I congratulate myself for anticipating one of the conclusions of the President's Commission for a National Agenda for the Eighties. Way back in March 1980, I knew that it made no sense to keep pouring money into the frost zone when life would be so much more energy efficient in the Sun Belt.
As I recall it, money was the only thing that was pouring at that time in our old farmhouse in the worked-out rural area of western Rhode Island. The bathrooms had Potemkin plumbing, we were sleeping downstairs beside the woodstoves, and we had just knocked a hole in the kitchen wall to insert a length of pipe as a temporary bypass of the sink drain that was frozen solid through 30 feet of permafrost.
It was then that my agenda began to commence with the item: "Move South."
My problem, like that of so many luckless New Englanders, was that I was happily employed by a business with few branches in the Sun Belt of coconut palms, cane fields or Joshua trees. The best my newspaper could do was a bureau in Washington.
That was fine with me. I grew up on a newspaper in Washington and could remember the difference between winters there and winters here. Most years, the difference was more one of length than severity. In Washington, winter usually began around Advent and was only a memory by Easter. In Rhode Island, the sky turned to pewter about the time of homecoming weekend at U.R.I. and returned to turquoise just in time for graduation.
When I convinced the paper -- The Providence Journal and Bulletin -- to let me escape south for a year, I had no idea that this would be one of the great New England winters to miss. My daughters and I have spent this delicious season in an all-utilities-included apartment, where we have rediscovered the long, hot January shower and the white, unsmoked living room ceiling. Our weekends, no longer taken up with scraping kindling out of the ice in the forest, stacking cordwood, combing bark out of the rugs or jump-wiring vehicles, are free for cultural activities. The girls seem to spend most of theirs in discos; I spend them working to make the extra money to pay the staggering Washington rent.
We also spend a lot of time reading letters from the friends we left behind. We lounge in the living room without so much as a single sleeping bag tucked about us and feel like Florida vacationers in a New Yorker cartoon as we read their plaintive notes:
"This morning, the toilet paper was frozen to the roll. We've been melting snow to make coffee . . ."
"The water comes on briefly from time to time, then freezes in midstream. Goes drip, drip, plop, plop, then silence. The only sound in the house today, now that the dishwasher and washing machine are frozen, is that of pipes snapping."
A writer friend lives in a stately condo on Beacon Hill in Boston. She writes, "The Globe is full of the requisite photos of icicled firemen, suburban homeowners gazing with dismay upon frozen and burst pipes, tenement dwellers huddled in front of open ovens, etc. We have no broken pipes but the cold has somehow caused our elevator to malfunction, which is a bit of a difficulty when one lives on the seventh floor . . . Gov. King has just made clear, by way of the radio, that it is not a [natural] gas shortage but a gas crisis that we are having and we are to turn our thermostats down 10 degrees. I am going to see a play entitled, "Sylvia Plath: A Dramatic Portrait," which will no doubt depress me, but as my friend Judith, with whom I am going to see it, pointed out, we can't come home and put our heads in the oven, as Plath did, because we can't use the oven."
Reports from Maine list frozen root cellars at Pocomoonshine Lake, 40-below-zero lunch hours in downtown Machias and roosters whose combs freeze to the chicken house wall in Westmanland. From New Hampshire, a mackinaw-wearing northwoods type writes, "Fell on the ice of Lake Winnepesaukee and crunched knee while looking for an ice fisherman's bob house. Ice thickest in a century."
My paper has provided me with a by-mail subscription so that I won't lose touch with my state during this year in the South. The bundles unroll to reveal photos of frozen harbors, cut-off islands, miserable pedestrians; news accounts of closed schools, children wearing hand-knit pajamas, tankers immobolized by ice. A Newport seafood restaurant reports that it is down to its last eight littlenecks and a Narragansett Bay quahogger says if you try to dig clams through that ice, you break equipment worth more than the quahogs you dig.
I feel a little guilty, reading it all, so when I answer my friends I don't tell them about the two hours yesterday when it was 54 degrees above zero, I tell them what the temperature was at 7 a.m. After all, if everybody comes to the Sun Belt, the rent will be even higher.