Sunday, August 16, 2009

Snow Days – The Patagonia and Ohio Express

The sound of the rain awakens me. The rhythm of it on the galvanized metal roofing of my cabin in the mountains in Patagonia. The sound of it, gentle, deceivingly soothing if I didn’t know what it meant, snaps me out of sleep and wakes me right up. Muffled, it sounds, drumming rather than pattering, thumping now and again as well, plopping as it slithers off the branches above the house and falls like a heavy cream pie on the roof, because it is no longer rain - that steady rain out of the northwest, out of the Cordillera, out of the Andes, Chile and the Pacific beyond - that lulled me to sleep less than five hours ago.

*Snow days in Patagonia

I raise myself on my elbow, draw back the curtain over the window behind my head and peek out. It won’t be dawn for another few hours and from this angle, all I can see are the undersides of the boughs of the ancient beeches that surround the house, towering over it, to the east, south and north, and with the waning moon behind the clouds, it’s hard to tell the state of affairs: rain, rain mixed with snow, or snow – the dangerous kind, heavy, wet snow.

But I hear three or four soggy, weighty plunks on the roof and know I can no longer hope for rain. It is, doubtless, snow.

With no little effort, I extricate myself from the pile of covers I have on top of me – the cocoon in which I was only minutes ago giving free rein to my dreams – and kneel on the mattress to get a better look. Yes, now, even in this pre-dawn darkness, I can see how the Spanish broom and smaller trees – laurels and junipers – are hunkering down under the crushing burden of a very wet and heavy snow.

Almost immediately, I get a bad feeling in the pit of my stomach and start getting anxious. Better charge the battery on my laptop, charge up the flashlight batteries. Oh, and my cell phone. If the lines are down the cells are all we’ll have. I get up as quietly as possible so as not to wake up my wife and pad barefoot into my studio, where I plug in various and sundry chargers and devices. I then go back to bed. I try to relax and go back to sleep. I look at the luminescent hands of the alarm clock. Four a.m. – too early to start the day. But who can sleep? I lie there staring into the darkness, trying to gauge the weight and type of the snow. The worst, I conclude, heavy as lead. Like industrial quantities of lemon ice-cream piling up on the branches of the trees in the windless pre-dawn hours. That means downed power lines, snapped phone cables, blocked roads. It means days of work lost, clients upset, deadlines missed.

I’ll never get back to sleep this way, so I decide to change focus, to think about something else, or to think about this but in a different light.

I think about when I was a little boy. Oh how I loved the snow back in Ohio! I wanted it to snow always. Back then, when I was small and, in fact, until I was middle-aged and moved to Patagonia, I was a snow fanatic. I knew when it was coming, had an intimate relationship with it. I even fancied I could make it snow, so intimate was the bond. I literally had a nose for it. Could smell it on the air, the same way I could smell frost, before it came.

I remember when I was about to turn 43, being back in Ohio, alone, for a visit with my folks in October. It was the last time everybody was still well – Dad, Mom, my Aunts and Uncles, my Little Brother, who nobody would ever have guessed would fall ill. The last time, in other words, when things would be normal and going “home” would just be that, going home.

We had been having that crisp, gold and blue weather of Midwestern autumn. October blue days, my mother called them. A gorgeous, euphoric kind of weather in which it seems nothing could possibly go wrong. Cloudless, china-blue skies, the tawny wheat still in some fields, waiting to be harvested, the cornfields just hard dry dirt and raw stubble now, strewn and studded here and there with missed ears and scattered kernels of sun-parched maize, the soft maples already standing stark and stripped against the azure sky, their silver and golden foliage lying like fine lingerie passionately shed at their feet, the sugar maples putting on the last act of their fiery red-leafed show before also letting fall their autumn hues, the oaks looking plucked and sparse with just a single dark-reddish-brown leaf still clinging here and there to their branches, as if trying hard to withstand the temptation to simply let go and allow a random autumnal breeze to carry it drifting down to the ground that lay littered with its peers and with the acorns that gray and red squirrels scrambled to collect for their winter hibernation.

