duct duct duct DUCTS.ORG Issue 12 | Winter 2003 the webzine of personal stories   duct
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You'll Eat a Peck of Dirt


Richard Willis

Back When a Boy Really Did Walk Miles to School in a Blinding Snow Storm

lizzard! The word alone conjures up images out of a Norsk nightmare: snow swirling in fantastic shapes, the house shuddering as the wind howled through bare tree limbs, and cold with a grip like death. I had heard Aubrey and Milt Blair, our hired man, swap stories about blizzards in Dakota where the land was flat, empty, and featureless, where there were almost no fences; where men and boys got lost in storms, wandering away in the blinding snow, trying to go from the barn to the house; their bodies found months later after the spring thaw. Farmers who wanted to stay alive stretched ropes to guide them from one building to another.

Every farmyard around where we lived back was fenced. It wasn't likely that anyone was going to get lost and die in an Iowa storm, not really, but, at the age of eight, my runaway imagination called up an old warrior, with eyes that were dead white when you looked into them, who commanded the blizzards. He was waiting to come down again from the north with all his forces some day when the fences were gone, coming from his place north of the lights we could see in the sky on nights when it was bitter cold.

By mid-afternoon that day late in November 1935, the Iowa sky had begun to get the eerie, flat gray quality that goes before a heavy snow. It was dark by chore time, and the light from the lantern we worked by glowed on occasional flakes of snow beginning to fall softly, steadily increasing in volume as the darkening evening wore on. Milt and I had finished chores, and were on our way to the house, the snow falling thicker, clinging to our eyelashes and blinding us, although there was still no wind.

Milt reached for the lantern I was carrying. "I'll bet you're afraid to do this." He swung the lighted lantern in a circle over his head. "You better not let Aubrey see you do it, though."

Aubrey wouldn't have wanted anybody fooling around with a lighted lantern. The house on our farm had burned to the ground only about four years earlier, before we moved here, and he himself had helped put out a fire that got started in the barn that same night. He had a scar on the side of his head where he had been hit with a bucket full of water.

I thought of Fourth of July celebrations. "It looks like fireworks when the lantern goes through the snow like that!"

Milt squinted up at the falling snow. "Nah. This snow just looks like a swarm of big, white flies to me."

Later, when we peered out from inside the house into the pitch black now dappled with falling snow, the beams of yellow lamplight from our kitchen windows revealed a gradually worsening snowstorm. Quietly, as if it were keeping a secret, the wind began to pick up, and the snowflakes became smaller, finer, and harsher, slanting down through the lamplight that streamed out into the night.

The wind continued to rise during supper. Our house, unprotected on its hilltop, shuddered in the heavy gusts, while the gale moaned through the naked limbs of the trees outside. I heard Aubrey say, "This looks like it might turn into a blizzard," and the hairs began to stand up on the back of my neck.

After supper, the men sat in the front room, reading the paper and smoking, listening to the radio. The man who did the news from WHO, Des Moines, was talking about cattle dying on the prairies west of Omaha. Out there, herds had been caught in the open without shelter, and could not be rescued in time to save them. It was cold enough that Maude, who wasn't so great when it came to pets, let my dog come in to sleep in the basement. Normally, she would have said, "That dog can sleep in the barn!"

The house shook more as the wind rose still higher. At bedtime, Aubrey went down to the cellar to put some big chunks of slow-burning oak into our furnace, and closed the drafts down so we could be sure that the fire would hold overnight. The furnace kept the house nice and warm downstairs, but it didn't heat my bedroom on the second floor very well. Outside, I could hear the wind shrieking around the house. The ghosts that came with the old white warrior were dancing to their own music.

Maude piled heavy cotton comforters on my bed, and I kept my windows tight shut. We had cotton flannel blankets on our beds instead of sheets because it was winter. Maude said getting into bed between regular sheets in the winter was like sliding in between two tombstones.

When I woke in the morning, the wind had dropped, the snow had stopped falling, and everything was still. Sunlight blazed against the ice-coated windows of my room. It was too cold for me to fool around trying to melt a peephole so I could see out. I ran downstairs to dress in the kitchen where there was a fire in the stove and it was warm.

Maude was setting the table for breakfast. "You can't go to school today."

"Why not?"

