A Pail of Air

The earth became so cold that the air fell as snow upon the surface. We would have to leave our sealed shelter in spacesuits, carrying buckets and shovels to acquire air, to then be thawed out inside by a heat source.

Nearly so.

First Bell, an hour past midnight, the outside temperature is 10° with a wind thrill of minus 10° below zero, wind 21 mph, mostly cloudy. Radar shows the bands of rain, ice, and snow, at a 45° angle SW to NE moving mostly east, stretching now from Houston Texas, approaching Jackson Mississippi, and all the way to north of New York City. As the main band of snow passed through Oklahoma at sunset, most of it briefly broke up and dissipated south of Oklahoma City while intensifying to the north, then growing back its southwestern half after moving on toward the east. Therefore, Norman barely received a trace at most – snow blowing in thin layers across the pavement of the parking lot, driveway, and street.

For greatest comfort while sleeping, I put the dome tent back up. Think of it as being like a mosquito net, but enclosing my air bed. Sealed, it holds the heat in a small space like a hot air balloon. The small personal heater, less powerful than a space heater, is enough to heat the interior of the dome tent to about 80° – falling to 60° in about a 90-minute sleep cycle. It only takes a couple of minutes to have it on to restore the heat, so I don’t need to keep it on while sleeping, making it a safer option. It has little impact on the electric bill, and saves on the gas heat bill during the cold nights like tonight – although this night is much worse than usual for winter here.


“A Pail of Air” is a science fiction short story by Fritz Leiber which appeared in the December 1951 issue of Galaxy Magazine and was dramatized on the radio show X Minus One in March 1956. By the way, I was born 5 March 1956. From Wikipedia…

  • The story is narrated by a ten-year-old boy living on Earth after it has become a rogue planet, having been torn away from the Sun by a passing “dark star”. The loss of solar heating has caused the Earth’s atmosphere to freeze into thick layers of “snow”. The boy’s father had worked with a group of other scientists to construct a large shelter, but the earthquakes accompanying the disaster had destroyed it and killed the others. He managed to construct a smaller, makeshift shelter called the “Nest” for his family, where they maintain a breathable atmosphere by periodically retrieving pails of frozen oxygen to thaw over a fire. They have survived in this way for a number of years.
  • At the end, they are found by a search party from a large group of survivors at Los Alamos, where they are using nuclear power to provide heat and have begun using rockets to search for other survivors (radio being ineffective at long range without an ionosphere). They reveal that other groups of humans have survived at Argonne, Brookhaven, and Harwell nuclear research facilities as well as in Tannu Tuva, and that plans are being made to establish uranium-mining colonies at Great Slave Lake or in the Congo region.

It previously was published in Galaxy magazine in December 1951…


I first read that short story in 1975 in…


…a collection of short stories presented by Robert Silverberg. Includes…

  1. The Year of the Jackpot by Robert A. Heinlein
  2. Billennium by J.G. Ballard
  3. A Pail of Air by Fritz Leiber
  4. The Electric Ant by Philip K. Dick
  5. The Last of the Romany by Norman Spinrad
  6. Battlefield by Harlan Ellison
  7. All the Last Wars at Once by George Alec Effinger
  8. The Pain Peddlers by Robert Silverberg
  9. Dodkin’s Job by Jack Vance

Would you like to hear the original NBC Radio broadcast of A Pail of Air in 1956? Here is the link…

Listen to A Pail of Air on X Minus One, NBC Radio, 1956.

Or, listen to it via YouTube…

Reported by Jim Lantern in Norman, Oklahoma
1:00am CT Sunnight, 18 December 2016

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Categories: Climate, Environment, Science Fiction, Short Stories, Weather | Tags: , | Leave a comment

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