Friday, January 10, 2014

Show No Enthusiasm; Don't Complain


Winter came like a postcard a long time ago. The snow drifted down in slow motion, the big, fat flakes parachuting in and accumulating gently on the frosted earth. There was a lot, all at once, and in the morning the birdhouse wore a pope's hat, and the birdbath was a cheesecake. The sun shone and the trees wore their coat of flakes like ermine.

Then the rain came. It turned the pope's hat to a drunkard's fedora, and the cheesecake to a dog's breakfast. It came down mechanically, at an angle that could be measured anywhere along its route, as methodical as a secret policeman; the icicles on the eaves turned from a little fringe to dragon's teeth. The trees threw their coats on the ground with their shivering, and left craters like the moon in the slumping snow.

Then it did it all again. Snow fell on top of the icy film over the styrofoam snow, and brought Currier and Ives back to town. Then the ice came and put Currier and Ives in the stocks in the town square for the crime of being jolly out of turn, and pelted them with everything handy. The roads turned to suggestions. The pavement was just the bottom layer of an arctic lasagne of sand and ice and mud and snow and general corruption. My wife's car and my truck told me to shove it more than once when I turned their keys.

Then the thermometer began a truth or dare phase. It had been ten degrees below normal for months, but now it wanted to impress people. Pinch the unwary. Show you who's in charge around here. Twice it showed me twenty below and kept going, and days ticked off the calendar, one after another, without ever reaching the number one. The ladder to spring had been drawn up into the calendar's treehouse. We'd have to set a spell and wait for it.

There is no heat but what we can make. I shoveled the logs into the stove like a man in the belly of some great, dripping, iron ship, while icebergs passed by the portholes in first class. Nothing you could do could touch twenty below. You could set your house itself on fire and not raise the temperature in the living room ninety degrees. What chance do you and your disassembled birches and beeches have?  But one bails a leaky rowboat whether you have a bucket or a teaspoon.

My neighbor passed by and said he was angry at his thermometer today. I understood, because he felt the thermometer had betrayed him. It was still five below at nine o' clock this morning, and that was a shiv in the guts from a friend. He was promised by the man on the TeeVee, who combs his hair a lot, that it would be warmer today.

We were out of firewood. Well, not out, exactly; I'm a fool, but not that big of one. There were still three cords sleeping in the back yard where we stacked them in August to dry. But there was no more in the house. We'd put three cords in the basement, and all but a few junks were gone in a puff of woodsmoke already. It will rain again tomorrow, and be miserable to be outside, and handling firewood in the rain is a penance not to be inflicted on the innocent. The time to get more was today. 

My son came out with me. He shows no enthusiasm, but does not complain. It's the mark of an adult, I think. The sun looked like a cataract and hung low in the sky, skulking across the horizon for the few hours it deigns to shine in January, and looks ashamed of itself the whole time. You could look right at it, but why would you? You look at the ground right in front of you, and that's that. We shoveled the top layer of snow and ice to get halfway to the ground, and walked on the skin of ice over the first heaping of snow as we went. The ice was almost strong enough to hold my weight for every footfall, but every once in a while the heel of my boot would punch a hole in it, and my knee would hinge backwards and remind me that I hit a hurdle when I was in tenth grade and that I wrecked a car when I was nineteen. Winter is very solicitous here, and worries you might get the Alzheimer's, and tries to help you remember things. 

In the fall, we'd made and installed four, great big swinging barn doors leading out of our basement into the paved yard where the firewood slumbered. The firewood only had to travel twenty feet. The nature of those twenty feet was the issue. There was a buttress of ice eighteen inches thick holding the doors closed. The eave above had basted the snow that collected there with water, over and over, until it was as solid and unyielding as any revetment. We stood like Napoleons looking longingly at Moscow in the winter.