She opened a door on the side of the range, shook down the ashes, and poked the fire. Then she put in another stick of fuel from the wood box beside the stove. "Well, why don't you look outside, and see for yourself?"

I went to the kitchen windows that faced east. Like the ones in my bedroom, they were coated with ice, but I pressed my thumb against it until I had melted a hole I could see through. I could see the barn all right, and the buildings in the barnyard, but from the chicken house under the big oak tree by the road, all the way to the barn, there was only sparkling drifts. The fences and gates back of our house had disappeared. A few tracks showed where Aubrey and Milt had stepped through the heavy snow crusts, otherwise the drifts were perfect unbroken curves of glittering white. Long, thick icicles hanging from the eaves of the house and the barn helped make it a crystal landscape. Our world didn't belong to us anymore. It had been captured by the armies of the white warrior.

The thermometer on the north side of the house read ten below zero. I was in third grade, and I walked to school, a little less than a mile, crossing the fields and woods north of our house. I didn't want to go to school that day. I knew it would be slow, hard going, stumbling through the drifts. Some places the crusted drifts would have supported my weight, and some wouldn't, and that made walking a whole lot worse.

The back door rattled open and banged shut, and the men went thumping down the steps to the basement where they hung their dirty barn clothes. They were coming in for breakfast. Normally they ate before they went out to do chores, but this morning they had gone to do their work at the barn first. It was a sign that Aubrey thought it was too cold to do much outside. They were probably going to stay in by the fire, taking a winter day off.

I looked out the east window again where I had a view of the lot east of the barn.. I could see the steam from the breath of the cattle and horses turned out so they could get some exercise. They couldn't move around in the lot very well because of the deep snowdrifts. Aubrey and Milt had broken open a half a dozen bales of hay to give the stock something to chew on.

Our tank heater was a covered iron cylinder in the stock tank. We kept a fire burning in it so our cattle and horses could have water to drink. The fire melted the ice a little, and we broke the rest of it up with a mattock. Then we fished the loose chunks of ice out of the tank with a manure fork.

We kept twenty-four dairy cows. Aubrey and Milt milked them by hand. We also had a few head of beef cattle and their calves. Cattle and horses all had to have water to drink at least twice a day, no matter how cold it was, or how solidly the ice froze in the tank.

White smoke coming out of the stovepipe on the tank heater rose straight up in the still air. It had a strong, sharp smell of kerosene-soaked corncobs burning. When there was wind, the smoke swirled and danced up under the eaves of the barn, imitating the swirling snow of the blizzard. Snow and smoke got so mixed up you couldn't tell them apart. As I watched from the east windows in the kitchen with the radio playing, it seemed that the snow and smoke were keeping time to the music.

My mother really needed three skillets to cook breakfast, but she only had one, a big heavy black one, made out of cast iron. She fried bacon in it first, putting the cooked bacon on a platter in the warming oven over the range when it was done. It was good smoked bacon we had made up for us at the butcher shop in South Amana, not the stuff they called "sow belly," which was bacon that hadn't been smoked and tasted awful. She used some of the bacon grease to fry a pan full of sliced raw potatoes - she called them "fresh fries." I liked the brown parts that stuck around the edges of the pan, but I didn't like the white parts, which was most of it. I put vinegar on fried potatoes when they were white, to give them more flavor, and I got teased a lot about that. The last thing Maude cooked for breakfast was a skillet full of scrambled eggs. She knew a story about a Swedish woman cook who said, "De ekks vasn't gute today, poys, so I scrambled 'em." I think she told that joke about every other day. The eggs were always good at our house. I don't know why she liked that story so much.

Maude tried to time it just right so breakfast was ready when the men came in to eat. That way, nothing would be cold. If breakfast had to wait, she put everything in the warming oven, but then she complained that the food wasn't going to be fit to eat.

Aubrey and Milt came up from the basement wearing clean clothes. They were in their stocking feet, because my mother wouldn't let anybody wear barn shoes inside the house.

Aubrey said, "Where's the coffee?" as soon as he stepped through the door into the kitchen. Aubrey usually felt good in the morning, and he was trying to get a laugh out of Maude. Milt just grinned. He was the hired man, so he didn't say much.

"It's on the stove. Your cups are on the table. Sit down. I'll pour your coffee for you." My mother might laugh at a joke, but she wasn't one to kid around, especially when she was busy.

