Cabin Fever 101

 

[A view from the front door.  Photo is unfortunately mine.]

 

Mais ou sont les neiges d’antan!

[Oh, where are the snows of yesteryear!]

–Francois Villon

I can tell you where the snows of yesteryear are.  I can also tell you where the snows of today are…and I can tell you where the snows of tomorrow, next week or two months from now are going to be.  They’re on my front deck, my back deck and three feet deep in our tiny yard.

I wonder why the oceans of the world still contain water.  Most of the moisture of our blue planet seems to be covering the 1.3 acres that surround our home.  In the last week, I’ve shoveled enough of the solid form of water to fill the Erie Canal.

Which brings me to the topic of this post.  Cabin fever.

In legend and lore, in story and in song, the subject of cabin fever is quite common.  It is a well-known condition that affects those in the North Country.  From the gold miners of the Yukon to the fur trappers of Manitoba, grizzled men with beards and red suspenders have been known to lose their minds when confined to a lonely cabin…while the snow falls relentlessly.  Some simply open the door and walk out into the frigid swirling blizzard and are never seen again.  Some crawl under their Hudson Bay point blankets and fall asleep while their wood stove burns low and then turns to embers and then goes out.  Someone will find the body in the Spring time. Others have been known to take their own lives, once the bottle of hooch is empty.  And, others have turned to their fairest friends and best buddies and put a bullet into an unsuspecting brain pan.

I, myself, was driven by near insanity to simply walk out the front door and into the Adirondack forest.  But, the screen door wouldn’t open because of the snow accumulation.  Besides, it wasn’t nearly cold enough…it was only -18 F.

I have been driven to violence.  Two days ago I took a Macy’s carving knife (with a serrated blade) and hacked at a leftover breakfast burrito from the local health food store.

My misery knew no limits.  It puzzled me because, well, we don’t live in a cabin, we live in a house with a number of rooms and a fair library in my den.  There’s always cable television (something the gold seekers of ’49 didn’t have).  No, we have Spectrum with 200+ channels but nothing worth watching.  We have the internet, but how many anti-Trump postings can one person click “like” on?  And, one gets weary of playing Spider solitaire 377 times a day.

So, what to do?  Go out and shovel?  No, we’re expecting 6-9″ this afternoon.  Go to Whiteface and ski?  The lift tickets are too pricey.  Pay $90+ for a chance to get frostbite and/or a compound fracture of my left leg?  Don’t think so.

I think I’ll find a comfortable position on the sofa by the picture window and begin to count the snowflakes as they fall, minute by minute and day by day for the next three months.

 

 

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Adirondack Angst

[After the shovel and before the car door incident.  Photo is mine.]

Once upon a time not so very long ago, there was a man who lived in a house, with his faithful and patient wife, in the Great Wilderness known as the Adirondack Mountains.  These mountains are located in the far reaches of upstate New York.

This man was sore of back and gray of hair.  He had recently spent five weeks in the high desert of California.  He went there looking for solitude and warmth, but instead he found himself surround by neighbors with strange cars and small barking Chihuahuas.  He also wore fleece nearly every day, until it was time to leave…of course.

The man’s eyes stung from the smoke of distant fires and he went through five and a half boxes of tissues, so frightful were his allergies.

Upon returning to his home in the North Country, there was a January thaw that put his limbs at risk with the ice and constant dripping of masses of snow that had recently befallen the countryside.  Then two days ago, his weather app on his iPhone bespoke of a new storm that promised a foot of snow followed by thumb-numbing cold.

When this man awoke this morning, he put off looking out of the bedroom window for fear of what he would behold.  But, he also had another app on his iPhone that told him how much daylight was left in the day.  He checked the temperature.  It was 4 F.  He saw that 75% of the day had passed.  He decided he should get out of bed and shovel a path to the car and clean the snow from the car and try to start the car.

The first two tasks were accomplished with sweat, frost on his mustache and a lower back that had pleaded with him to stop the punishment.

