At the bar in the Uptown ….
It’s around this time of year you start to hear more people talking about Florida, sort of daydreaming about it. Or talking about a notion they had once to move down south. A job they didn’t take — y’know, somebody’s cousin had something going in Jacksonville and “I was going to move down there and I should have.” You hear that here when the snow is still blowing in out of Alberta. “Jeez not another one.” There’s a lot more talk about bad backs and sore knees and arthritis. Guys getting their equipment ready for spring having trouble bending over it or getting under it. In November and December you kinda welcome those first storms. The season’s coming round again. Winter is pretty. After all the work of the summer and fall, you look forward to laying low, building a fire and watching a little TV. But late February, March, April storms, when we get them, you’re sorta tired of them by now. Another bad drive into town. Another day you might have to winch someone out of a ditch.
Sometimes I see kids playing at the school, and even now they don’t seem to have gotten tired of it. I saw some kids yesterday throwing snowballs. The snow’s a few days old and frozen, those things must hurt like rocks. I only passed them on the road but nobody looked angry about it still being cold.
Snow’s a lot more dangerous here, too, not like in the cities, where it’s just pretty stuff falling down and putting icing on everything. Every few years you hear about someone getting caught out when a blizzard blows up and they don’t find their way homes. They used to tell us blizzard stories as kids, try to scare us so we wouldn’t do anything stupid. When I was a kid they liked to tell about a blizzard that had happened just before I was born. Blew up in the afternoon when school was getting out. Kids had a hard time finding their way homes. I heard that when it hit in Minnesota kids were actually walking home and a lot of them didn’t make it. My mother called it “the children’s blizzard.”
There were lots of scare stories about storms. One my grandmother used to tell from out where we are was about a family that got caught in a bad storm. It was when people were first homesteading, when folks had just migrated from Russia, which is a whole other story. Out where our place is there were a cluster of farms from one village, now there’s just a few big farms left where that was. Anyway, one family, just a husband and his wife, had been on their land maybe a year or two, had put up a small house and a simple barn. I guess the wife was expecting their first baby. There wasn’t any timber in the area, so any wood was what you had bought from the lumber yard in town, where the rail spur ended. That was the business to be in, not homesteading. I don’t know what this house was like but my grandmother, when she would tell it, would say that the houses of those first settlers were pretty small, and they had stretched their lumber as far as it would go, which would mean that wind would blow right through. She said sometimes they might wake up in the morning after a bad blizzard and find snow on the floor, or in their beds.
Anyway, the snow had been falling hard, and it had gotten dark. This man and his wife were probably huddling around their fire, trying to stay warm, trying to make sure she was warm so the baby would stay warm, when their roof caved in. Put out the fire and everything. The snow was blowing hard all over everything. I guess he tried to make a little bit of a shelter by the fire and he got it going again, burning some of broken wood from the roof to keep it going big. The barn wasn’t far away but my grandmother said in the worst storms people could get lost trying to get from the house to the barn. People would stretch a rope from the door of the house to the door of the barn, just so they could find their way. They never knew whether he was going to find the barn or to get help from another house. They found him a few days later, after the storm had stopped and people got out to make sure their neighbors were OK. And they found the woman in the house, with the fire buried under a big pile of snow. Frozen solid, both of em.
When I got to be a little older and I knew a little bit more, whenever my grandmother told that story, I would say, “Of course, if they had dressed warm, like the Indians, in buffalo robes, they could have kept warm. I used to hate that when I was growing up, we had to do everything the way our grandparents had, the old German ways, probably the way they had been doing things for centuries, before they left Germany and went to Russia. They hadn’t learned a thing from living out on the Russian prairie, where the wind and the snow are as bad as here. Hadn’t learned to make snow caves, some of ’em, which might have saved that family, too. There was always a way you should do everything, and it wasn’t always the smart way.
My grandmother stopped telling that story when I was around. She was trying to teach the younger kids a lesson, to be respectful of the wind and the snow and the cold. And I was old enough that I just wanted to pick a fight because I thought I was getting smarter about how to do things. I probably should have been more respectful of my grandmother. She had lived through a lot of hard things I never even knew about. But you know, when you’re a young hot head, you think you know everything, you think you’ve learned it all already. Guys that are really smart are the ones you learn quick that you don’t actually know much of anything.