Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Remembering Forward

In the backyard today the wind is whipping the vulnerable maple trees around, the pine trees are waving.  Feathery, dusty snow falls down on the grass it so desperately wants to cover.  But the gusts blow it back up, along with the oak leaves which fall so late.  This time the snow will not be the deep, rich blanket it longs to be.  It will be lace-like, thin, and will play in the wind.

I know snow.  It's nice that rhymes.

I was the same age as the boys are now, twelve, JB was a year older.  He and I had come upon some skis somehow, and...  Actually, we'd taken them from an old out-building way back off the road that was filled with old tack and rope and broken tools and mice and spiders and, oddly, skis.  

When we were littler we couldn't get into it, the shed, the padlock seemed so threatening.  Recently though, we'd come upon it again.  JB had grabbed the lock out of curiosity and the screws that held the latch for the lock gave up and the lock just swung out of the way.

I'd bet that no one had been in that shed in over thirty years, so I think we just felt like we were rescuing those old skis.  We took them home.  The bindings were leather and sort of slid on on a metal piece.  Like old-school roller skates, the ones with a key.  We oiled up the leather, got the pieces to slide again.  We figured we'd just use a couple of the countless sticks that leaned outside JB's garage.

This was in the fall.  We waited for the snow. 

It finally came in January.  It was a Saturday - I remember being bummed out because we didn't get a "snow day" - and JB called me early.  It had snowed the evening before and into the night, dry powdery snow like today's but more of it, maybe five inches.  He said today was the day.

It may be tiresome to hear yet again, but my childhood was so vastly different from our boys' it almost seems... historical, bordering on fictional.  I'll just say, well, perhaps we had more time on our hands than kids do today.  That's why JB and I had a plan.  We knew where we'd go, the trails and farm paths we'd take.  We'd done a childhood of day trips and camp-outs and such so we knew every bit of our surroundings.  We packed bread and peanut butter and honey, canteens of water, a couple of oranges and a bag of cookies and two thermoses full of hot chocolate, Swiss Miss, instant, with mini-marshmallows.

We put it all in our standard-issue canvas army knapsacks along with one wool olive drab blanket each.  We clumsily strapped the skis on over our layer of socks and winter boots, grabbed a couple of the smallest walking sticks we could find and headed out on those skis.

Our destination was, fortunately, a modest one.  A hay barn out beyond the soybean field that ran behind both our backyards, maybe a half mile away at best.  It, of course, hadn't yet occurred to us that we wouldn't be able to get through the stubble left on the field on the skis.

It was early when we left, eight-thirty or so.  The winter angle of the sun made it sparkle even more.  It was pretty. 

The first thing we had to do was negotiate a long hill in his backyard.  I tried to go fast but got scared and stuck my poles in the ground and slowed down, nearly losing my footing.  JB just sort of limped down the hill at the speed of a man on crutches.  We waddled our way through the snow, deeper than we were expecting, more walking than skiing.

We found the gap we always went through in the old fence and, well, that's when we realized we couldn't ski through it.  We agreed to take the paths we knew so well and headed off cross-country style.

We were both football players, JB was a big, stocky kind of guy and I was still rail thin in those days and pretty strong.  Neither of us, though, had the stamina that sort of exercise takes.  In no time we were huffing and puffing.  Hats came off and were stuffed in parka pockets, now unzipped, because we were getting so exerted.  It didn't take long to come to the conclusion that, well...

We really sucked at it.

Now, when your in you're early teens, the realization that you suck at something doesn't really come that hard.  Personally, I don't think it ever should.  The value of knowing yourself cannot be understated.  A keen awareness of one's weaknesses and, of course, strengths can be empowering, oddly.

We slowed down, took a break or two, teased each other and urged each other on.  It took us about forty-five minutes, maybe an hour, to get to Mr. Poff's barn.  

I'd noticed a change in the light I think, but, to be honest, when a guy is trying to ski, for the first time, on forty-year-old skis, with branches for poles, well, the focus tends to be down at the ground.  

The sky had darkened, full of those gray, almost charcoal edged clouds that only mid-winter breeds.  We reached the barn, slid the big two-by-four out of its rusted cradle on the doors and went on in.  Dry, dusty, dirt floor, hay was strewn about and... cold, very cold.  We closed the sliding barn door behind us and unfastened the skis with relief.  We leaned against a row of stable walls that separated the stalls when the barn was newer and we had some water and some cookies.

I suppose we talked, had a laugh or two, congratulated ourselves - that sort of thing.  It's funny that I use words so much now, but remember so few from my life's conversations.  I recall the more visceral, the more sensorial details.  I remember we were getting colder, that the cookies were those weird "windmill" ones.  I can see the packs on the floor, the skis and "poles" leaned up against one of the thick timbers that held the roof and loft above us.

I also heard something outside, it was the wind.  We opened the door and watched as it rearranged the snow, forming eddies and little drifts before blowing them down again.  The clouds above looked as if they were about to burst, and, after one last gust of wind that rattled the barn, they did.

