Jerome Christenson: No more Zero Heroes
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Jerome Christenson: No more Zero Heroes

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It was 16 degrees outside my window as I settled down to read the morning paper.

The room still carried a bit of overnight chill, so I kicked the furnace up a notch and went back to the Strib. I turned to the B section, looked over the cover, then tapped at the National Weather Service app on my phone.

The temperature in Minneapolis was 8.

Many years ago, when I was a Boy Scout — member of Troop 51 — one of the highlights of the scouting year was a weekend winter camp at Camp Decorah tucked away in the remote forested wilderness a few miles outside Holmen, Wis. We roughed it in faux-log cabins heated by a pair of propane burners and a big, roaring fireplace at the far end. We cooked our rancho beans on a gas stove, washed up in hot water from the kitchen tap and braved the nighttime gloom in the double-deck bunk room until whichever adult dared to accompany us flipped on the lights and groggily demanded we settle down and get to sleep.

There was one other option, however. With a permission note from your mother and a heavy-duty sleeping bag that passed the scoutmaster’s inspection, the older, more experienced campers could lug one of the troop’s heavy canvas tents out behind the lodge and set it up just off the lighted trail between the cabin and the camp latrine. The adventurers would trundle out of the bunkhouse just before lights-out, scarved and bundled, toting sleeping bags that had been warming by the fire since supper, to brave the elements until breakfast and the break of day.

If the night was sufficiently chill, there’d be a special patch awarded them at the next troop Court of Honor — Zero Hero — recognition for the extraordinary feat of spending a subzero night in a makeshift shelter and emerging from the experience none the worse for wear.

That was a patch I never sought. Truth be told, I was always quick to lay claim to the bunk in closest proximity to the largest heater — and an upper at that, prompted by the fun physics fact that warm air rises and the nearer the ceiling I slept, the toastier I’d be.

A Midwest winter is no time to be sleeping under the stars.

Especially if you’re not a Boy Scout.

And the folks in that picture on the front page of the Minnesota region section of Tuesday’s Star-Tribune weren’t Boy Scouts — though they certainly were doing a good deed. They were students from St. John Vianney Seminary bringing blankets to give to the residents of the south Minneapolis homeless encampment we’ve been reading about, hearing about, seeing on TV for months.

But it wasn’t the blanket-toting young people — white, healthy, well-bundled against the cold — that struck my eye. It was the lines of makeshift shelters, random plastic sheeting stretched across flimsy frameworks of sticks, poles and whatever. Wedged on a sliver of barren ground between a blank wall and city street, they looked appropriate for a gang of neighbor kids to put together for a summer night’s backyard sleep-out, hardly shelter against winter in the north.

But for more than 200 people, for now at least, that’s what it is. To its credit, the Minneapolis City Council has appropriated $1.5 million to relocating the camp residents. But for now, plastic wrap and donated blankets stand between them and the 8-degree cold.

Just a few degrees colder and they’ll all be Zero Heroes.

And they’re just the ones who made it into the newspaper; who’ve attracted the attention of the public; who have seminarians bringing blankets and city councils making appropriations. Across Minnesota, best estimates are that 15,000 men, women and children aren’t sure where they will sleep tonight. Across the river in Wisconsin, that number is estimated at 20,000.

Tonight, the weather service forecasts a balmy 25 degrees outside my window. The snow won’t melt, and there will be frost on my windshield in the morning. But there’s a roof over my head, and doubtless over yours. The furnace kicks in with regularity and the plumbing is indoors.

We’ve got ours, yet, there, but for the grace of God ...

Jerome Christenson is a former reporter, columnist and editor at the Winona Daily News.


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