This winter’s been abnormally warm so far, particularly conducive to building up ice dams on the edge of the roof. So yesterday afternoon, when I should have been sitting by the stove, I was out in the yard, soaking wet and disgusted, putting away my ladder and roof rake.
Then I thought, “Well, I’m wet, anyway. Might’s well get out the square-pointed shovel and go dig out the paper tube. Freezes tonight, that bank’s gonna be like iron.”
I often find that folks new to the north country don’t know what a square-pointed shovel is; they think¿they think it’s a snow shovel. ‘Tisn’t. It’s a scoop, shaped like a coal or grain shovel, but much shallower. It’s got a long ash handle that ought to reach just about armpit-high. And it’s the Yankee’s weapon of choice in the battle with deep and drifting snow.
Ah, he’ll use a snow scooter to move snow from his dooryard across the road. And now and then you might see him sort of shamefacedly utilizing an aluminum snow shovel. But any old-timer who wears a hunting hat with earflaps, wool pants, and felt-lined galoshes always keeps a waxed long-handled shovel hanging by the door. Hanging because it’ll rust if you stand it. And waxed (with a jelly jar seal) because it’ll shed snow better.
I was just about to step out the garage door when I noticed the condition of the dooryard. It had been plowed that morning. Now it was ice — smooth, gray, hard as steel — and slick and wet as a greased eel. My first step outside would be my last until I reached the road or went off into the woods.
I could picture it in my mind — the stiff legged slide, shovel held crossways like a riverman’s peavey — from the garage door downward across the dooryard. I could even recite verse to give the act aesthetic context — Robert Frost’s “Brown’s Descent” — but that only made the picture humorous, not harmless.
And yet I would go; I do so hate to be checked by fearful considerations that wouldn’t have occurred to me when I was young. What sort of fungus is it that grows upon our consciousness in middle age and makes us begin to worry about cuts and bruises and broken bones?
When we were kids, they never used to salt the roads. ‘Twas was sand only, spread by hand, by two men in the back of a dump truck. Where they failed to reach, along the curb or ditch, there was room for us to “coast,” we called it. I had a great big Flexible Flyer, and it did fly! Pulling back on one of its two steering horns, leaning, and dragging an inside foot, I could skid around the corner at Stinard and Gordon sideways; and if I slid too far and hit the curb, I rolled into Mrs.Callahan’s front yard, an unpleasant experience because of Mrs. Callahan’s dog’s regular habits.
Well, that was long ago. Now, this¿this was getting embarrassing. But suddenly I saw, as if for the first time, the shovel I was holding in my hand. Of course! Forty years ago, when I worked at the bobsled run in Lake Placid, we always came down the mountain for lunch and at quitting time on our long-handled shovels.
First I made sure Mother wasn’t watching out the window. Then I pointed the long shovel handle downhill, sat down, and pushed off from the door jamb.
Holy Toledo! That jelly jar wax really worked! I rocketed across the dooryard, picked up the lower rut of the driveway, and shot off down the hill in a blur of exhilaration. As I passed the woodpile at the bottom of the hill, my left foot snagged it, and I whirled around, the shovel shooting out from under me. I slid into the snowbank opposite with a whump! And getting up all flushed and excited, discovered that Mrs. Callahan’s dog had nothing on my neighbors’ mutts.
This is Willem Lange up in Etna, New Hampshire and I gotta get back to work.
–Willem Lange is a contractor, writer and storyteller who lives in Etna, New Hampshire.