Mrs. Van House was our second grade teacher when all three of us kids were trying to get out of going to school so we could play in the snow. Molly was the only one that Mom let stay home, because she was too sick. Mike and I just had the sniffles. If you started coughing in class, Mrs. Van House had you cover your mouth so as not to spread the germs. “Don’t use a hankie because washing won’t take the germs out, but get a rag from home and then throw it away after you are done using it,” she lectured us. Mike Kennedy and Bobby Billings were the only ones who converted to using rags in lieu of hankies. Mom said she just didn’t think it was proper not to use hankies.
Fifty years later and John and I were both working for logging contractors up in Ferry County north of Spokane where the temperatures in the winter could be 30 or 40 degrees below zero. It only got that cold in February when winter was about over. At night, the moon and stars were so bright, a flashlight was useless. Smoke poured from the chimney and trailed down the roof to flow along the ground, as if it were too cold for fire. At 20 below, the Spruce trees were so full of water; John could hear them explode in the fields behind his house, like dynamite going off in the woods.
I was cutting wood on the side of Cougar Mountain where Bill Bangs and his crew were logging for the mill in Republic. Bill had graduated from being an American Airlines pilot to being a logging contractor in the mountains of Ferry County. He always wore a WWII pilot’s helmet and the wind would blow the flaps up so it looked like Bill was flying. One of Bill’s fallers had a stack of cotton gloves on the floor of his pick up, right under the heater that was a foot high, because the gloves would get wet and required constant changing. The cold was intense and by the afternoon your face would start to freeze where you couldn’t smile and the sound of the logging trucks changing gears as they navigated the switchbacks could be heard coming up the mountain from far below. We all wore the same boots, Canadian snow-packs, rubber bottoms and leather uppers with heavy felt inner-boots and sheep’s wool trim. I had frozen my feet walking out Gold Creek one day because I had worn rubber boots. My legs felt stiff, with no feeling below, like I was plodding along on what were stumps of feet, which have suffered from the cold ever since. The fact that when it got this cold, even a wedge would occasionally shatter and anything metal turned traitorously reluctant to perform to regular standards. If you left hot coffee in one of those expensive green Stanley thermos jugs in the pickup, it would be frozen to ice crystals by noon where hot coffee was the only thing that was a pleasure.
John had bought a new Ford truck in 1977 and sold it to me in 2000. When the temperatures went below zero and you could start the old Ford as long as the block heater had been on, but the oil in the transmission was so thick that a person had to ride the clutch, while in neutral, until the gears were moving freely.
We were both falling trees but never were on the same crew. John was running two saws and one wouldn’t work because of the cold, so he heaped up the coals in the fire pit and set his saw down on the fire until it would start. It was about that time that God spoke to John and told him to get a new job where it was warmer. John started looking and got work as the assistant assessor for Ferry County. They gave him a little cubicle where the coffee was brewed. The auditor’s office was right across from him and run mostly by women.
One day, John went down to the post office to pick up a crate of baby chicks which would die if he left them in the cold truck. The chick’s peeping in John’s cubical could be heard all over the floor, annoying the women in the auditor’s office. In John’s own words, “the chicken thing meant that I would be a lot more fun than anyone else…nothing to do with basic talent except I did know computer stuff.” It was only shortly after that, that the county voted him county assessor. John told the ‘assistant’ auditor…tongue in cheek that he was planning on raising chicks in the courthouse…’at least till everything got above zero.’ “One of them took me seriously! And caused a ruckus…with the commissioners who could barely keep from laughing…of course, I was kidding.”
The ice in the creek shifted and cracked, like singing as the water bubbled over the top. In the great cold northeast, the stars don’t twinkle and they come down to kiss the earth.
Take the nine inches we had two weeks ago, it was wet and a tremendous burden to tree limbs up high. In the black of night they popped and crashed like dynamite and you could hear tires screeching alternately as John tried to snake his way up Pillsbury.