Paying my last respects to my native land – this particular rural land – on the day before I was to return to Argentina, I had gone for a drive in a borrowed car on the familiar back roads of West-Central Ohio and in the golden autumn-light of late afternoon, alone on the Buckland-Holden Pike, had been privileged to watch a large white-tailed buck, his head holding high his impressive rack of antlers, bolt from the open field where he had been grazing on abandoned corn, make a dash ahead of my on-coming car, vault the seven-strand fence in one impressively graceful leap, gallop and skitter across the pavement, so close I fancied I could see the white of his startled eye, and jump the fence on the other side of the road, before cantering off into a nearby woodlot, where he disappeared from view. It was a sign, I thought, a blessing, an omen: Life was good.

That night, after supper with my parents, in the house where I had been brought up from age twelve, I went for a last-evening walk around town, stopping off at the Alpha for a couple of drafts, bellied up to the gorgeous old African mahogany bar that was owner Bill Gutman’s pride and joy, before trekking the mile and a half back home. When I came out of the Alpha, I noticed the weather was changing. My light windbreaker was insufficient for this new twist and I shivered when I exited the homey warmth of the stuffy bar onto the main drag of town. There was a strange, frigid breeze out of the north and the sky was fast clouding over. The air seemed charged and somehow “electric” and, walking home, when I looked back from where I had just come, the streetlamps of Main Street were casting an eerie orange glow, so typical of winter nights, against the clouds. It was only October 22nd, but when I breathed in the night air, the scent was unmistakable. Even after 20 years of living in Buenos Aires, my rural Ohio nose knew right away what that indescribable fragrance was. Snow!

When I got back, Mom was dozing in front of the TV set and Dad was in the kitchen dishing himself up a sundae of chocolate ice-cream, peanut butter and Hershey’s chocolate syrup.

“Hey, Dan!” the ol’ man said when I waltzed in through the back door.

“Hey yourself, Dad, how’s it going?”

“Okey-dokey, want some ice-cream?”

“No thanks. Hey Dad, know what? I think it’s going to snow tonight.”

“Snow!!” he cried, so loudly that it jolted Mom out of her nap in the living room. “No way, Dan. It’s October, for chrissake! Hell, you aren’t gonna get any snow around here till Thanksgiving at least.”

*Snow days in Ohio

Dad had never been a fan of snow, but his last job before he retired had been as a route salesman for a local cheese manufacturer and after endless winters of slipping and sliding around on rural Ohio roads and city streets in a sixteen-ton truck loaded full of cheese he had grown to unequivocally hate snow. “Look at that white shit comin’ down out there,” he would say when it started snowing. I didn’t get it. For me snow was about the most amazing and beautiful thing on earth.

“I don’t know,” I said, shaking my head. “The air sure smells like it.”

Smells like it?” he grinned dubiously, “Aw, com’on now, Dan, don’t try an’ bullshit your ol’ man."

“No, really, Dad, I can smell it on the air.”

“Naw, never happen. November, maybe. Christmas for sure. But October? I think you and your snozz have been in South America too long."

“Okay, Dad, if you say so. But I’ll tell you what, if it doesn’t snow tonight, it’s gonna miss a helluva good chance.”

“Nah, not to worry, Dan. I’d wager good money on it.” Strong words for the ol’ man, who had a reputation for being more than just careful with his money.

“Actually, I’m not worried,” I said. “I’d kind of like for it to snow.”

“Well, yeah, because you’re leaving tomorrow, and going back to sunny South America, but the rest of us have to stay here and put up with it after you’re gone and it’s too damned early for it to start snowing already, damnit.” He was so adamant that I half expected him to forbid me to ‘make it snow’.

But the next day, Dad had to eat his words. When we got up early to go to a pancake breakfast that the Lions were putting on before Dad and Mom were to drive me the 60 miles to the Dayton Airport to take my flight to Miami and back to Argentina, the ground was blanketed with a pristine four inches of snow, and there were still snow flurries in the morning air.

Dad took this miraculous autumn snow personally – a personal affront – and I was, he seemed to feel, somewhat to blame. I had wished it on him.

“You drive,” he said, holding out his car keys to me with two fingers in a gesture whose disdain was only thinly veiled. “I had twenty years of driving a truck on this white shit. Any time I can let somebody else do it, I will.”

