Now this is more like it. They said flurries, and that's exactly what we got. God forbid it should snow.
One thing is sure: Summer is finally over. It is time to think about cold things.
We spent a week on Tolman Pond up in New Hampshire this year (I don't need the word "up" but that's what you say when you are talking about New Hampshire), and I noticed that the back lot was stacked chin-high with firewood. Several free-standing walls of it, placed at odd angles like a map of the armies at Waterloo. Some stacks were white and fresh, some gray with age.
Looked to me like enough for a decade or so. I asked Barry Tolman how much wood he used in a winter.
"Twenty, twenty-four cords," he said. "Have to buy some this year."
In the city they sell you what they call a face cord, 2 feet by 4 feet by 8 feet. This is because a lot of city fireplaces won't take a log four feet long. When Barry said a cord, however, he meant a real, actual, official, American cord, 4 by 4 by 8. I doubt if he ever heard of a face cord, and if he did he would laugh his short laugh.
What he was telling me was that whole back yard full of wood wasn't going to come anywhere near heating the house for a single winter. And his house has gas heat and insulation and everything.
And that's only southern New Hampshire.
My uncle Nick was caretaker for Howard Taylor's fox farm up by Debar Mountain in the northern Adirondacks. They would have eight feet of snow as a matter of course. The roof was as steep as the one on the witch's cottage in "Hansel and Gretel"; otherwise snow would have crushed it before Christmas. Nick ran a two-foot-high fence of chicken wire all around the house and stuffed the space with dead leaves. It was supposed to keep the wind from whistling in where the foundations met the wood frame.
The one time my father inveigled my mother up to the fox farm for a winter visit, they found their hot-water bottle at the foot of the bed in the morning, frozen solid.
One year Taylor, a man who had many ideas, had an idea he would insulate it cheap. He drilled holes in the beaverboard inner walls near the ceilings and rigged up a vacuum cleaner hose and blew in some sawdust he had trucked away free from a local sawmill.
It was great. Kept the house warm as toast. And all the field mice for miles around moved in that winter. You could hear them in there, in the sawdust, eating, fighting, making love, dying.
It was the dead ones that made the strongest impression on us.
We used to have winter on our farm in northern New York. Our first hired man, Willard Hitchcock, a talented carpenter, cobbled up a removable outer wall for our kitchen porch, which was a sort of indentation in the side of the house. At the first snowfall he would hoist this thing, big as a billboard with a built-in door, out of the barn and hook it in place.
We kept our cream separator there. In the winter I would open the outer door, stamp my galoshes on the mat and clump across the porch to the regular kitchen door. The air in that space was icy, dry and still, like the air in a walk-in freezer. There were always boot prints made of ice on the wooden floor, the very floor I had painted deck-gray back in June. The prints at first were packed snow that people tracked in during the storms, but as time passed they turned to ice a half-inch thick, like plaster casts, and stayed until April.
We counted on at least one good blizzard a year, when the snow whirled across the road in such a screaming, blinding barrage of white that driving was out of the question. The headlights, boring a small cone of light into the darkness ahead, only made it look thicker, and you seemed to be driving through the middle of a pillow. No matter which way you turned, the snow came straight at you.
The next morning was calm and clear, always, and nothing stirred on the roads, not even a school bus, and I would be expected to shovel the driveway, which was 120 yards long with a loop, but in the afternoon the wind rose again, and the laboriously shoveled snow started to drift into the road again, and I took off for a walk with my dog Napoleon.
The cropped cornfields were plated over with a hard, gleaming layer of pimply crust so thick that I plunged through only a few times and Napoleon never. Snow blew at us with a universal howl, turning the air white, filling the sky, driving into our faces. I wore my scarf up to my eyes like a desert tribesman in a sandstorm. Napoleon's black mask quickly crusted over with fanciful white brows, and his coat grew icicles, and he had to stop to bite the ice balls from between his toes.
I wore a blue gabardine hat with a squared visor and flannel-lined earflaps that were down, of course. I had a blue-checked mackinaw -- in those days down still hadn't been liberated from sleeping bags -- and thick gray twill pants like Uncle Nick's and galoshes with fasteners that looked like tiny ladders.
We trudged, leaning against the wind, over the fields toward Rogers' woods. Here and there you could see the tips of dead cornstalks. Massive, erotically curved 10-foot drifts, maybe 50 yards long, were crowned with a fine thin curtain of blown snow that shot straight out like the spume from wind-driven ocean waves. Behind them stood the inevitable row of little wooden sticks: all that you could see of the snow fence that had created the drift in the first place.
At the crest of the long hill a single magnificent skeletal elm, the Newells' elm, commanded the horizon like the last tree in the world.
The light was going by the time we reached the woods. The hollows had turned blue, and the gleaming surface was dulled by the carpet of ever-swirling snow. We headed back. Napoleon was sore where he had chewed on his paws and made them icier than ever. He was no longer darting this way and that, but trotting quietly behind me -- out of the wind.
My pants legs were soaked. Snow had leaked down the insides of my galoshes and up my sleeves and inside my turned-up collar. The elastic wristbands of my leather mittens had gone to ice, rubbing the wrists raw. Squinting against the stinging blast, I could see the lights of the house a half-mile away.
The drifts were higher than when I left. I was going to have to shovel that whole drive again unless we could talk Red Wester into plowing it for us. I sure hoped we had a fire going in the library, and when I came down all dry in my soft corduroys and fleece-lined moccasins we could have supper right there on the sofa with the fire reddening our cheeks ...
Yessir, they don't have winters like they used to. Here in Washington, a northern New York boy has to make do with memories.
Or I could tell you how it took me 3 hours and 20 minutes to drive in from Reston yesterday.