Aubrey rubbed his hands together. They were callused, and they made a dry, rasping sound, like sandpaper. "My God, it's cold out there!"

We sat down at the table in our regular places. Aubrey's chair was next to the outside door; Maude's place was opposite him at the kitchen counter where she could jump up if anybody ran out of food; Milt sat with his back to the windows; I faced him across the table. The grown-ups had high-backed farm-kitchen chairs. I sat on a bench that got pushed under the table out of the way when I wasn't using it.

Aubrey and Milt were still tanned from last summer, but only on the bottom part of their faces. Their foreheads were milk white. Aubrey's face was thin, and as brown as an old saddle, with mean lines around his mouth. Milt was more reddish looking, and his face was sort of round. He didn't have any lines to speak of.

Maude put the food on the table: the platter of bacon, and the scrambled eggs and fried potatoes in big bowls. There was enough for the men to have seconds, if they wanted them, and they always did. There was bread on the table, too, along with butter and jam. The men ate a lot of butter. Maude put it on the table a pound at a time.

Milt looked over at me. "How do you get away with staying in here by the stove when we're outside freezing?" Milt and I were friends, and he liked to poke fun at me every chance he got.

"I only have to do chores at night."

"Oh, you only have to do chores at night? I wish I had a deal like that. Aren't you going to school today?"

"Maude says I can't go."

My mother looked around at Milt, "When it's ten below, and with all these deep drifts, I don't want him out in the wind."

Aubrey was eating his eggs and bacon. He reached for the fried potatoes, "There's no wind now. It's dead still."

He looked over at me. "If you want to make up for missing school, you can come out with us this morning, and help clear the road."

My mother chimed in, "He's eight years old, Aubrey. I don't think it will hurt him to stay indoors."

Aubrey got out his Bull Durham and papers, and started rolling a cigarette, "All right. Make a sissy out of him then. He can stay in the house until he's ready for high school for all of me!"

I ducked my head, and tried to get small enough to disappear, but I sneaked a look across the table at Milt. He was busy rolling his own cigarette. He had big thick fingers. It never looked like he was going to get the thin paper wrapped around the loose tobacco, but he always did.

Aubrey finished smoking his cigarette, and put it out in the coffee left in his cup. Maude didn't like it when the men put their cigarettes out that way. She usually said something about it. Then Aubrey stood up, and rubbed the ice away so he could see out the kitchen window. The sky was clear and blue, and the sun made the ice coating on the windows blinding to look at even from inside the house.

"The Bricker boys aren't going to be able to get their truck through here until we get that road cleared. One thing about it, the milk won't go sour. It will keep for a week when it's this cold."

Milt looked up, and said, "Yeah, but what are we going to use for empty cans? We've only got about a dozen altogether, and three of them are full now."

We sold three or four ten-gallon cans of milk a day to a creamery in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, thirty miles from the farm. We paid the Bricker brothers, Harv and Marv, to pick our milk up in their truck, and take it to Cedar Rapids. They did that for us, and for a couple of other families along our road.

Aubrey didn't say anything, and Milt went into the front room, where he could see down the road to the west of us. "Looks like Howletts are starting to dig out down there at the end of their lane."

Howletts were a family who lived down the hill to the northwest of us, four of them. Bill and Cora Howlett had two kids: a boy, Gene, and a daughter, Mary. Mary was seven years older than me, and Gene was two or three years older than Mary. All four of them were short and fat. When they all got into their car at the same time, the running boards dragged on the road.

Aubrey looked a little bit sore, "If Howletts can clear their lane enough to get out, we ought to be able to open the road wide enough to get the milk truck through!" Howletts didn't have a reputation in the neighborhood for being too energetic.

Somebody knocked at the back door. Aubrey went out to the back landing, and opened the door and the tarpaper-covered screen door to see who was there. I heard him say, "Come on in, Heinie. We're just finishing breakfast."

It was Henry Eichorn from up the road east of us. He had walked down to our place through the snow. The Eichorn's were German, and we called the old man "Heinie." His proper German name was Heinrich, but Heinie sounded about the same, and we figured it was close enough. That family was an unwashed bunch. You could see Mrs. Eichorn's teeth were green when she smiled, and she seemed to smile a lot. My mother didn't like anyone who was dirty. She didn't see any reason for it, and she didn't bother much to hide how she felt, either. I saw her roll her eyes when she heard Aubrey ask Heinie to come in.

