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A Yankee Notebook

February 23, 2015


MONTPELIER, VT – If you’ve ever competed in a tug-of-war – at a picnic, maybe, or summer camp – you probably remember the first few seconds of effort after the starting signal, when you could sense whether or not the next few minutes were likely to go well. Your opponents’ strength came telegraphed through the thick rope; you and your teammates were either pulled slightly off your stance or were able to lean back and feel your ability to gain ground. In the first instance, an inarticulate “Uh-oh” took over your minds; in the second, you thought, “Yes! we can do this!” You’re feeling the thrill of what the old loggers used to call a “downhill pull.”

The indoor/outdoor thermometer in the shade on my back porch read minus-six degrees at seven this morning. By noon it had rocketed up to plus-nine. But a rude wind was blowing, in spite of the bright sunlight, and all afternoon the temperature fell back toward zero. Right now, at half-past eight in the evening, it’s down to minus-three. And yet...

And yet there’s no doubt that sugaring is in the air. We’ve got a downhill pull now on spring. Where the sun warms the east side of the garage, out of the wind, little puddles shimmer in front of the doors. It’s a mixed blessing; for the next thing those little puddles will do is flow into the garage, freeze into a smooth sheet of ice, and make just getting to the car door a life-threatening exercise. The trash cans along the wall will freeze into place. But the next warm day – and there’ll be more and more of them during the next few weeks – I’ll take the ice chisel to it, scrape it off the floor, and toss it out into the yard in hundreds of shiny little shards destined to end up, like everything else currently soluble in the yard, in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

We designed this place to take advantage of the winter sun, which it does. By one o’clock each sunny afternoon, every thermostat in the house shuts down, and I snooze by the south windows like a painted turtle on a log in August. If I step outside, the smell of wood smoke fills the yard; the furnace damper’s shut down, and the wood in the firebox is just smoldering. Scrooge liked darkness because it was cheap; I like a dampered stove for the same reason. I’ve got only about a third of last fall’s pile left.

I’m installing railings around the front porch on the second floor – or at least I was till the cold drove me indoors for the winter. I’ve got one section up (of six), and can’t wait to finish the job because it looks really good. I’ve got all the material. I piled it in the shop right in my way, so I can’t do anything but railings easily. On the first decent day – which won’t be long now – I’ll start in on the second section, and by the time the phoebes return, we’ll be able to sit out there like squires at five in the afternoon with no more hazard of falling off.

I get e-mail these late February days from friends who’ve gone off to time-shares, condos, and doublewides in the far South. One in particular, who’s paddled many miles with me in the far North – I have pictures of him, muffled in layers of down and GoreTex, with gigantic lake trout and Arctic char – has sent me a shot of himself in shorts, sun-block shirt and hat, and sunglasses, holding a bonefish about as long as his arm. I have declined to admit that I’ve received the picture, and if pressed, will refuse to recognize him or the size of the fish.

A lot of the talk in the coffee shop downtown is likewise of getting away to warmer places. Actually, there’s a lot more of it right here in our living room; Mother’s itching to spend some time walking on earth instead of ice, shucking the long winter coat, and enjoying warm fingers and toes without the help of a hot tub. Southern climes hold no charms for me, so I’ve offered several times to send her to visit her sisters in Georgia. But she has somehow developed the odd notion that 55 years of faithful association entitle her to spousal company. Thus, it appears, I’m going, too.

But not to Georgia; no way. Just to someplace where the flowers will be blooming in March. We’ll go by car – the Prius is amazingly economical for long hauls – and, avoiding the necessity of making plane reservations, can pretty much pick up and go whenever we will. We’ll cross the lake at Charlotte if the ferry’s running (Crown Point if it’s not); then drive down I-87 to I-88; across southern New York State to Binghamton, and south on I-81 to Pennsylvania, the Shenandoah Valley, and the Civil War battlefields of Virginia. We’ll visit the town where we were married (the church has since burned down), the little school in the hills she attended long ago, and look for the new Vermont-at-Cedar-Creek battle monument.

There’ll have to be a couple of days first at the Gettysburg Battlefield, reflecting on the perils of irreconcilable differences and and political intransigence, as well as the irony of the words, “The world will little note nor long remember what we say here.” If it’s not too muddy, I’ll retrace Pickett’s Charge again and visit the bulky monument in the oak woods where Chamberlain’s 20th Maine held the extreme left of the Union line on Day Two.

Then off to Winchester, a much-fought-over railroad junction, and possibly to Stonewall Jackson’s grave and Virginia Military Institute, the school where he taught. Perhaps a drive on the Blue Ridge Parkway (my senior citizen Golden Card gets me free access), and on the way home through Pennsylvania, a stop at one of the state’s amazing package stores for a case of Yingling.

I just realized, as I typed these lines, that anticipation has replaced everything still wintry about our situation, and I’ve hardly noticed that my outdoor thermometer reads minus fourteen.

Photo by Willem lange