I shrugged, smiled and took the keys. I opened the garage door and then climbed into the big Mercury Grand Marquis and started it up. I had tried to explain to Dad on numerous occasions that these modern, fuel-injected, computerized cars didn’t have to be warmed up like the cars of the thirties, forties, fifties and sixties that he grew up and matured on. But it was no use. It was easier not to try and fight his routines or soundly developed opinions. His rule of thumb was a warm up of at least ten minutes, so ten minutes it was. His house, his car, his way.

As the exhaust from the big Merc billowed white into the unseasonable chill of this October morning, I went back into the house, retrieved my luggage from the room I shared as a boy with my kid brother, carried it out to the garage, popped the trunk and loaded it in. It was all decided: We would go right from the pancake breakfast to the airport. “Hard telling how long it’ll take us to do 60 miles in this damn weather,” Dad said.

Mom and I got into the car and waited. We knew this ritual by heart. We had been participants in it ever since our family was a family. The rest of us would sit in the car and wait while the ol’ man ran his checklist. Holding his one hand under the spigots in the kitchen and bathroom and tightening the faucets with the other hand he would do the check, a liturgy as strict as that of any religion: “Left faucet off once…off twice…off three times. Right faucet off once…off twice…off three times.” And so on throughout the house checking windows, appliances, anything that might run or leak or in any way operate uselessly while he was gone. Off one, two, three…Closed one, two, three…obsessive/compulsive by the numbers.

My mother and I sat there, saying nothing, waiting patiently, or impatiently but wordlessly, for him to be done. We knew the drill. We waited for it to be over.

Finally, he was visible, at the back door of the house: “Door locked once…twice…”

And as usual this was the point at which Mom’s patience wore thin. She rolled down the window on the backseat passenger’s side, where she was sitting in order to let Dad sit up front with me and she called out to him, “Will you please come on and get your butt into the car sometime today, Norman, so that we can get going.”

“Noooowww, Mother,” he said as he approached the car, “don’t go being a dibbick.” Then he climbed in beside me and said, “Take ‘er away, Dan.”

Already the snow had stopped, the morning turning crisp, a good ten degrees under freezing. The snow crunched and squeaked, a frozen powder, under the tires of the Merc as I backed it down the driveway and onto the road. The county snowplow hadn’t been by yet, but some neighbors had already laid tracks on the road. I followed them and coaxed the Merc gently up the hill to the Hamilton Street Bridge. These big eight-cylinder engines were entirely too powerful for snowy streets and if you gave them too much gas you just spun the tires and went nowhere.

As I turned left onto Hamilton, I saw in my rearview mirror how, although it was still early on a Saturday morning, the county snowplow was already crossing the bridge and turning onto our road to do its work. When we were kids, we loved to watch the snowplow, and it was the same kind now as it was back then, a big five-ton dump-truck the back-end tipped slightly to keep feeding rock salt into a hopper and feeder that scattered the salt on the pavement, the front-end fitted with a huge blade, set skewed toward the passenger side of the cab so as to throw the snow off to the side of the road. Effective, efficient, a powerful tool with which to keep things open and moving.

The main streets of town, as we cruised through it, were also already cleared and salted. This was a Northern town where people were used to handling snow. Everything was geared to snow’s not being a problem: Even as it snowed, the streets were being cleared. Cables were mostly underground and those that weren’t were over open terrain and were tested and approved for use in heavy snow and high winds. This was Ohio, with its rich rural and industrial tradition.

When we arrived at the K of C Hall, ceded on this occasion to the Lions for this annual fundraiser, its blacktopped parking lot was also cleared. And the machinery used was still in evidence: An aging John Deere tractor with a scoop on the front sat parked off to one side. It almost certainly belonged, I speculated, to a volunteer from the Knights of Columbus, the Lions or both, and he was just as certainly now inside getting his just due – all the pancakes and sausage he could eat, with plenty of hot coffee. There were already quite a few cars parked outside. It was a farm town. People here were early-risers.

Inside we were greeted by the warm sweet and spicy smell of hot buttered pancakes, warm maple syrup and pork link sausage. Drifting above it all, the aroma of brewing coffee. And the cheery salutations:

“Hey, Norm! How are you Reba? ‘d you guys order this weather?”

"Not me, Charlie,” Dad responds. “I hate this shit and it’s too damned early for it.”

“Why, it’s just enough snow to be pretty, Normie!” Another familiar face cries.

Pretty! Not if you have to drive in it, it’s not,” Dad responds.