Heinie stood in the kitchen door, holding it open, letting the cold in. The snow on his feet started melting right away, running onto the floor. It was only water, but it made Maude move fast, the way she did when she was irritated. She got some newspapers from the front room, and dropped them by Heinie's feet. "You can stand on these papers, Henry, and close the door."

Heinie shut the door and stepped onto the papers, looking uncomfortable.

"Do you want some coffee?" Maude's tone of voice said, "Drink it and go."

"Ach, Gott, ja, dot vould be gudt!"

"Dick, let him have your bench."

I got up, pushed my bench over to Heinie, and then started to lace on my high-top boots. They had been standing by the range to keep them warm. I made sure they were always clean so Maude would let me wear them in the house. Heinie sat down on my bench to drink his coffee. He looked over from his cup to my mother. "You haff, maybe, a liddle suchar?"

Maude's voice was colder than the outdoors, "There's sugar on the table, Henry. Help yourself."

Heinie slurped his coffee, and started talking to Aubrey. "Ve ver tinking, maybe, ve coudt all get togetter und clean out dese rotes today yet. Alzo my boyss coudt gif a handt."

It was generous of Heinie to offer himself and his two boys to help clear the roads, especially when he didn't own a car. On the other hand, he was probably planning - Maude looked like she had already guessed it - to ask us for a ride into town.

Maude turned to me, "Dick, you get yourself dressed warm, if you're going out to help." You couldn't always be too sure about what Maude would do next. Aubrey looked up, surprised at this switch around, but he didn't say anything. I think Maude was just trying to get everybody, including Heinie, out of the house.

She said to me, "You can take that shovel I keep by the furnace." My mother had a small scoop she used to clean ashes out of the furnace. "And don't forget to put it back when you're finished!" She was always afraid her tools would wander away and get lost in the general farm clutter.

I went down to the basement to get ready to go outside. I had on a flannel shirt and jeans stuffed into my boots, and I pulled a thick sweater on, too. A pair of overalls went on top of everything I was already wearing, then my outside clothes: lumberman's rubbers over my boots, a sheep-lined mackinaw, a cap with earflaps, and mittens. The mittens were the part that didn't work so well. My hands always got cold first, and there didn't seem to be anything I could do to keep them warm.

Aubrey and Milt wore horsehide mittens with knitted wool liners that you could take out, but they were too big for me.

Aubrey took a look at me while he finished dressing. "Now that you've got all that stuff on, how are you going to move?" That was his favorite kind of joke. Except in the bitterest weather, his outside clothes were a couple of sweat shirts and a second pair of overalls. He said the only way to keep warm was to move fast. That was all right for him. He knew what he was going to work at next. I stood around freezing while I waited for him to tell me what he wanted me to do.

We all trouped out the back door. My heavy clothes made my arms stick out like a stuffed doll, but the cold clamped itself onto my face so that I could hardly take abreath through my nose, and when I tried to breathe through my mouth, it made my teeth ache.

I took my shovel, and walked over the top of a drift where our front gate had been. The snow there was level with our mailbox. Aubrey and Milt went to the corncrib to get their shovels - number ten scoops used for ear corn. They had short handles, and they weren't the best things for shoveling snow, but all the men in the neighborhood would be using number ten scoops to clear the road. They were the tools we had.

At the top of the hill near our house, the road was level for a few dozen yards, and along there the wind had scoured the road clean, but where the hills dropped off to the east and west of us, the high banks along the road caught the blowing snow, and those places between the banks drifted level full. The rose bushes, flowering plums, and pussy willows that grew on the banks, and were so pretty in spring and summer, only made the snow drift deeper there in winter, anywhere from a foot to six feet deep, and crusted over hard enough to support a man's weight.

Heinie was standing in the middle of the road looking back toward his farm, waving his arms in the air. I thought he was just acting crazy, but then I could see two people starting out from his house, walking toward our place. It was his two boys - the older one, also called Heinie - and the younger one, about my age, whose name was Harold, but everybody called Pete. Bill and Gene Howlett were working their way up the road toward us from the west, and it looked as if the three Hartzes from farther down the road had joined them: Big Jim, Little Jim - a year older than me - and Maury, Little Jim's older brother.

