That May be True Somewhere

EAST MONTPELIER – Here it is Monday morning, and every news source I’ve tapped for information has assured me that the Northeast (that’s us) is in the grip of a ferocious winter storm. “Hammered,” “blasted,” and “buried” are the verbs of choice. “Onslaught” leads the nouns. That may be true somewhere, even in Vermont; but as the pup and I look out the window of my cozy office, we see only a thick cloud of small snowflakes softly blanketing the earth. No drama, no probable power outages (always allowing that some nimrod will slide into a pole); Andrés Segovia playing the Spanish guitar; and, as the morning wanes, a bowl of bean-and-bacon soup, with Club mini-crackers, in the offing. Then maybe a nap with my little groin-warmer on top, followed by a session with the exercise bike and dumbbells. Later, a walk in the park in the new-fallen snow.

Mark Twain once remarked that if you don’t like the weather in New England, you should just wait a few minutes and it’ll change. “Inhuman perversity,” he called it. But that was in 1876, before we could keep an eye on it electronically and warn those downstream what’s coming. Now, whenever something exciting churns ashore in New Orleans, San Diego, or Seattle, we’ve got lots of time to get ready for it. It’s like living at the business end of a bowling alley: a chance to brace ourselves.

Besides, this being upper New England, you can’t confound us much, anyway. We’ve had our calamities, all right. The Great Flood of 1927 wiped out bridges, roads, and communities (you should see the high-water mark on the inside of our church) and gave rise to the legendary comment of a ruined farmer to his daughter, crying for the loss of her doll: “If you’re looking for sympathy, you’ll find it in the dictionary – that’s if you can find the dictionary.” The Hurricane of 1938 roared up the Connecticut Valley and felled millions of our trees, fortuitously just in time to be sawn into lumber by pop-up mills to support the war effort. Tropical Storm Irene was another cruel blow – caught Mother and me and turned us around in Waits River – but Vermont Public Radio rallied with a message board just like the bush radio of the North. One bereft woman sadly asked anyone who happened to see a dark blue Geo Prizm floating down the Ottauquechee River to call her. And it was astounding how many Vermonters had been harboring excavators and bulldozers in their yards.

Those were extreme events that have had people scurrying for answers. Far less noticeable are little comments buried in letters that mask another, far more serious problem. I received this recently from north of Boston: “There was grease ice along the shore and sea smoke all the way across to Revere this morning. Time was that wasn’t uncommon, but winters are so much milder now that a day of below-zero wind chill is noteworthy.”

A lot of us, especially older folks, don’t much miss mornings when the red liquid in our thermometers was all but out of sight and the starter motor on our car made only a dull, grinding, dying growl. I did see it fifty below one morning in 1960 at the Mount van Hoevenberg bobsled run. A bunch of the old-timers were hanging around the big thermometer, standing back so their body heat wouldn’t change that unique sight. Just about that time, Harley Branch, one of our truck drivers, came marching down the mountain road with a Ford 350 shifting lever dangling from his mitten. “You must be ’bout frozen,” I shouted. “You wait till I take this shiftin’ lever in to the old man,” he said. “Gonna be right warm around here in a minute.”

It’s going to be right warm around here, too, in about seven months. If the rain quits, as it did two years ago, it’ll be pretty hard on a lot of people. You can take off only all your clothes – and that in private – but recently a friend who’s experienced 115º weather in Pakistan has suggested a palliative. For now, we adopt the age-old mental and practical defenses against the next six weeks or so: I’m tougher than this cold and, besides, the sun is coming back; my firewood’s dry and going to last me through; my snow tires’ll get me where I want to go – as long as I consider carefully where I want to go; now that the dog’s territory has been drastically reduced by fresh snowbanks, I have to be more careful about where I step; and almost before I know it, the ice and snow between me and the barn will be warm, sunny mud.