Log Cabin Chronicles


Photograph/John Mahoney

Cold enough for ya?


Oh my sweet Aunt Fannie, but wasn't it brisk last Saturday night. No, not just brisk -- it was brass monkey weather, it was perishing cold, it was a three-dog night.

I knew it would be chilly come Sunday morning when I talked with my brother down to southern Massachusetts. How he does prattle on sometimes about their mild winters: "Heh, heh, heh, cold up there, is it? It was in the '40s here today..."

Well sir, Chummy wasn't cackling so loud Saturday night, by Jeezum. He was whining about six inches of snow and it being 10 below zilch in good old Fahrenheit degrees and I reminded him that up here, we chop wood in our shirtsleeves when it's that mild outdoors.

Man-of-the-North-by-choice that I am, I took a certain perverse pleasure in watching the thin red line in my Springfield thermometer drop steadily, hour by hour.

At 25 below I said to my spouse, "Going to be some cold by morning." Her non-verbal, glaring response was to move her rocking chair closer to the hot air vent over the wood-burning furnace.

When people ask me why in heaven's name did I leave the good old U-S-of-A and move to southern Quebec, I sometimes tell them it was because I "just couldn't stand another one of them northern Vermont winters."

Not true. I have fond memories of frozen Newport winters in those halcyon days, when we had seriously deep snow and bitter temperatures for months and months on end, amen.

Now, I never actually saw this happen but I heard my elders tell about how, back when they were kids and winters were really wicked hard (`Why, back in '33 it dropped to 50 below over to Bloomfield!'), that they used to freeze the old folks during the lean, hungry months, stack 'em up like cordwood out in the woodshed, and thaw 'em out come spring. Saved quite a bit on food, that way.

I'm not saying this is one hundred percent accurate but I do believe it was getting on to being cold enough to do just that by Sunday morning.

About 1:30 a.m. I crept out of bed to throw some more wood on the furnace and take a peek through the kitchen window at the thermometer. It was 38 below.

"I knew it," I said to the silent kitchen, "and, by gum, it ain't done yet." As I slid back beneath the warm covers I delivered a weather report to an ungrateful spouse who groaned in response.

At 4:25 a.m. I put more wood on the fire and again checked the temperature. The red line was right down at the bottom of the tube -- 40 below zip, in both Fahrenheit and Celsius.

"Now sir," I said to the still-silent kitchen, "now it truly is cold enough to freeze the privates off a brass monkey."

As I circumambulated the interior of the house, peering through each window, I could see that all was bathed in magic, luminous moonlight that threw long, slanting shadows across the fresh snow, and the shadow cast by the house showed the smoke from the chimney lazily rising straight up.

Once snugly back beneath the covers I called in some of the body heat that I had put out on loan to the spouse several hours previously, and thought about dressing warmly and going for a walk, of feeling the snow crunch underfoot like broken crystal, of hearing the trees snap with the crack! of a rifle shot, of experiencing once again the sharp knife thrust of arctic-chilled air assaulting your lungs.

The Man of the North would be out and about, not braving the elements, no, he would be at one with them, a living, active part of the biosphere in this northern temperate clime.

Yes, and he would take along his Indian flute that he made of wood and he would offer up a few soft notes to the awesome silence and terrible cold beauty.

But what happened was that it was 8 a.m. before I knew it, the sun was up, and a warming trend was already under way. I quickly dressed in cotton slacks and sweat shirt, slipped on a pair of sneakers, and grabbed my rustic flute. It had already warmed up to 35 below.

I stepped out onto the porch. Lord, it was beautiful but through my thin trousers I could tell that, indeed, it surely was brass monkey weather. Hunkered in the driveway, my rusting Ford gave meaning to the phrase "dead as a doornail."

I raised the flute to my lips and tried a few soft, breathy notes (which is really all I can produce, anyway). To my amazement, as they streamed out the end of the flute they froze in mid-air, hovered for a moment, then tumbled to the steps. I couldn't believe my eyes. I tried a few more notes. And then a few more.

Soon, at the bottom of the steps, I had a small pile of frozen notes; sadly, many of them shattered in the fall.

It didn't seem to make much sense to save them until spring and then thaw them out -- no one would believe me and, anyhow, I could easily make more -- so I swept them out onto the driveway and they disappeared beneath the snow.

And then I heard a song off in the distance -- a bird sheltering in the trees by the back pasture was answering my frozen notes. I blew a few more. It answered again. Surely, it was happy that someone else had survived the night.

I took some pleasure in listening to the Vermont weather reports during the next 24 hours. Do you ever notice how the Yankees always blame Canadians for their cold weather? Although it only got down to 38 below in Newport, in Morgan it dropped to 44 below and Craftsbury had 46 below.

Yessir, Mister Man, now those were the kind of winters I was trying to escape when I moved here to Quebec's Banana Belt.

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Copyright © 1997 John Mahoney /Log Cabin Chronicles 2/97