Now to start the car.  But, alas, he found all four doors frozen shut.  Not to worry, he thought.  I have a can of de-icer in the garage.  He pushed the button and the garage door creaked open.  He found the de-icer and pushed the button to close the door.  It didn’t move.  He tried to spray the little button but nothing but a faint hiss came from the spray hole. He shook the can and determined it was full, but not a molecule of de-icer was to be found.

[The frozen car. Photo is unfortunately mine.]

He returned to the house with the spray can, but he was broken of heart and frustration welled up in his soul like a backed-up toilet.

Why have the gods of the North Country forsaken him?  Why did he feel as alone as a Democrat in Mississippi or a Quaker at a Microsoft convention?

Why didn’t he stay in California and buy more tissue boxes?  What had he done in this life or any other life to deserve such anguish?

He checked the weather app on his iPhone and saw that the forecast predicted a low of -22 F for the overnight hours.

The old man poured a cold beer and sat waiting for the bathtub to fill.  He had added about two cups of blue crystals that promised muscle relaxation.  (It never worked before, but tonight would be different).

But this man had a plan.  He would build a fire in the downstairs stove and he and his wife would have a dinner of hot soup.

All will be well tomorrow, he thought.  After all, tomorrow is another day.

He sipped his beer and considered how existentially alone one is in the Universe.  Or, at least in the North Country.

My 400th Blog!

 

[Hi, I’m Fluffy. Remember me? My human, Pat, has used me in other posts in shameless attempts to peddle one of his books.  I hope you like this one. You see, Pat suffers from severe Post Holiday Blues and if he doesn’t get a lot of likes and comments…well, I may have to be sent out to pasture, if you get my drift.  Photo source: Google search.]

 

Writing four hundred blogs is not an easy thing to do.  Even if you’re retired and have little else to fill your time.  It’s an accomplishment of which I am proud.  Some bloggers have written thousands…some have written three.  I know how easy it can be for some people and much harder for others.

Back in the late 1990’s, I taught at the Town School on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.  One afternoon, the technology teacher, Al Doyle, mentioned to me that he wrote ‘blogs’.

“Blogs?”, I said.  “What are they?”

“Anything you want them to be,” he answered.

I listened and learned.

Sometimes the words would come easy to me and, on more than one occasion, I struggled with ways to communicate my thoughts and feelings.  Some bloggers have chosen ‘themes’ to address, such as marital problems, eating disorders, benefits of certain health foods, conspiracy theories, political rants and self-absorbed musings that interest only the writer.

I have chosen to go my own way.  I have no theme.  I write about topics that interest, amuse, fascinate, intrigue and beguile me.  I have experimented with various writing styles and subjected my readers to topics that some would consider morbid or overly maudlin and sentimental.

But, that’s me.  What you read is who I am and that is what you get.

I published my first blog on July 15, 2012.  It was an excerpt from my novel “Standing Stone”.  Since then, I have taken my readers on two cross-country road trips and a partial winter in Fort Myers, Florida when I learned to sail.  I’ve shared my experiences at a rodeo in Yuma, a hike in Zion National Park, a stroll among the sand dunes of Death Valley, a frightening drive pulling our RV into the Yosemite Valley, a Thanksgiving in Orting, WA., a month in Joshua Tree, CA., and several trips to Europe.

I’ve shared memories about childhood sweethearts, meetings with childhood friends and even wrote about the first woman who ever saw me in my life…the doctor who delivered me in a Binghamton hospital on May 31, 1947.

I shared the birth of my grandson and celebrated the lives of my son, Brian, my daughter, Erin and my wife Mariam.

One of my favorite posts was titled “The Brick Pond”.  It recalled childhood innocence and the coming of adulthood.

The blog that was the favorite of my readers was called “This Old House”.  In this, I attempted to convey the sorrow of handing over the keys to the house that I grew up in, a house that was in our family for over fifty years.

I sincerely hope that you, my readers, have enjoyed reading these 400 musings from a humble and insecure writer…myself.

I hope I live long enough to celebrate an 800th blog, or even a 1,000 posting.

Let’s hope.

 

[Source: Google search.]