All of the sudden, big fluffy flakes of snow started down.  It was so hard and steady, and the flakes so hefty, you could hear it.  It was the first time I'd ever heard the snow fall.  I can't describe it, a muffled click, maybe, or a million little tiny thuds, imperceptible alone, but, amplified by multitudes, you could hear them.

It was weird.

There was an awning, a roof really, over the doorway we stood in.  We could get out maybe ten feet or so before the snow came down on us.  The driveway was a little below ground level and sloped down towards the door, on either side of it was a knee-high cinder block wall that held the dirt from falling into it.  We could sit on the little wall, protected from the snow, and watch. 

We did what any country boys would do - figured we needed a fire.  

Do ya'll know what a "burn barrel" is?  Well, out where I grew up, a lot of folks didn't have garbage service, no trash collection.  For years JB's dad didn't.  It seems hard to believe now.  Anyway, the way you handled all the paper trash was to burn it in a burn barrel, a fifty-gallon drum, up on bricks, thumb-sized holes punched in it ringing the barrel about a foot from the bottom.  Inside it, above that line, was a grate, sometimes welded in, often though just shoved down in it and pushed up against the walls of the barrel.  It's the barrel hobos and apocalypse survivors huddle around in movies.  I still see them frequently out in the country.

Anyway, inside the doorway was one, four bricks stacked next to it.  JB grabbed those and I rolled the barrel out.  In no time we had it up on the bricks.  We had matches because, well, country boys, and JB found some newspaper somewhere inside and some extremely dry hay.  Meanwhile, I'd gone around to the side of the barn where I knew there was a big pile of brush and old fencing.  We were in.

Now, the thing about a burn barrel is that they are incredibly efficient.  If you know what your doing they're basically an incinerator.  They catch fast and we were toasty in minutes.  The wood from the pile, once extricated from the snow, was dry and the pinewood fencing popped in the wind.

JB went inside to make sandwiches and I stood there, hands out like a blessing to the fire, and considered the snow.  I thought of sled-rides and snowball fights; I thought of football games in the snow, of wet, cold feet; I thought of frozen ponds and cracked ice; I thought of snow forts and plywood ramps and muffled laughter and crazy screams.

I thought of more though, I remembered what was to come.  I could feel the cold snow and hot tears that stung two faces, kissing on a college green, in a storm that piled up on our shoulders.  I could hear the clomp-clomp of horses coming up First Avenue in New York City pulling, of all things, sleighs to give rides in Central Park and me talking the driver into a one.  I could feel myself skiing right down the middle of a country road.  I could see the unexpected snow on a mountain meadow in a September yet to come.

I thought of cold slogs through snowstorms and slippery streets with backpacks full of beer.  I see a hot tub and anatomically correct snow-angels in the snow next to it.  I see snowflakes on eyelashes. I taste the Canadian Club snow slushies.  I see hours of watching snow fall from window after window after window.  I sense the isolation, the long loneliness it will someday surely bring, and the sheer damn beauty it will always offer.  Yesterday's muffled laughing mixes with the crazy screaming yet to come.

All this at once - future, past, present - in concert.

I guess we all know it couldn't have really happened like that, one cannot all tenses be.  Unless, of course, that's exactly how we are...

JB came out and handed me a peanut butter, honey and hay sandwich.  He asked me what I was looking at.

"I dunno," I said.  'Everything', I remember thinking.  

(I won't dwell here, although I'd like to.  I also like to just stop here as well, give up trying to explain it all.  My emotions, my feelings, my memories, my loves and hates and desires... well, they often stand counter to linear time for me.  It's disconcerting.)  

We stood there, JB and I, finishing our sandwiches.  I hope he got to sense his what's-to-come as I had.  We sipped our hot chocolate, the snow fell and piled up crazily, settling deep and thick and then the wind would gust and blow it back away and the burn barrel would flame up like bellows on a forge.  A couple of hours passed, the sky that backlit the clouds was losing its light.  

I guess maybe we should have been worried, we weren't really.  I remember feeling fresh and invigorated, hopeful somehow.  It didn't feel like the predicament it, well, was.  We knew we had to get going soon and we were letting the fire die down.  We were trying to decide if we should go home the way we came or try the farm path and then the driveway past Old Man Poff's, out to the main road, State Route 741.  

It was snowing and blowing, but through the noise of the storm, we heard a low rumbling that was getting louder.  We both stepped out a little farther and finally saw something green through the snow, John Deere green, in the form of a diesel 3020 with a front loader attached.  Mr. Poff was coming our way. 

This is the point in the story where you might suspect we were gonna get in a bit of trouble, but, again, it was different back then.  We didn't know this farmer very well, but, we'd returned a cow or two to him and, a few years back, we'd found his old blue tick hound a long ways from home and seemingly lost.  We walked him home and Mr. and Mrs. Poff were just so happy - I guess the old, dumb hound was presumed dead.  She gave us sugar cookies and RC colas and old man Poff turned his back and snortled into an old handkerchief and dabbed his eyes.

