Monday, February 19, 2018

Winter Reckoning

          The day bloomed bright and blue with the winter morning sun streaming in the southeast window of my aunt's farmhouse bedroom.  Sunrise is late this time of year in the great white north so I hopped from my bed and found the family downstairs already eating their breakfast.  The previous day’s storm had stopped and the sun was baking the surface of the snow-pack, simultaneously thawing and refreezing in the stiff north wind.  When my brother and I dressed in our wool sweaters and cotton dungarees and went out in mid-morning arctic chill there was a stiff crust on top of supportable wind-slab.  We found an aluminum toboggan in the barn and headed out towards the lower pasture.  ‘Be home for lunch’ is all our mother told us.  We were raised in the permissive Dr. Spock manner of the early 60’s where we were free and allowed to fail and fall on our faces.
              Without a thought or a care or even a short test run, we piled on the toboggan and headed down a long steep untrammeled hill towards the lowest corner of the pasture.  We immediately found ourselves accelerating on this frictionless plane and our initial joy swiftly turned to horror as we realized that we were completely out of control and continuing to accelerate at an exponential rate[1].  We rolled over a few undulations but naturally found the fall line that led to the lowest point on the property and began screaming for our lives.  We started punching and pulling comically on each other, for lack of anything better to do, but we knew we were doomed. 
              The sled flew over a short wall and we were airborne for several minutes before crashing down into the snow without the sled.  We rounded the last corner sliding on top of the crusty snow as the sled crashed into the lower fence and bent into a perfect ninety-degree angle.  We continued rolling on down a thin slew cut into the woods that allowed the horses to access the stream channel below in the summer.  ‘Stream Channel’ we thought in the back of our little minds, ‘oh poop’.  We piled down the hill and into the icy stream, feet first, and came to a reclining stop in the cold water.
              Having not developed a sufficient self-preservation instinct we laid there for what seemed like minutes until we felt the cold-water seep thru our cotton outer layers and attack our clammy skin.  Our initial shock turned to wild surprise as we got up and shook off like wet dogs in a bathtub.  We looked at each other with wide eyes that said ‘We are so screwed’ and we started to run for the house.  Unfortunately, our little bodies could not punch thru the crusty snow and for every one step up we took two steps back and wound up back in the stream.  My brother began to curse his pre-pubescent curses, ‘shoot, doody, damn, #2’ and I sat on the stream bank and began to cry.  ‘Mom and Dad will come and save us’, I thought, ‘they always do’.  But our parents were on a second cup of coffee and enjoying the quiet morning away from the rock-em, sock-em young boys that so dominated their young lives. 
              By grabbing small trees, rock out-crops and exposed brush we were able to eventually pull ourselves up to the lower pasture.  My brother was doing well but I started to shiver uncontrollably despite the effort of our monumental climb.  We sat down and collected ourselves.  If we had a cigarette we would have smoked it.  My brother busied himself collecting the toboggan from the fence and bending it back into a flat sled.  ‘Dad is gonna kill us,’ he noted as we looked at the broken sled.  ‘Get on’ he offered heroically as we looked up the interminable distance to the house.  He bravely tried pulling me up the hill but the bad physics was way beyond our comprehension and he kept sliding back and I kept falling off.  He was starting to shiver and freeze.  ‘Leave me and the sled and save yourself,’ I implored with faux courage and he started up the hill on his own, kicking footholds as he went.  ‘Send help,’ is what I forgot to add but it was implied and should have been understood by any moron. 
              I watched him trudge up, step by step, breathing cold smoke from his lips and resting frequently to look back.  He disappeared once or twice over the undulations but finally shrunk into a dot in the distance as he crested the hill.  I tried to follow but the footsteps were too big and I could not break my own.  He had a tenacity and indefatigability that I had not developed yet so I just sat down and cried.  ‘This is it’ I imagine now what I might have thought then, ‘done in right before my half birthday, in the prime of my youth.’  ‘I will never learn to drive a car or ride a bike, do long division or read, write a book or drink whiskey, love a dog or kiss a girl’.  I thought then of Patty O’Rourke, sitting pretty in the back of our kindergarten play group with her bowed blonde hair, her billowing, silky-white blouse and her pleated plaid, short-short catholic skirt.  ‘She will never know’.  ‘My parents will never see me grow up and play sports, do well in school, get a good job and a fine woman and have a family of my own to take on wild winter adventures.  And I will never get to go skiing again, ever, after mastering it all in only one day.  No more Thunder Bunny, no more Black Diamond slopes, no Olympic gold medals’.
