, months or years later, we won’t even remember it. Or so I sincerely hope.

Ed Kemmick has been a newspaper reporter, editor and columnist since 1980. Except for four years in his home state of Minnesota, he has spent his entire journalism career in Montana, working in Missoula, Anaconda, Butte and Billings. “The Big Sky, By and By,” a collection of some of his newspaper stories and columns, plus a few essays and one short story, was published in 2011.