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Maine Winters of Yesteryear

January 23, 2011

            “Maine towns take winter seriously. They are ready with money and trucks and men and sand and salt. Derring-do is in good supply, and the roads stay open, no matter what. The things that do not stay open are the driveways of people. Every new swipe of the plow hurls a gift of snow into the mouth of a driveway, so that, in effect, the plowmen, often working while we sleep snug in our beds, create a magnificent smooth, broad highway to which nobody can gain access with his automobile until he has passed a private miracle of snow removal. It is tantalizing to see a fine stretch of well-plowed public road just the other side of a six-foot barricade of private snow.  My scheme for town plowing would be to have each big plow attended by a small plow, as a big fish is sometimes attended by a small fish.  There would be a pause at each driveway while the little plow removes the snow that the big plow has deposited, but I am just a dreamer.”

–E.B. White, One Man’s Meat, 1941

           As I awoke this morning, the sounds of snow shovels on pavement irritated me in that same way that the noise of fall leaf blowers sets off my ire.  It hadn’t snowed but a half an inch or so in the night, but there was the neighbor’s hired man shoveling anyway.  A contract is a contract, I suppose, but one has to ask if the cacophony of scrapes and bangs were really necessary on such a peaceful morning.  City living.


After a good snow storm

       The town where I grew up is in a spot far removed from the metropolis where I now reside.  Main Street is lined with blocks of granite and no one is ever worried about how much it will cost to replace them the next time the street is repaired.  They will essentially last forever.  There are sidewalks there, but only for a short distance in the center of the village.  I don’t think there is any requirement though to keep them clear of snow and ice.  All of that will melt come spring, the people figure, and as cold as it is out there, you probably should be inside rather than out walking the streets anyhow.  Some of the high school kids will be hired, come the spring thaw, to sweep and shovel up the sand and debris that has collected on the walking paths over the course of the previous five months; that’s a one day job.  Maximum.

            The town where I grew up is not a big place.  One phone exchange.  285.  One zip code.  04427.  One doughnut shop.  Dunkin Donuts, which opened only after Dave’s shop had closed.  Roughly sixty-five people live in each of the forty square miles of the town.  My parents’ 1984 home was one of 256 new constructions in the town during that decade of unprecedented growth.  And yet, in the center of town, there is still today but one solitary blinking yellow light at the intersection near the bank, supplicating people to come to at least a rolling stop before entering the main thoroughfare.  Look both ways from the entrance to the Exeter Road and you can see a half mile or more in either direction.  You can spot the cars coming out of Dover and Bangor with no trouble.  Punch the gas and you can get out in to the street before they are ahead of you all the way to the city.  No one has ever questioned why there is no light at the corner with the Skolfield Manor, the other intersection only a few hundred yards away.  Is it less dangerous at that aperture to route 43?  Is it because the corner with the Hudson Road is a “residential” corner and the other one full of business?  No one is up at night complaining of the flashing light by the bank, but I bet they would be across from the Duran place.  A simple stop sign encourages good behavior; some might say “requires” it, but they would be wrong.

            When I first went away to study at Middlebury College in Vermont, Corinth was home to some five hundred people fewer than it boasts even today.  The town of Middlebury had age-old bridges and street lights at many junctions, bars, department stores and both diners and restaurants.  It was at least three times the size of where I had come from, and it was amazing.  So amazing, in fact, that in my first few days of living in the Château as a sophomore, my neighbor Donovan spotted me glued to my second floor window overlooking the hills of the Green Mountain town.  “Whatcha doin’?” he mockingly asked.  “Oh, just admiring the city lights and how pretty they are this evening.”  Peels of laughter from my friend brought others to the scene.  “Those aren’t city lights, James; Middlebury is hardly even a town!”  These same people couldn’t understand how something could be “wicked good” or “some hot” either.  They had no idea where to go when I asked them to meet me in the “cellar”, where the small basement cafeteria was.  Some even ignored entirely the existence of “woods’ pussy”, even though we had smelled one of the black and white striped beauties go through campus the night before, forcing us to close our windows because of the stench.  In short, we were from two different planets.  ‘Thank God I’m a country boy’, as John Denver used to crone.

            Little else is as ugly as city snow only few hours after the storm has passed.  Slushy black mess all over the road edges and driveways.  Traces of yellow where house-bound pups have passed.  A cup out on the lawn left there by someone who really and truly believes that the “stumble-home” bar is a category of drinking establishment.  Snow in the city is just filthy after a while, a cause of much mess both inside and out.

            Snow in the country is much more of a gift to the senses.  Poor man’s fertilizer, we called it, it sustains working families by allowing for more bountiful harvest.  Fields of white and gray, and slightly blue, blanket the entire area after a good storm.  Paw and hoof prints mark unlikely paths; lurking beneath are tiny trails of mice and voles, anxious to find food and not become it.  Even after a snow blower throws the amassed flakes out of the driveway, it still is pristine, though perhaps a bit more textured along the edges.