D’Arcy At The Bat

A bat. [Source: Wikipedia]

bat n : any of an order of night-flying mammals with forelimbs modified to form wings.

[Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary]

I considered naming this post “Listen to them…they are the children of the night. What beautiful music they make” but I decided: a) it was too long for a title, and, b) the possibility of a copyright violation because it was the classic line spoken by Bela Lugosi in the 1931 film Dracula (Universal Studios retain some killer lawyers, I hear).

But, actually my chosen title speaks more to the point of the story (all true, I assure you) as I am about to relate.  Less than 24 hours ago (as I write this), my friend and seasonal neighbor (his real home is in Ohio), D’Arcy Havill, had an hour-long, somewhat contentious, battle with a real bat that entered his house in the dark hours, after sunset and during a rainstorm.

In a sense, it all began as my wife, Mariam and I were finishing dinner at the Belvedere Restaurant in Saranac Lake.  The dinner (I had Salmon) was to celebrate D’Arcy’s wife’s birthday.  Her name is Judy.  You’ve read about this couple in past blogs.

It was a warm muggy afternoon and there were scattered evening thunderstorms.  We drove home in a light sprinkle of rain.  I pulled our car up to their garage and parked.  Judy and D’Arcy opened the garage door and went into their house.  Mariam and I followed…but we took the walkway to the front door.  We were there to end the evening with a bit of chocolate cake and ice cream.  No sooner was I inside and heard the screen door slam shut behind me, I heard D’Arcy say the dreaded words: “Who let the bat in?”  I thought he said “Who let the cat in?” and I became confused because I could see their two cats, Delilah and Sylvester standing in the hallway.  The cats suddenly began to act as though they were walking on a bed of hot coals…they hopped about and were looking up.  There it was.  A bat had come in behind us and was making circular flights around the ceiling fan.  The cats were immediately banished to the master bedroom…and for good reason.  When cats and bats tangle, things can get rough and ugly.

Being from the mid-west, D’Arcy probably had an edge over Mariam and me when it comes to bats.  The Adirondack bat population has plummeted in recent years because of something called “white nose disease” (don’t ask).  Consequently, the mosquito population has spiked (keeping me indoors until the first frost…probably in late September).  So he (D’Arcy) issued the first command: “Open the doors!”

Meanwhile, as the bat kept circling the ceiling fan, Mariam took my iPhone into the kitchen and found “bat calls”.  I had no idea there was an app for that sort of thing.  I thought at first that she had found a really awful jazz station on the radio, but they were indeed, bat calls.

I thought for a few minutes and realized she may have been playing an aggressive angry call instead of a mating call (that would have attracted the bat, one would think), so I suggested that she not play the calls.  Next thing I hear is some conversation that was recorded by a family who were facing the same situation…a bat in the house.  Their problem ended when the mother shooed the bat out of an open door with a broom.

“Let’s get a broom,” said Judy.

“No,” said D’Arcy, eyeing the ceiling fan and several antique paintings, clearly envisioning an interior design fiasco.

The radio did suggest that the lights should be turned off.  The bat would become disoriented by a lot of light since they used echolocation and are known to have poor eyesight (you know…”blind as a bat”).

So the adults retreated to the screened-in porch to ponder the situation.  Here we were, four adults, all past retirement age, with three and a half Master’s degrees between us.  I was a science teacher but I never taught a lesson on bats.  What were we going to do?  Mariam and I just couldn’t say “good night” and leave the Havills with a rogue bat flying around their white vaulted ceiling.

Someone suggested using a butterfly net.  The only problem was that none of us caught or collected butterflies.  But, no authentic Adirondack camp is without an antique fishing net…the hand held kind.  D’Arcy had two.

We went back into the living room and found that the bat had landed on the wall, about fifteen feet above our heads.  We went back to the porch.  The fishing net thing gave me an idea.

“Just a thought, but why don’t we attach one of your nets to a pole and capture the bat while it is resting on the wall?” I said.