              Seeing no help on the horizon, after what seemed like hours but was probably only 10 minutes, I began to get angry and to look around for something, anything, to get me out.  I slid over to the side fence of the pasture and found it made of 6-inch wire squares that I could hook my hands and feet into and pull myself up.  Six inches at a time, I pulled and pried my little frozen body up that fence, one miserable step at time.  I cried the entire time, with snot bubbles coming out of my nose and freezing down my chin.  I got mad, I got sad, I got glad from the hopeless feeling of abandonment by my brother and my parents and my blooming self-responsibility and accomplishment.  ‘Don’t they miss me; don’t they know where I am and how much trouble I am in’?  ‘Screw them, I don’t need them, I can do this by myself and when I do they are going think I am the bravest, strongest, gnarliest kid in the world.’  They will probably let me drink a beer and drive home’.
              Finally, after what seemed like an infinite amount of time in my delirious little brain, I pulled myself up to the back of the barn and saw the horses watch me take a drink from the running water in the horse trough as I had seen my older cousin do once on a dare.  I was famished, starving, thirsty and frozen but I noticed, with my new, expanded perspective, the tiny rainbows glistening off the snowflakes on the horse’s furry winter manes.  The grain in the barn wood jumped out at me in perfect brown, grey and black patterns.  The sun seemed to be setting behind wispy high clouds and dark green, foreboding conifer hills lined with the skeletons of dormant birch trees.  I began to notice the details and colors of a place I had never seen before, and appreciate the world, not as a mere boy, but as a young man.
              The house was still a few hundred yards away and my feet felt like frozen concrete blocks, but I took my time getting there on the narrow horse path, taking in my new perspective, self-awareness and confidence.  I powered through the back door undaunted, meeting my surprised family around the warm fire where my Dad greeted me with a ‘well hello Junior’ and helped me off with my coat and found me wet and frozen.  We both tried to put a brave face on it but when he couldn’t get my icy boots off my frozen feet, I broke down into the apron folds on my mother’s lap and cried like the little boy I really was.  ‘They would never know and could never understand’ I thought.  ‘That which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.’
              After a hot bath and hearty meal of grilled cheese, potato chips, a dill pickle and hot chocolate, I settled into an afternoon of blankets and slippers, dry long-johns and I even wore my cool new ski hat inside since my Irish[2] Dad always said, ‘If your feet are cold, put on your hat.’  The terror of my experience quickly began to fade as we laughed and joked about it.  My brother apologized for abandoning me and for forgetting to tell Dad where I was because he was trying to warm up.  ‘You are a jerk but It’s ok,’ I said and we reckoned that this experience would have killed any lesser men.  I punched him in the arm but he didn’t me punch back.   We have that day to share for the rest of our lives and it made us closer than any dumb Disney Land road trip or family campout could. 
              I began to see winter in a different light that weekend; something beautiful and fun but a force not to trifle with or minimize but to respect and revere.  Winter can please and entertain you but it can also test you.  It can measure your mettle and preparedness, your tenacity and your smarts, your patience and persistence, like a good friend or lover.  Spring is an exciting time of new beginning while summer is soft, lazy and languid. Fall is full of color, death and decay, nesting and preparation, but winter is wise, strong and beautiful, will love you and test you and envelop you with its white blanket beauty and keep you honest, strong and clean.  I began my mixed relationship with winter that weekend and even though we have had our ups and downs, we are still hanging together after all these years, and probably always will.

[1] Newtons second derivative of acceleration, the change in the change
[2] The Irish usually consider it an insult if you leave your hat on in the house
Painting Credit - Lori Spragens

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