My son got an iron bar we keep for some reason. It's six feet long, as big around as a toddler's wrist, pointed at one end, with a sort-of chisel at the other. This tool is of absolutely no use, until it's essential, like a lawyer or a prostitute. I laid into that bulwark of ice like, like -- like it was the only thing between me and heat tomorrow morning. Ten minutes and the big door swung clear. We dumped the plywood that covers the woodpiles overboard, and then layed them on the iffy ice and snow layer cake on the ground. We rolled a handtruck back and forth over them, and assembled the clanking junks of wood into a wall four feet high and twenty-four feet long in the basement. People here call a piece of firewood a "junk," and firewood that's been dried properly rings with a ceramic tone when you handle them. The last of the wood outside came hard; frozen solid six inches below the level of our feet. The iron bar levered them out, and they joined their brethren. The last of them will no doubt go in the furnace still wearing their necklaces of ice, because it's not warm enough down there to melt it.

My son, who is no longer a child, really, never flagged, never complained once. We spoke almost not at all, because there wasn't much to say. The work would whisper done when there wasn't any more of it. I thought to myself that I would not have been able to do it without him to help me. I wondered -- I very dearly wished -- he might say the same thing about me.

36 comments:

Douglas2 said...

pointed at one end, with a sort-of chisel at the other. This tool is of absolutely no use, until it's essential
I had a fencepost that rotted, set in what seemed like yards of concrete.
I went down to the timber-merchant to inquire about renting what was called a "breaking hammer" over there, and he guided me instead to a big iron bar that was pointed at one end, with a sort-of chisel at the other. You see, I didn't want to rebuild the fence, just replace the few rotting posts right where they were.
That tool made short work of the concrete, and has been so useful for so many other purposes that when it got lost in a move I immediately went out and purchased another.

Sam L. said...

It would appear the Heir is a young man of few words, and a good one. I already knew most of that.

julie said...

Amusingly, there's an ad up in your sidebar for a firewood rack. It's right next to the photo of your woodpile, and seems laughingly and woefully insufficient by comparison.

I thought to myself that I would not have been able to do it without him to help me. I wondered -- I very dearly wished -- he might say the same thing about me.

Considering how well you've done with your boys thus far, I'd bet he would if he gave it a moment's thought. At that age, it's a rare lad who understands enough about his parents to know that truth, and who will spend brain cells on anything besides girls and games; most learn the hard way how much they needed their parents when they've left the nest, and suddenly discover there's a whole universe full of stuff they don't know. Of course, your heir is a rare lad...

H. Gillham said...

I'm just applauding the beauty of the writing here -- your descriptions picturesque -- so that I could not only see the cold but feel it.

I've been thinking about you this winter. You're the only person I know, well virtually know, in Maine. Hope it warms up... soon.

Love the way you write about your boys.

BTW: My husband admired your wood pile last year. It's a beauty. :-)

Anonymous said...

And "junk" is short-talk for "chunk".

Deborah said...

I am so glad to learn that that you and the family have weathered the storm(s). I am terribly ashamed to confess that we bitched loud and long about temperatures here in the Texas hill country and San Antonio, where it fell below freezing a few times. Husband gave away his snow shovel a long time ago muttering, "As God is my witness, I'll never shovel snow again."

We have one of those long pointed poles too, an inheritance from Husband's father who was a welder. Heavy, it is---20 lbs I bet. We've used it for everything, including shifting big heavy rocks the size of a pickup bed (xref: lever and fulcrum). And tamping the dirt in a post hole---because we in Texas must fence at every opportunity. It's in our DNA.

I would give you all my firewood if I could---red oak and mountain cedar. I don't even have a fireplace---don't want one, actually. I love the thermostat on my wall. But every year we lose a least one tree on our little parcel of Hill Country, and dutifully harvest the wood anyway.

GunnarTheElder said...

"It's six feet long, as big around as a toddler's wrist, pointed at one end, with a sort-of chisel at the other." It Texas this thingamabob is known as a "Texas Tooth Pick"

Leon said...

"We spoke almost not at all, because there wasn't much to say"

that and every time you open your mouth you loose heat.

nice to see you're still writing, and doing it so well...now how bout that foundation?

Larry Sheldon said...

Lookit the way that wood is stacked. No wonder "stacked" is a description of beauty.

Matt said...