D’Arcy went to work like a true mid-westerner.  He grabbed his wooden hiking stick, disappeared into the garage and soon we were duct-taping the handle of the fishing net to the stick.

Back to the living room.  We turned on a single light and we soon had the bat trapped by the net (after a long reach). But as he was dragging the net down, the bat crawled out from the gap where the net handle and walking stick were joined.  Off it went to make more orbits of the ceiling fan.

Back to the porch.  Mariam suggested that if he turned the net inside out, there would be no gap.

“Then we would slide the bat down the wall and slide a piece of cardboard against the wall and the net, thereby trapping the bat.

We waited until the little mammal needed a rest and sure enough, it went to almost the same place it had been a few minutes earlier…only a few more feet higher.  D’Arcy made the supreme reach and covered the bat.  He dragged it slowly down, this time leaving the creature no gap to escape.  I slid the cardboard against the wall and before you could say “strike two”, we had it outside.  But then the problem of getting it out of the net presented itself.  It was hopelessly tangled.

“Scissors!” he yelled.  He was like a surgeon and Judy promptly brought a huge pair from the kitchen drawer.

We snipped and cut and gently, string by string, finally freed the bat, who promptly flew off toward our house…hopefully to gorge itself on all the mosquitoes that had been eyeing me for the last few days.

We let the cats out of the bedroom (where they had clawed the edges of the carpet trying to escape).

Mariam and I went home and watched two hours of a tense murder mystery series on PBS.

It’s been said that the last few Batman movies have become darker, more brooding.  I can totally get it.

And, even though we all lost a precious hour, I still believe, “Every little bat is sacred”.

Not like last night, but close. [Source: National Park Service. The Carlsbad bat flight]

D’Arcy’s net the morning after. [My photo]

 

 

 

 

 

Kissing Manhattan Goodbye

So, it’s time to say farewell to the city I love.  A week from today, if you have a drone, you will find us driving north on the I-87…through Albany…onto Exit 30…and then fifty more miles, through Lake Placid, to our home at Rainbow Lake.

I’ve heard it said so many times: “New York City is a nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there.”

Fine, I understand everyone has different tastes.  Besides, it’s all true what people say about New York.  It’s so big, crowded, diverse and varied, that whatever anyone says about the city… is true.  It’s safe, dangerous, cheap and way too expensive.  It’s all true…but I love the vibrant life, liberalism, culture and gravity.  Yes, there is an intense gravity to this place…someone once said that everyone should live in New York City at least once in their life…and I agree.

I lived on the Upper West Side for over twenty-five years.  With some exceptions, I loved every minute of my time.  Then, I retired and in 2011, Mariam and I decided to get bought out (our building was going condo) and we decided to head north to our place on Rainbow Lake.  We needed the quiet.  Mariam went part-time, working from home on the computer.

We got our quiet…sometimes, it seemed to me, a little too much.  I was lonely.  Only a few of our friends made the six-hour trip to visit us.

Then, we were offered the opportunity to come back for six months, on a full salary, to put things in order at Mariam’s place of business.  We got a sub-let on W. 74th Street and became New Yorkers once again.  I saw my son more often and reunited with old friends.

But, not all went as expected.  For reasons I won’t discuss here, I found myself falling into a mild depression.  I brought many of my “works-in-progress” for my writing  projects.  I lost the creative energy to plug-in my memory stick and write a few chapters.

The winter was wet and chilly.  The spring was little better.  Then it got really bloody hot.  But, we saw a number of Broadway and Off Broadway shows that were fantastic.  We made friends at our local pub, the Beacon Bar.  We had a good time.

And, now, we’re packing things up…unread novels, unread magazines and putting away unfulfilled trips.

This was kind of an experiment ….to see if we could ever move back here.

I’m conflicted.

The “Dream House in the Woods” can sometimes  be something you’re not expecting.  Where are your friends and local pubs “where everybody knows your name?”

It’s just another move in our lives.  Mariam will be retired and I need a hobby.  I was thinking about carving duck decoys….I’m serious.   Maybe I’ll write the Great American Novel. Maybe I won’t.

