Sunday, December 11, 2011

Winter in the Woods ( and maybe a ramble or two)

     Maybe next Friday. See what the weather has in store. It's not being at the cabin during bad weather that's the problem. It's the coming and going. Being stuck in the woods during a storm or deep cold's a good spot to be. Four cords of dry firewood, split and stacked. A pile of books. A refrigerator of food. And the world's only professional howler on Public Radio. A combination that can't be beat.
     For sure it can be deep-cold up north. Not exactly arctic or Siberian cold, but in the ball park at times. Nails popping as the temperature plummets, especially at night when drowsing in the bag, will draw your ear. Snapping awake in total darkness to what sounds like gunfire brings me back to Vietnam. Roll over, take a peak above the rice paddy dike. Then remember it's only a disagreement between wood and steel concerning which way to move. Gets cold enough and it'll sound like an M-60 machine gun. I begin to worry, should enough nails loosen up, the whole shebang'll come tumbling down. Must be time to throw more wood in the stove.
     Lois likes a warm cabin. Back when the kids were little, my idea of fun was to do a weekend in the woods over the third weekend in January. Took a couple of years before they caught on to my scheme. I'm a sick man. No matter how much wood was thrown into Ben Franklin, you could chill beer on the floor. We slept in the loft where the heat liked to hide. Too hot for me. Maybe for you too, unless your idea of the comfort zone's ninety-one in the shade. I slept stripped to t-shirt and drawers atop my sleeping bag. By two a.m. I'd had it. Climbed down, slipped my shoes on, and went outside to stand on the porch. Twelve below, near naked, and steaming. It was wonderful.
     I think it was the weekend that reached thirty-five below that pushed us over the edge. We'd waded knee deep snow to reach the cabin. Went out to Deadman once just to see how cold it felt. Yup, it sure was cold. The rest of our activity consisted of playing games, reading, eating and keeping the fire going. Consider the outhouse and the gumption involved. When we'd pulled in early friday evening, I'd gotten the car off the road by burrowing out fifteen feet of driveway. There she sat 'til Sunday, mid-morning. No way was I looking forward to going out and turning the key. Inevitable carries the weight of doom. And trying to start an American four cylinder engine in extreme cold was inevitable if I wanted to make work on Monday. I knew turning the key was a waste of time, and it was. A few seconds of despair was followed quickly by pulling the battery and draining the oil into a pail. Brought 'em inside. Heated the oil on the wood stove. Probably not too smart. Thawed the battery nearby. Not totally stupid I guess. Didn't work like a charm but it did work. Ignored the instructions for an electronic ignition and pumped the hell out of it. A bang and a cloud of smoke. But she started. Oh yeah, oh yeah.
     Fort Lewis, Washington. 1969. There I got to meet the coldest ten minutes of my life. Great spot for jungle training. So long as you ignored the snow that just kept coming in waves from Siberia via Alaska. Forty-nine inches in January. No doubt the Army had their reasons for us being there. Probably darned good ones. As for us grunts-to-be, we didn't much give a damn where we trained. Didn't yet have orders as to where we'd end up, but we knew. The phrase de jour when we were threatened with punishment, " What'er you gonna do? Cut off our hair, stick us in the infantry and send us to Vietnam?" 
     Anyhow, it was early February. We were up in the firing ranges near the Mount Rainier foothills, learnin' the LAW. Light Anti-tank Weapon that is. Kind of a mini-bazooka. Rocket shoots out of tube, blasts a hole in the side of a tank, propels a dozen ball bearings inside where they bounce around at high speed until stopped by something soft. Groovy. We were pumped even though it was but ten above. By Minnesota standards, a mild winter day. And we were dressed for the weather. Uncle Sam didn't want his boys in green to get cold. No siree, he gave us lots to wear. And we didn't skimp. Four layers, head to foot. Except in the middle, the happy zone, there we packed five. Not easy to take a leak through all those layers. Top that off with a reluctant weenie that doesn't want to come out and play in the cold.
     Wasn't too bad 'til the gloves came off. A necessity for getting the feel of the weapon and its parts. Or so we were told. Personally, I figured it was an Army experiment to see how long it took for fingers to turn from rosy to blue to white. That is if you were caucasian.  If you weren't, well, my friend Earl's ended up white also. Another hint that we're alike on the inside all the time and also on the outside when the weather sucks. In either case it was around forty-five seconds. Korea must have been a true hell-hole back in the winter of '50-51.
     After taking it apart and putting it back together, a passing score was no parts left over, we loaded into stands. There to be given instructions, in perfect military monotone, fired at us so fast not a one of us understood a word, on the proper way to fire a LAW. Lordy, lordy, just like in the movies. Our chance to blow up shit. The American way. Right up there with apple pie and Elvis. The Sergeant called for volunteers. All hundred forty-three hands shot up. Woulda been one forty-four but Zilch was on sick call again. Gotta tell you about Zilch some day and how he earned his name. Of course the frosty sun only lit up one brown-eyed, handsome GI. He strutted up. Ear-to-ear grin on his face. Had a look that said, "I'm da man. I'm da man. Gonna see some serious rocket firin' now."
     The LAW was placed on his shoulder. The sight popped up and he was ready. Final instructions:
     "Gentlemen. The trigger of the LAW requires extreme pressure. This is an intentional safeguard. Such prevents accidental explosions usually resulting in an extremely painful death. The fortunate few will escape with nothing less than a hideous maiming. That said, clear an area of at least twenty-five meters to the rear of the blast area. Anyone within that area when the LAW is fired will inevitably be killed, blinded or, at the very least, hideously maimed. Do you scumbags understand?"
     We all yelled our most manly, "Yes, sergeant!"
     Gotta admit, his short speech sure as hell got our undivided attention. As it did the LAW firin' dude. His look went from savior of the western world to helpless desperation in less than ten seconds. Like he'd bolt before he'd squeeze. But squeeze he did. Squeezed 'til an enormous explosion rocked the area. We were dumbstruck. Crap. The thought of a pound of C-4 goin' off on my shoulder, shielded only by a quarter inch of cardboard, got me to wondering how I'd look with a hearing aid or maybe without a head. No choice in the matter, we followed orders and got in line. Don't know about any of the other trainees but my eyes were shut and ears back-pressured when my squeeze went off. Oddly, most of us hit the target.
     The weatherman says it'll be relatively mild this weekend at the cabin. Don't know what I was thinking when I went on a cold weather rant. Probably the Minnesotan in me taking over. We like to whine, or brag, in reality they're the same, about our weather. Truth is, don't be bringing up Canada or Alaska. They put us to shame in the freezer section. Heard tell it gets cold enough up there to crystalize carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Don't need to mention wind chill factor when it's minus seventy-five. And don't be stompin' on our thirty below.
     So, me and my ten above on Friday night'll do just fine. Might even explore the area on foot. Then write about how my left shoe squeaks and drives me nuts.

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