If you’re traveling in the north country fair
where the winds hit heavy on the borderline…
–Bob Dylan “Girl From The North Country”
We who chose to live here in the North Country are a hardy breed. You can see signs of this all around you. The cows have thicker hides, the trees have thicker bark and the lakes sometimes gets real hard…hard enough to walk on. Some extra hardy types actually put little wooden huts or tents on the lakes and fish through the two-foot layer of ice. And, they do this starting in late September. I have seen, with my own eyes, odd vehicles that don’t have wheels to move through the snow. They have treads of some kind and the engines make a whistling noise and the air turns blue. The people who ride around in them wear lots of clothes and all those layers are covered with a heavy one-piece suit. They even have helmets. It looks like a sub-Arctic Area 51.
They claim its fun.
Sometimes it’s so cold that if a guy were to go tee-tee in the woods, the tee-tee will freeze before it hits the ground. Actually, that’s not true. There is no ground…there is about three feet of snow and ice beneath your frozen feet. And this happens no matter much you paid L.L. Bean for those fleece-lined, thinsulated, wool and felt-lined boots.
So, if you’re thinking of moving to the North Country, be advised that no matter what size home you buy, you will need to pay a guy named Bear to build an extra room just to hold your winter clothing, skis, snowshoes, mucklucks, and fleece gloves. Don’t worry about the extra room in the summer…there really isn’t one. There is a window of about 16 days where it’s not snowing or raining…and that is sometime in August (that would be the 14th to the 29th, to be exact).
You’re asking yourself as you read this: “Hey, just how hardy is this guy who is pushing 70 years of age?”
Two mornings ago, I woke up and it was 41 F in the bedroom. Ok, it’s December, that sounds about right, right? But this is my bedroom! Even with the fleece blankets on me, I was chilled. (I don’t own an electric blanket because I may want to have another child someday.)
We discover that something is wrong with the oil burner. Not only am I hardy, but I’m smart. It only took me about an hour to realize that the lack of heat was due to something being wrong with our oil burner.
Being hardy means being far-sighted. Several years ago we had a wood-burner stove installed in our family room downstairs. So, I lit a fire. Isn’t it good? As sure as flapjacks are good…the room downstairs got warm. And it got even warmer until the little thermometer (digital/Radio Shack) said 88 F. Now, I tend to be chilly a lot in these later years of my life, but 88 was a bit much. Especially when I had no idea where any clothing not made of fleece or wool happened to be stored.
So, I watched the fire from the other side of the room. I used my birding spotter scope to check on when a new log needed to be added.
By now it was near the dinner hour. For some reason I didn’t feel like my pre-dinner dish of Ben & Jerry’s Cherry Garcia. But it was my turn to cook.
So, I went up stairs to the kitchen and planned dinner. Something quick and easy. I decided on a stir-fry. I like to have a nice glass of Chardonnay while I cook, so I took the bottle out of the fridge and put it on the counter so it would cool down a little. I prepared the carrots, mushrooms, peppers and rice. I mixed the soy sauce and put aside 1/4 cup of peanuts and scallions for the garnish.
I knew that stir-frying can sometimes be splattery, I put on my special North Country L.L. Bean endorsed red apron from Macy’s. It was lined with fleece.
I then put the silverware and plates in the microwave to add a touch of warmth, and cooked.
It turned out to be a great meal.
But, we only have TV upstairs so we bundled up in fleece and wool while we ate and watched Episode 6 of Season 3 of Game of Thrones.
I felt a chill watching all the violence and sex. They kept saying that “winter is coming…the white walkers are coming…it’ll be a long winter.”
I can relate.
[I’m really not that overweight, it’s the blanket I was wearing under the apron.]
[The meal just before it frosted over.]
My father grew up poor. Not the kind of poor where he would walk through ten inches of snow barefoot or go from house to house asking for bread. Just the kind of poor that would keep his father one step ahead of the rent collector. 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. In the years when my father was a child, the winters were probably much colder and the snow deeper.
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. 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 never broke the silence after that and died in a hospital while staring mutely at the walls.
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 the 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 pushed his cold feet into oversized cold shoes and went down stairs to the kitchen where he knew his parents would be sitting up and keeping warm beside the coal stove. But the room was empty and the coal fire was burning low. The single electric bulb, hanging from the ceiling, was on. My father noticed the steam of his breath at each exhale. He called out. He heard nothing. 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. They 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. He knew their parental concerns and he knew he and his brother and sisters were 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 the field with the pit after the autumn leaves fell.
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 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. The bucket was filled. They helped each other out of the pit and walked back to the house together. My father and his father carried the bucket 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.
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 Merry Christmas.”