Maybe I won’t and just drift on my kayak.

Stay tuned.

The Winters Of My Life

garagepathsnow

“Talk of your cold! through the parka’s fold it stabbed like a driven nail.  If our eyes we’d close, then the lashes froze till sometimes we couldn’t see.” 

–Robert Service. The Cremation of Sam Magee

I live in the Adirondack mountains of upstate New York.  I don’t live in the Yukon.  But lately, I feel like the Yukon would be a bit more comfortable.  Am I living in Lapland or Spitzbergen or Thule…in lovely Greenland?

Don’t get me wrong.  Don’t misunderstand.  Don’t think I’ve lost my spirit and my love for wintertime.  I love snow.  I used to be able to skate backwards on the Brick Pond when I was young.  Remember the Brick Pond blog post?  Of course you do.  I have fond memories of the winters of my life.  My childhood girlfriend and I built a fantastic snowman in my front yard on Front Street after an unusual April snowstorm.  It was probably 1963.  In four days it was a pile of melted snow…like Frosty.  A birch tree grows in that place where the snowman stood and wasted away that April.

My brothers and I would play ‘Fox & Geese’ in our backyard on dark December evenings.  We’d make paths in the 18″ of snow, making figure 8’s and sharp turns…and then the game began.  It was a form of Tag, except you were expected to not just ‘tag’ someone…you would push them into the snow.

It was unbelievable fun.

And, we’d take our snowsuits off in the backroom and our faces were red and our clothes steamed from melting snow and sweat and our mother made hot chocolate and maybe popcorn while we changed clothes…into our flannel pajamas.  No hot chocolate or popcorn has tasted as good as it did on those winter nights in the 1950’s.

But, time moves on and bodies get older and the joy of moving snow has become a challenge that I can hardly face these days.  See the path to the garage?  I’ve shoveled such a path for sixteen years…at least (this is a rough guess) 30 times a year.  That makes an estimated 480 times I’ve pushed the shovel and threw the snow from the front porch to the garage door.  (I’d feel comfortable rounding that number up to 600).  Then came the carrying of the garbage and recycling bags.  Then I would walk into the garage where the bins are and find myself holding onto something to prevent my slipping on the frozen surface of the floor (from the melting of the snow from the car).

My back hurts in places I didn’t know existed.  I’ve learned all about the L3 and L4 that I will need surgery to correct my stenosis.  I think I may have had enough of the North Country winters.

I always believed that people needed four distinct seasons to keep one’s brain alive and enjoy the difference in weather.  In my hometown of Owego, NY, we had four seasons.  None of them went on too long…some of them like autumn were too short.  But, here in the Adirondacks there are five seasons. Sounds great, right?  Well it comes down to this:

  • A Long Winter
  • Mud
  • Bugs
  • A Short Summer
  • A Brief Autumn

I’ve checked my indoor/outdoor thermometer on a March night and saw that it was -38 F.  This was early in our years in the North Country.

“Mariam, let’s step outside and take a breath.  The inside of your nares will feel like pin pricks.”

“No,” she said.

“But it’s bracing, invigorating and stimulating,” I said.  “You never experienced this in Queens.” She stared at me for a moment probably wondering if I truly understood the word “NO”.  She went back to the warm sofa and picked up her book.

Clearly she didn’t fully understand the vibrant and visceral pleasures of walking our loop road when it’s forty below zero.  Sometimes I find her hard to understand.  What was her problem with a bit of a chill in the air?  It took me a year or two to fully get her point.

temp

[We never got around to setting this clock back an hour.  It’s really 11:20 on December 15 as I finish this blog. It’s expected to go down to -14 F in a few hours…but I can’t stay up that long. So take my word for it.]

I own more fleece than is legal.  I own enough wool to keep all the Irish Aran Island knitters in their due pint of Guinness.  I have seven pairs of gloves, none of which keeps my fingers from numbness.

So, without regret, we are relocating to New York City for about six months.  This is not because of my whining, mind you.  It’s a professional move on the part of my wife, Mariam.

