At Large : People of the cold
The weather has been all the talk the last few weeks. A common opening line is, Whatever happened to global warming? But, I can assure you from personal experience that it's not a crowd-pleasing question. Walking the dogs each afternoon, Moll and I are often moved to caper delightedly as we notice the tiny, ripening, blushing buds on the bushes and trees along the way. We do not actually caper however, because of the former snow, now ice, under foot. Capering, charming as it sounds, can lead to calamity. We forbear.
Below zero wind chills and temperatures below 10 degrees Fahrenheit have their charms, I suppose, although mostly they are serious, worrisome, and expensive. Burst pipes, busted and bruised hips, auto crashes (heedless cars caper on icy roads), kids home from school early, compost piles in flames, firefighters sliding over frozen landscapes as houses burn, building projects delayed, firewood too wet to burn or too frozen to dislodge: the list of calamities goes on and on. And, more snow or sleet on the way. Then, wouldn't you know it, an Arctic blast.
E.B. White, writing in January of 1943 from Brooklin, Maine, knew a thing or two about cold.
"There has been more talk about the weather around here this year than common, but there has been more weather to talk about. For about a month now we have had solid cold - firm, business-like cold that stalked in and took charge of the countryside as a brisk housewife might take charge of someone else's kitchen in an emergency. Clean, hard, purposeful cold, unyielding and unremitting. Some days have been clear and cold, others have been stormy and cold. We have had cold with snow and cold without snow, windy cold and quiet cold, rough cold and indulgent peace-loving cold. But always cold."
Naturally enough, friends and neighbors like to reminisce about winters past. In fact, that's one of the most aggravating derivatives of winter. Apparently, abused as we are by ice, snow, and cold, winters were better, colder, icier, and more fun years ago. It may be true.
Recall iceboating on Squibnocket Pond. That was fun, no doubt about it. Frigid, but fun. For some reason, I particularly remember an out of work contractor spending the winter honing his design skills on a 60 mile an hour ice flyer, which was the rage for the two or three weeks when there was hard, smooth ice to run on and not too much snow on the ice. Terrified by the speeds he could achieve on the vast frozen pond, he was able to repress the fear as his savings account deflated.
In those hallowed winters there was no ice arena. We skated on Uncle Seth's or Ice House or Parsonage ponds. It was a rare treat, especially in the evenings when the full moon bathed the sheared surface with pale light, and the crisp scrape of the skate blades was the only sound, although there may have been 50 friends there.
I recall a winter in the early 1970s, as I drove along the Eastville shore, there was an older guy skating alone, twirling and swooping on the smooth surface of the pond that was protected by the barrier beach from the northerlies that torment outer Vineyard Haven Harbor. He was a retired fellow, a quick and fluid skater, who might have won the senior division at the figure skating worlds, had there been such a contest and such a category. But, this day, he skated alone, delighting and astonishing a single passerby.
There were winters in the mid-1970s, when Vineyard Haven Harbor was solid with ice, and folks walked out to their moored boats from Owen Park. There have been others, more recently, when I've not been able to make my way out to my boat, moored there, because the open water ended 50 yards from her side. Once, in my skiff, imagining myself a member of Shackleton's desperate crew, I felt along the edge of the main body of ice until I found a lead from the breakwater to the boat's stern. Closer to the beach, folks skated on the harbor ice, though it was soft and slushy.
In winter then, the Steamship Authority often asked the Coast Guard to send an icebreaker to open a lead for the Islander to take freight out to Nantucket. The old double-ender had the best shape for icebreaking, though it was an awfully long trip, beginning in Woods Hole. Later, when the boatline began running to Nantucket from Hyannis, the quick formation of ice in Hyannis harbor made for frequent calls for icebreaker help.
We are all members of what E. B. White calls the "fraternity of the cold."
"Nobody is kept from joining. Even old people sitting by the fire belong, as the floor draft closes in around their ankles. The members get along well together: extreme cold when it first arrives seems to generate cheerfulness and sociability. For a few hours all life's dubious problems are dropped in favor of the clear and congenial task of keeping alive. It is rather soothing when existence is reduced to the level of a woodbox that needs filling, a chink that needs plugging, a rug that needs pushing against the door." But, circumscribed this way, the human spirit grows restless, and "After a long spell of cold, with little sun and little relief, sometimes a man's thoughts turn to warmer climates with longing." Yes.