I'm thinking about what you would be writing if not heat. My father's room was in the attic somewhere in Jersey. He still remembers waking up to rime on his ceiling. We've lost a lot to convenience, haven't we?

leelu said...

"...pointed at one end, with a sort-of chisel at the other."

Lost one of those and my splitting maul when I moved from the left coast over here to the right one.

It was lovingly named "Bubba". (I used the maul for remodeling.)

leelu said...

P.S. My birthday is in about a month.

Casey Klahn said...

Warmth is for wimps, which you clearly are not.

I said, putting on an extra layer...

Thud said...

You make the mundane marvellous.

Sam L. said...

I've heard this a few times: Guy in North Dakota is leaving, and has his snow shovel tied onto the roof. When asked about the shovel, replies, "I'm going to drive south until someone asks me what that thing on the roof is, and there I'll stay."

CletusSocrates said...

Well there's your ExtremeWeather ClimateChangeGlobalWarming
right there

Class factotum said...

Oh man. We complain. I complain. Our driveway is a sheet of ice that we call the Driveway of Death. With the rain on Friday, it became an even more slippery Driveway of Death.

I walk to the bus every morning. Four blocks. Not that far. But if my neighbors have not shoveled the snow from their sidewalks, it's a pain in the neck. It's even worse when that snow melts, then refreezes into a river of ice. It's not light yet and I am trying to navigate a four-block death trap. That's why I walk in the street.

But where I walk does not change the temperature. Fourteen below before windchill is still darn cold. If I cover my face with the bottom part of my hood, it traps my breath and fogs my glasses so I cannot see any surprise ice.

I wear my Lands End rated for -15 coat and it's not warm enough. I wear sweatpants over my tights and under my skirt but it's not warm enough.

I hate it. And I complain, although there is nobody to complain to as we are all in the same boat.

Anonymous said...

Superb. A joy to read.

Bob in Manassas, Virginia USA

randombydesign said...

My father, a strapping young lad from Pennsylvania's Cumberland Gap region, called his iron rod The Persuader. It provided all sorts of leveraging ability as he constructed his house in Oregon, helped neighbors and thought of it as an invaluable item in his tool collection.

Your blog is informative, educational and entertaining on a continuing basis. Thanks for your work.

James said...

The actual name for that long iron bar is a "digging bar." It's an absolutely essential tool for hand-digging trenches and other large holes in hard ground. Spent long hours getting to know one in the military.

And congratulations on raising a boy who mans up and gets a hard physical task done in adverse conditions. That's some fine parenting there.

Anonymous said...

known as a pick bar in these parts, as in its a pickaxe in long heavy bar form. good for digging, moving big rocks, and if no power tool is available, breaking concrete slabs. really good for prying up broken chunks of slab too. btw fine writin'

Anonymous said...

I like the way you arranged your outdoor woodpile. It was very nicely done. I always disliked disorganized woodpiles; they always seemed to be indicators of a person with sloppy work and thinking habits.

Having grown up in Maine, I know it can get awfully cold up there. I hope you've enough wood to see you through to spring. Good luck. Nice writing, by the way.

Anonymous said...

Great read!

We used to use an iron bar like that to get through the caliche in Arizona when I was a kid.

Anonymous said...

Well I've worked with a iron bar exactly like you've described as a pipefitter for 40 years and we've always called it a pinch bar.
For moving heavy objects into a specific location.

Fred Z said...

The word "Insulation" does not appear in the post or the comments.

Why?

Up here in Canada we find that 5.5 inches, or even 11, of fibreglas, with a bit of air barrier, does more to defeat cold than a huge fire.

Ugh. American has big fire but keeps warm carrying wood all day, every day. Canadian carries insulation once, then keeps warm with small fire.

julie said...

Hi, Fred. You must be a newcomer here. You may find your questions answered, at least somewhat, if you click the Maine Family Robinson link, which is also helpfully located at the bottom of the post.

Sam L. said...

I take it the cold has the electrons in the intertunnels on strike in your throat of the world.

Archer said...