The point is, he knew we were good boys.  He parked and idled back the tractor and came under the awning.  He said he'd been out at his livestock barn and noticed the smoke from our fire and decided to see what we were doing.  Farmers are observant people and I'm sure he quickly figured out the whole scene, we'd pack up our things and the skis were leaning against the short wall, we were basically waiting for the fire to go out so we could head home.

We told him as much and he said that the storm was going to get stronger and we'd better be on our way.  He asked which way we were going home and we told him our options - back the way we came, which was a lot of uphill and deep snow, or out past his house on his lane then down the road.

He nodded and headed toward the tractor.  He gunned it and then lowered the front loader and rammed it into a drift and then negotiated the tractor and that pile of snow under the awning and dumped it directly on the burn barrel with a sizzle and a lot of steam.  He idled back again and shouted to us to get going, saying the best route might be by his house.

We take off in the John Deere tracks and it is fairly easy going at first, but there was a hill ahead and the wind and the snow and impending darkness are slowing us down.  

We hear him first, coming up behind us, and then he sounds an anemic horn.  The headlights are on and he is waving us out of the road.  We figure he just wants to pass us.  We crow walk off the tractor path and he passes us.  He waves and he gestures behind him with a thumb and that's when we see it.

He's dragging a thick hemp rope, tied up somewhere under his seat.  The rope is knotted four or five times.

"Grab on!" I remember hearing through the storm and tractor noise.

We shove our poles beneath the knapsacks and do grab on and he accelerates.  We are at a slight incline and the tractor labors a bit but we get going.  We negotiate the rope between us and we are evenly spaced behind the tractor.  He turns to check us out and that's when I notice something.  Mr. Poff is an older guy, a WWI vet if memory serves, probably born around the turn of the century.  Farming wizens men and so does smoking and battle and wind, but, when he turns to look at me I see a young man, twenty-something, with a happy wildness in his eyes, and I sense that that's the way he feels right now.

We get to a flat stretch that then begins to slope down by the barn behind his house.  He keeps looking back, I swear he's laughing, I know Joe and I are, and...  he keeps inching that throttle up and, soon, it feels like we are flying.  It was fucking fun, man.

Now we figure he'll drop us when he gets to the barn, but, he doesn't, he continues down his lane, which he'd plowed, and gives a little more diesel and just as we are about to get out to the main road, he slows a bit and lowers that front loader down and, like a tank, busts through the deep snow that the plows had pushed into his lane and takes a hard left.  This whips us around and we let go, sort of adjust ourselves, and follow him out onto 741.

He points on down the road, freshly plowed, and winks at us.  We try to thank him but he doesn't hear us over the engine and the wind, but I thought I heard him thank us.

We find our poles again and shove off down that long hill I'd only ever been down on car and bike.  It is smooth and slick, like a toboggan run and the skis floated over it.  We swerve and laugh and then we decide to to get up as much speed as we can to get up as much of the hill as possible.  It is twilight now, the snow is still falling, the trees next to the road a bowed under the weight of it all.  It all seems so familiar and, yet, new...

Listen, I don't know what was in the wind that day so many winters ago.  Maybe it was the snow whipping around, maybe it was that odd sound or the crazy black clouds, maybe it was that the same ancient snow falling again was folding time and memory, confused in whiteness.

We found our way back home and split up on the road in front of our houses, I had a little farther to go.  It was then that I realized something, just hours ago as I'd stood outside that old hay barn remembering my own future, I'd seen myself skiing down a country lane.  I'd seen what I had just done and I knew that there was so much more to come, so much more to see, so much more to understand.

As I got to our garage and was taking those old skis off, I realized this as well... they'd probably been Old Man Poff's.  We'd purloined them from a shed on his property.  He was a sharp old dude and I figure it put it all together.  I think that is when I realized the timelessness of it all.  Maybe he'd been pulled by an old Model T when he was a boy, maybe he'd pulled his own children down the same lane he'd just led us down.  I realized that he'd knotted that rope just so like he'd done it before.  I recall being him for a moment, being boy, father, old man, all at once.  It was the same feeling I'd had looking out as the woods and fields filled with snow and I gazed both ahead and back simultaneously.

Over and over again in my life, I've felt it, this disjointed sense of time and memory, and I've grown to accept it and, maybe, understand it for a moment.  And, in that moment, known a certain peace, a feeling that our loves and losses and fears and tears and past and future are all, somehow, a part of the only time we only will ever really have... now.

A few months after this, in an English class, we read Robert Frost's "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening."  I'd encountered it before, but, this time, well, it made a lot more sense.

I've kept you so long and I suspect you have your own "miles to go" so, godspeed, and thanks for stopping by.

(See what I did there?)

Here's an image of the tractor he pulled us with:

And, this is a picture of me that year.



  1. So worth every single minute of reading. I could picture it clearly, and envy your gift of juggling time and memories. Beautiful.

  2. Absolutely brilliant. Great work, Bill!