“Well, you don’t because you retired, so have some pancakes an stop your bitchin’,” says somone else, and then in a sunny tone, “Hey! Is this Dan? Hey Dan’el, how ya doin’? Haven’t see you in a coon’s age!”

It never changed. You went away twenty years, came back, and it seemed like they were all still there. Robust, red-faced, thick-waisted men, being jolly and friendly of a Saturday morning, wearing bibbed aprons and serving up breakfast to their neighbors to raise funds for charity. It was the very best of small-town life. Reliability, solidarity, efficiency. This wouldn’t change, I was thinking, hoping. But I realized, that day, that the faces would. These men were mostly of Mom and Dad’s generation, World War II and Korea vets. But even now, mine were there too, classmates, Vietnam vets, who were doing the grill work ceded to them by their elders, who now did the greeting and the dishing up and the ticket-taking.

My generation and theirs dropped by the table to say hi as we enjoyed our pancakes and coffee. They all wanted to know the same things: Did I order this weather (Dad responded – not without certain acrimony – that yes I had… “Said he could smell it, if you can believe that”). How was South America treating me, Brazil wasn’t it? No? Argentina? What did they speak there, Spanish? So where was it they spoke Portuguese. Was it true it was summer there now and didn’t that seem funny somehow. Huh, Christmas in the summertime, imagine that! But at least you didn’t have to drive in the snow, huh?

It was funny: After all these years, it wasn’t just my family I started missing as soon as I took the plane and headed south. It was this – this place, my town, what it meant, how it felt when I sought it out in my heart and held it cupped in my two hands like something ever-cherished.

I’m thinking about this now, as I’m standing in the darkened kitchen of my house in Patagonia, staring out the window at the snow that is gathering on the lawn under the Patagonian beeches. I’m thinking how all of that, which once seemed so permanent, so inexhaustible, is now gone: Dad, Mom, my Little Brother, the house I spent my teen years in, people I thought of as anchors in my life and keys to who I was, my very links to that town and the land around it.

I’m also thinking of the snow, how it’s a test of individuals and of peoples. How you cope with snow, whether you can love it in spite of itself, whether a people has the solidarity to live with it and make it work for them. I remember that morning, when it snowed in October and surprised everybody. But how everybody in that small, rural-Ohio town knew just what to do, knew there was no use complaining, knew that what you did if you were from that town was clear the roads and parking lot in time for that pancake breakfast you had been planning for months.

I feel bad, I’m thinking, about how I can no longer see snow like I did when I was a kid, that it’s no longer just pretty. It means grownup things now, here in Patagonia – hours, a day, a week waiting for the electricity to be restored. My translation clients in Buenos Aires, Houston or Madrid being incapable of understanding how anybody, anywhere, can be without power for a week, but understanding one thing for sure, that it’s not a problem they are going to stand for. Trying to make it the two klicks down to the main road in my four by four pickup to leave tracks for my neighbors and me to follow before it gets too deep to move at all, because only God knows when the municipality will get around to sending a road grader out this far. Hoping against hope that no branches will break and fall on the telephone lines because repair orders are already normally backed up for weeks on end, hoping the snow will turn to rain, hoping the sun will come out, hoping this won’t be the worst winter ever. Wishing that things were like “back home”, where everybody knew what to do and did it, immediately and without complaint.

Even as I’m thinking this, I hear the UPS alarm on my computer upstairs and know the electricity is gone. With aerial lines, one broken beech bough is enough to knock out an entire sub-station. I climb the stairs with a flashlight and shut down the UPS and my computer. I go to bed to wait for daybreak. There’s nothing else to do.

Lying there still unable to sleep, I think about how this is good in its own way. It’s a more real world. Here, the snow is just the snow and you are just you. It teaches you self-reliance. You cope without expecting anything of anyone else. Whatever you do to cope with Nature, you do on your own. In the meantime, there are no false hopes, no misunderstandings, no thinking anything or anyone is permanent. There’s just you and how you handle what comes at you for as long as you are still breathing.

There’s something to be said for that, and it doesn’t make the snow any less beautiful. On the contrary, it is a thing of beauty that is indifferent to your condition or your problems, which are all of your own making. It just is what it is and how you live with it is all about who you are. The beauty of it is all its own. It’s up to you to take it or leave it.