           While you wouldn’t necessarily want a white wash, a fist full of snow in the face, in the city for who knows what has been in the snow before you, you wouldn’t mind so much out in the country.  The refreshing chill of the snow as it melts down your nose and your glasses finally clear of the fog it creates isn’t so bad.  Your cheeks tingle for several minutes as you dry off in the weak rays of the sun.  Our black lab Brandy knew this.  Walking close to the edge of the driveway as you returned from fetching the morning paper at the green box out by the road, you were easy prey.  Brandy would dash up behind you, faster than you could respond, and poke you in the back of the leg with her muzzle—poke you right in that soft joint behind your knee causing you to tumble face first in to the snow afoot the spruce tree you had planted the year the house was built.  She always did it in the same spot where the driveway curves slightly and you aren’t yet thinking of turning to go around the rounded mounds of snow.  Why you didn’t take a wider path to avoid the prank, one will never know.  One thing is for certain however:  if our dog Brandy could have laughed, she would have been holding her sides.

           The air after a good snow storm just smells of freshness, even if melted snow on wool mittens, like the ones Beryl Dow, Grammy Sweet or Helen Connor used to knit for us, carries with it a peculiar scent which has not surrounded me in years.  Just go on outside after the next storm, form a few snowballs and throw them at someone you love, or lie back and spread your arms and legs wide so as to make a snow angel, and when you return to the warmth of the hearth, you’ll soon know of what I speak.

           Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.  The more things change, the more they stay the same.  Heavy wet snows continue to fall in Maine

Dad's new toy

and from November to April, and my dad still has to be out there to get rid of it all and make the lane in front of the house passable.  And yet, a couple of seasons ago, my dad made a rather bold purchase.  Tired of having to suit up in the heavy winter coat with fur around the hat and collar, ski pants, heavy gloves and scarf, dad found himself at the “petting zoo” located in front of the John Deere store on the way to Bangor.  “Here pretty, pretty, pretty!  Here pretty, pretty, pretty!” he called out as he wandered the sales lot when all of the sudden the beauty came in to sight.  A medium-sized tractor which could haul things in summer, cut the grass with ninety inches of blade and power, as well as throw the snow in winter sat taunting him.  Covered in a cab, equipped with a heater and radio even, dad could take care of the snow in his underpants if wanted to; what risk would there be?  “So beautiful.  I think I’ll adopt you first.”  It has been a marvelous addition to the family.

           Lorraine Ronco’s husband, Bob, passed away some time ago of Lou Gehrig’s disease.  Her driveway is relatively steep and faces the mouth of my parents’ drive from the other side of the road.  There once were large elm trees on either side of the drive, centennial trees of some stature and grandeur.  They were lost to the Dutch elm’s disease twenty years ago and what a shame that was.  The Roncos’ house originally sat out in the village near the saw mills, but was brought over to sit on a new foundation one day when I was a child.  It isn’t every day that you get to see a house loaded on a truck and moving down the street!

             To the contrary of ours, which is gravel and has a few lumps and depressions, Lorraine’s drive is paved and in very good shape; Bob had insisted upon it after he was retired from both the school district and the post office.  He had been the school Superintendent for a while, and loved the art of teaching and those who practice it.  While Lorraine technically could get her husband’s old tractor out and take care of the snow herself, dad goes over with his machine instead.  A few swipes and the snow is gone, and Mrs. Ronco can still get out of the house to go to the Tradewinds market or visit the kids.  She misses Bob a lot, you can tell, but her speech patterns have become more regular since.  She no longer refers to herself in the third person as she once did.  Dad doesn’t mind helping her out; she must be in her eighties by now.

           No matter how hard he tries, Dad cannot keep a mailbox fully intact on his country road.  If it isn’t some high school prankster smashing it up with a baseball bat or dropping an M80 in and running, it is the snowplow driver who can’t seem to aim just a few inches closer to the road.  Wham!  The thing is flattened with regularity.  Mrs. Ronco is lucky that the post office now delivers on both sides of the street.  She was beginning to think that our box was cursed and that hers was just along for the ride!

           Indeed, the hardest thing about getting the snow out of the yard in maintaining the mouth of the driveway clear of debris.  Dad would always try to take the snow blower and plow out the end of the driveway, and do along the front of the mail boxes to keep the mail lady from getting stuck, but inevitably, the plow would come back through and all efforts were in vain.  He never let it discourage him.  As recompense for his wounded spirit, Dad would take the snow blower down the length of the field surrounding our house, making a path for the dog to play and do her business in when the snows got too deep.  Who wants to be belly deep in white fluff when nature calls?  My dad is an old softy.

Mom's turkeys at the end of the dog's path

One Comment leave one →
  1. Helena Clarke-Froidevaux permalink
    January 23, 2011 9:10 am

    Chickadee was one of my mother’s pet names for me when I was a small girl in Watertown, NY, close to Lake Ontario. I enjoyed your article very much, James, and have just explained to Pascal the workings of ear muffs! We look forward to reading your previous tidbits. Thanks for thinking of me. Helena

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