This is a fantastic country here in the Adirondacks, but it’s a young person’s world.

The skiing is great on Whiteface this year, so I read.  But when your age is on the wrong end of the 60’s, I’d rather let someone else move the snow.

The weather in the City can be bitter in the winter when the wind blows off the Hudson, but I won’t have to shovel a path to put my garbage out or to get the newspaper.  All I have to worry about is the slush in the gutters that will be my challenge as I stroll up Broadway to Zabars for some Irish Cheddar and some salmon fillets.

And, if its way too awful to get out…I can always order take-out from a Chinese restaurant.

snow2000

[Mariam and I in front of our new home in 2000. Who would have guessed?]

Coal For Christmas

paul-egan-2-resized-copy

[Artwork:Watercolor sketch by Paul Egan (Date unknown)]

Note to my readers: If you think you’ve read this blog before, don’t thing you’re getting senile…(the doctors won’t release such information)..this is perhaps the third, maybe fourth time I’ve posted it.  Hey, maybe I’m the one getting senile.  I’ve tweaked the story several times to try to make the narrative better, clearer and more truthful.  This is not a made up story by me.  It really happened.  

It’s another year and another chance for me to share this holiday memory…Happy Holidays to you all!

 I am a grandfather now, feeling every ache and sadness of my seventieth  year. The stories that my father told me about his father has taken on new meanings. I’m the old one now. I am the carrier of the family history. When a recollection of a family event comes to mind, be it a birthday party, a funeral, a wedding or a birth, I get my journal and I write with haste, in case I might forget something or get a name wrong or a date incorrect. Or, forget the event entirely.

This is especially true when the snow falls and the Christmas tree decorations are brought down from wherever they live during the summer. There is a certain melancholy mood that comes with the wintertime holidays. The sentiment of A Christmas Carol comes to mind. It is a time to listen to the winter wind blow, put a log on the fire, pour a little more wine and to recall and celebrate the memory of those who have passed on.

It’s time for a Christmas story. It’s time to think again about my family and how they lived their lives so many decades ago.

I was raised in the post-war years. My parents were not saying anything original when they would tell me, or my brothers, that we had to be good…very good…or Santa would not leave us a brightly wrapped present, red-ribboned and as big a box as a little boy could hold.  No, Santa would not leave such a wondrous thing. But he wasn’t so vengeful to leave nothing in our stocking. No, he would leave a lump of coal…if you deserved nothing more.

My father grew up poor.  Not the kind of poor where he would walk barefoot through ten inches of snow to attend school or go from house to house asking for bread.  It was just the kind of poor that would keep his father only one step ahead of the rent collector. Dad would often make a joke about poor he was as a child.

“I was so poor that I would get roller skates for Christmas but I would have to wait until the next year to get the key,” he would say with a sly smile. It was a joke of course…wasn’t it?

His parents provided the best they could, but, by his own admission, he was raised in the poverty that was common in rural America in the 1920’s.  My grandfather and my grandmother should be telling this story.  Instead, it came to me from my own dad and it was usually told to his four sons around the time it came to bundle up and go out, find and cut a Christmas tree. I heard this story more than once when it was cold and snowy in the 1950’s. It comes from the years when my father was a child, when the winters were probably much colder and the snow so much deeper.  And, the overcoats were thinner and the socks had holes and the footwear was not insulated.

It was northeastern Pennsylvania. It was coal country and my grandfather was Irish.  Two generations went down into the mines. Down they would go, every day before dawn, only to resurface again long after the sun had set.  On his only day off, Sunday, he would sleep the sleep of bones that were weary beyond words.

Because of some misguided decision on his part, my grandfather was demoted from mine foreman to a more obscure job somewhere else at the pit.  Later in life, he fell on even harder times and became depressed about his inability to keep his family, two boys and two girls, comfortable and warm.  It all came crashing down, literally, when their simple farmhouse burned to the foundation.  After seeing his family safely out, the only item my grandfather could salvage was a Hoover.  My father could describe in minute detail how he stood next to his dad and watched him physically shrink, slump and then become quiet.  He rarely broke the silence after that and died in a hospital while staring mutely at a wall.