Well said. Love your writing, it reminds me of Neal Stephenson. This quote in particular:

“The wind here is a glinting abrasive thing, a perpetual, face-shredding, eyeball-poking tendency in the fabric of spacetime, inhabited by vast platinum-blond arcs of fire that are centered on the low winter sun.” Cryptonomicon

Stay warm!

Katherine said...

Outstanding writing. I'm planning on reading this out loud to my wimps, who shiver and moan when it drops below 70 degres.

Fred Z said...

Ugh. Julie. Not newcomer. Here for long time. Not understand Maine Family Robinson reference. Not understand why Sipp, man of ingenuity and intelligence not buy a few bales of fibreglas and roll of poly. Canucki family Robinfils always do that, keeps Canucki butts from freezing and falling to floor. Perhaps Julie not understand Canucki humor or reference to old, old, old Indian joke.

julie said...

Apologies, Fred; it did sail right over my head. Which isn't hard to do, since I'm way down in the lowlands where 60-degree weather means "wear a sweater"; anything below 40 must be a sign of the apocalypse; and the nearby sandbar is one of the highest points in the state. Canuck humor is so far over my head, it might as well be in orbit, is what I'm saying.

I just assumed that our good host, being as you said a man of ingenuity and intelligence, had found, as my more northerly family members have on many occasions when living in very old and poorly maintained houses, that it doesn't seem to matter how much insulation you cram in there, it always feel as though you're living in a pavilion.

SippicanCottage said...

I hereby apologize, unreservedly and contritely, for my failure to mention insulation, double-entry bookkeeping, Bachman-Turner Overdrive, dingos, Saturn, mascarpone cheese, birdhouses, Anna Maria Alberghetti, windsor chairs, Linux for the desktop, swing arm lamps, red Swingline staplers, ambergris, plutonium, Mel Blanc, Deuce Bigalow, palindromes, AS-400, Mont Blanc pens, Red Wing shoes, fiber reinforced plastic panels, Corinthian columns, haggis, accordions, Kansas City barbecue, the Baltimore Ravens long-snapper, papayas, Bud Light, Imogene Coca, jibsails, Junior Mints, Chippendale breakfronts, red bliss potatoes, Hadrian's Wall, the Dave Clark Five, aromatherapy, Stewart Granger, Tech Hi Fi, tarantulas, Captain Beefheart, ottomans, the Ottomans, Otto the bus driver, Ottorino Respighi, ocarinas, orcas, orchitis, orchids, OSHA, shellac, parsnips, leprosy, Pandro S. Berman, Olivetti typewriters, Charlie Dog, Dinty Moore, water tables, pantaloons, magnets, or any other items germane to the topic at hand that I overlooked.

julie said...

:D

Gringo said...

The Heir has shown he deserves his nickname.

John The River said...

Sipp lives in an old house, I used to live in an old house, well an old horse and cow shed kinda converted by illiterate handymen in 1941. There was no insulation in the walls, and especially no fiberglass insulation because it hadn't been invented at the time. I slapped aluminum storm windows over the old wooden frames when I moved in. Helped a lot, when the cold air has to seep in through the walls is better than when it's blowing straight in.

The biggest difference in winter temperatures between Rumford and Weymouth is the distance to the the ocean plus whats to the north and east. I'm less than five miles from Mass Bay, the wind blowing from the northeast travels over open water. Rumford must be fifty miles from the coast and northeast points to Canada, what we call the Montreal Express. The Express stops here, but Rumford is the first stop on the line. Twelve below is as bad as we got it in this winter (so far).

Years ago my wife and I visited her family on Maui in the Hawaiian islands, in February. When we got there the aunt and uncle were panicking. There was a record, unprecedented cold snap coming that night and their house didn't have any heat, their beds didn't have any blankets, nor did they own a sweater. My wife was alarmed, she liked to be warm, and asked them how low the temperature was going down to?
Fifty, well fifty-five. Maybe. Honestly, that was a record for the islands. Guess it's all about what you are used to.

marvo said...

This tool is of absolutely no use, until it's essential, like a lawyer or a prostitute.

That sentence there deserves wider distribution. It reminds me somewhat of the better parts of Jerome K Jerome or perhaps Twain.