You might have heard that Eskimos have an inordinate number of nouns for snow. Although that’s a misconception promulgated by Franz Boas, a Maine native might easily have two dozen adjectives for it.
Nowadays, a mere 10 or 12 inches of snow can keep elderly ladies from strapping on chains and attending their weekly bingo game. And when you hear that Fort Kent schoolchildren are not allowed out for recess when it is below zero, don’t you have to wonder if Maine people are getting wimpy?
If you don’t want to hear “Back when I was a boy,” you might as well stop reading right here.
Because when I was on my back as a boy greasing cars in Russ Thomas’ garage, I’d hear middle-aged men tell how there would always be a race to see who could get to town first after a blizzard. The way I heard it, when the drifted road was impassable, they would cross fields that had blown clear and navigate fallen stone walls. If Reino Elo couldn’t ram his Model A over a stone wall, Bill Leppanen and the Korpinen boys would help push him out of the way so they could give it a try.
Even in my time, some roads could not be cleared with a conventional V-plow and my neighbors, True Hall and Giant Davis (who “had” to open stores in nearby villages), went to work on skis and snowshoes. True still tells how Rabbit Wiley backed up his new V-plow and hit “the drift by Watts Avenue” over and over before breaking through. And I remember seeing the Seal Harbor Road as a sea of white for days until a bulldozer with sufficient authority was trucked in.
You’ve probably read that drifts weren’t a problem before the automobile. Back then, instead of pushing snow out of the way, they packed it down with a snow roller so sleds could ride on top of it. I inherited one of these curious snow rollers, which is no more than two iron wheels connected by an axle with planks bolted to the wheels. It looks and operates like a huge, horse-drawn paint roller.
Most of the great snowstorms you’ve heard the old-timers tell of probably never happened. When you are shoveling by hand, the snow is likely to be much deeper and heavier than it is when you have a machine that pushes or blows it out of the way.
Did you know that there was a time when Maine snowstorms dictated the positioning of houses? Nowadays when people build a house in Maine, they’ll set it well back in the woods. They’ll tell you that they want privacy. But when you cleaned out your driveway with a shovel, newly married Maine men built their houses as close to the road as possible.
Turning our attention to the inevitable social ramifications of the nonpareil Maine winter reminds us of the topless waitress up in Vassalboro who was hospitalized with pneumonia. Her health insurance company wouldn’t pay – claimed she wasn’t covered.
And then there is our new neighbor, the retired math professor from Georgia Tech, who told me he moved to Maine where he could be free from stress.
No stress here in Maine? I’d like to see that professor’s wife drag him out of bed at 5 o’clock some January morning when it’s 2 below zero with a 30-mph wind out of the northwest.
I’d like to see him freeze his fingers for an hour starting his 40-year-old diesel tractor that has a plow (but no cab) so he can move 3 feet of ice and snow in front of the garage door so his wife can drive 30 miles to teach school. Even with luck, he had to go out through a window, because last night’s slush on the doorstep had turned into solid ice when the temperature dropped 40 degrees.
Can you hear his wife yapping at him to take an ax and chop the ice off the doorstep so she, who is already half an hour late in leaving, can get out of the house without climbing out the window like he did? And after he’d ruined his ax and knocked a corner off his granite doorstep while chopping away the ice, can’t you see his wife stepping into a 2-foot drift and getting snow in her boots because he hadn’t had time to shovel a path?
What veteran of a Maine winter wouldn’t like to be there when that professor turns to his wife and says, “I love it here in Maine, where there is no stress”?
You won’t be surprised to hear that my old next-door neighbor, Gramp Wiley, witnessed the biggest apocryphal snowstorm ever to hit Maine.
One day, when I asked him if it would ever stop snowing, Gramp leaned back in his rocker, closed his eyes and said, “The worst snowstorm I ever saw started on a Thursday night. It snowed and blowed all Friday and by Saturday morning, when it finally slacked off, the snow was right up around my armpits.”
Gramp nodded in agreement with himself before adding, “ ’Twas even deeper outside.”
The humble Farmer can be seen on Community Television in and near Portland and visited at his website: www.thehumblefarmer.com/MainePrivateRadio.html