But all this happened years after that special Christmas Eve that took place in my father’s boyhood.

It was in the early 1920’s.  The four children were asleep in a remote farmhouse my grandparents rented.  Sometime after mid-night, my father woke up to a silence that was unusual and worrisome.  It was too quiet.  There were no thoughts of Santa Claus in my father’s mind that night–the reality of their lives erased those kinds of dreams from his childhood hopes. There was no fireplace for Santa to slide down.

He pulled on a heavy shirt and slipped out of bed.  The floor felt unusually cold against his socks.  He crept down the stairs to the kitchen where he knew his parents would be sitting up, talking and keeping warm beside the coal stove.   But the room was empty and the coal fire was burning low.  The only light was from a single electric bulb, hanging from the ceiling on a thin chain.  My father noticed the steam of his breath each time he exhaled.  He called out.

“Mom? Dad?”

He heard nothing.  He pushed his cold feet into cold shoes that were six sizes too large.  Shuffling over to the door, he cracked it open to a numbing flow of frigid outside air.  In the snow there were two sets of footprints leading down the steps and then behind the house.  He draped a heavier coat over his shoulders and began to follow the prints.  A pale moon helped light the way. The tracks led across a small pasture and through a gate.  From there the trail went up a low hill and faded from his sight.  He followed the trail.  Looking down at the footprints he noticed that they were slowly being covered by the wind driving the snow into the impressions.  A child’s fear swept over him.  Were the young kids being abandoned?  It was not an uncommon occurrence in the pre-Depression years of rural America.

In his young and innocent mind, he prayed that the hard times hadn’t become that hard. But deep within, he knew of his parents’ unconditional love and concern. He knew he and his brother and sisters were cherished and loved.

He caught his fears before they had a chance to surface. His parents were on a midnight walk, that’s all.

At the top of the hill, he saw a faint light from a lantern coming from a hole near the side of the next slope.  He slowed his pace and went to the edge of the pit not knowing what he would see. He looked down.

He knew this pit from summertime games, but it was a place to be avoided in the winter. The walls were steep and it would be easy to slip in the snow and fall the dozen or so feet to an icy bottom. The children never went into that field after the hay was cut and the autumn leaves had fallen and the snow began to drift.

He dropped to his knees and peered over the edge.

At the bottom of the small hole were his parents, picking fist-sized lumps of coal from a seam that was exposed on the hillside.  They had nearly filled a bucket with the chunks of black rock.  They looked up, quite surprised, and saw my father standing a few feet above them.  They looked back at each other with a sadness that was heart-breaking.  They certainly didn’t want to be caught doing this in front of one of the kids, not on Christmas Eve.  They stared at each other and then up at my dad.

“Boy,” my grandfather said, “The kitchen stove is empty.  Come on down and help us get a few more lumps, will ya?”

My father was helped down and after only a few minutes his hands were black from the coal.  Two buckets were filled.  They helped each other out of the pit and walked back to the house together. My father and his father carried the buckets between them.

In a very short time the coal stove was warming up again.  My father sat up with his parents until they finished their coffee and the house was warmed a few degrees.  Dad kissed his mother and father and went upstairs to bed. He fell asleep, he always would say, with a smile on his face.

Twenty some years after the midnight trip to the coal-pit, my parents and my two older brothers moved to Owego, New York. I was born two years later, in 1947.

. . .

When I was a young boy, my father took me aside one Christmas Eve.  I had not been a very good boy that day, and I was afraid.  Neither of my parents, however, had mentioned the threat that would be used to punish a child if you were naughty and not nice.

Coal.

My fear left me. Father’s voice was warm and full of understanding.

“Pat,” he said, “If anyone tells you that you will get a lump of coal in your stocking if you’re not a good boy. Tell them: ‘I hope so,’ then wish them a very Merry Christmas.”

dad-farm-picture-original-enlarged

[Artwork: Unfinished watercolor sketch by Paul Egan (Date unknown)]