We were coming together along the road like minutemen called out to fight a powerful enemy, only these soldiers weren't Red Coats the way they were in the stories about Paul Revere. We were hastily armed farmers standing in the path of a vast, white-uniformed force determined to bury us, to cut us off from our supplies, to starve us into submission.

We started digging in front of our mailbox. Somebody measured off what they thought was wide enough for a car. Aubrey kept arguing that we had to make it wide enough to let Bricker's milk truck get through. The snow broke out in chunks instead of in shovels full. You had to cut a block away from the drift, and then try to throw it off to one side. Most of the time, that meant picking up the block of snow in your hands, and giving it a toss. I was too small to be much use at that kind of work, but I whittled away at a kind of trench I made alongside Milt. Aubrey, with Heinie and his boys, were working a few yards ahead of us. Eventually we all came together; that strip of road was cleared; we went on to the next drifts; and so it went, until the entire road was opened.

The snow was our enemy. We were a platoon left behind to fight against the white invader. We would stand our ground and die on the spot, if we had to. The grown men looked like they were thinking about how their backs ached, and how cold their hands and feet were, but they couldn't say so, and they sure couldn't go inside to warm up. Anybody who did might as well have published in the paper that he was a weakling and a simp.

"Did you hear about him? Went to the house with the kids to warm up. Can you beat that? Like to have him around when things get tough?"

By the time we got to the bottom of the hill west of our house, the cold was eating into my hands and feet. The hickory handle of my shovel felt like an icicle through my mittens. Jimmie Hartz was swinging his arms, flapping them around his body, trying to warm up his hands. Milt had his eye on us, and he said, with his voice down a little bit, "Why don't the two of you go back to the house where it's warm for a while?" Aubrey was working down the road from us, so I didn't think I had to ask him if I could go.

We stumbled to the house on our half-frozen feet, and I asked Jimmie, "What do you say we take our sleds over to the big hill when we get the road finished? When the road's dug out, it should be good sliding."

"Nah. Everybody's going to go to town this afternoon."

He was right about that. I hadn't thought of it. "Well, what about tomorrow? It's Saturday."

"Yeah, well, I'll think about it."

I don't know what it was about Jimmie Hartz. He never seemed to want to do anything I wanted to do. It made me feel bad, and I gave up. We were too cold to talk, anyway.

We peeled off a layer or two of clothes in the kitchen, and sat in front of the range with our feet on the open oven door. Maude put our mittens up on the warming oven to dry out. Both of us had chill blains. Our feet hurt, at the same time they itched furiously, when they began to warm up. Maude made us take our socks off, and put our feet in basins of cool water. That helped some.

After our feet stopped hurting so much, we got ourselves dressed all over again, and went back outside to dig. Aubrey saw us coming back, and he laughed and yelled, "Too cold for you boys?" Jimmie went back to work beside his brother. Milt waved to me, "You come over here, and give me a hand."

By two o'clock, we had fought our way out, making a breakthrough, cutting a narrow lane in the drifts all the way over to the state highway a mile east of our farm. Our little cluster of farms was freed from snow prison for a moment, at least: Eichorn's, to the east a quarter mile; Howlett's, down the hill west of us; and Hartz's, a quarter of a mile farther west. Then everybody went home as fast as they could to get their cars, and go to town for groceries and the mail. Their backs may have ached, but the road was open. The big job was done. We had defeated the old white warrior and his armies.

Maude looked pretty sour when Heinie asked if he could ride to town with us, but Aubrey just said, "Oh, sure, plenty of room."

We drove a Ford Tudor. It had a front and a back seat, but only two doors, and it was jammed with five people in it. I was squeezed between Milt and Heinie in the back seat. With so many people in a small car, the windows fogged over right away. The car didn't have a heater or a defroster, so we had to keep the windows rolled down a little bit, cold or not. A lot of the drifts were too high to see over from inside the car. In some places we scraped on both sides between snow banks where we hadn't made the lane wide enough. It was a pretty sure thing that Harv and Marv Bricker wouldn't get their truck through unless they did some digging on their own, but they always carried shovels and chains with them. They knew how our roads got in bad weather.

Marengo was crowded with farmers who had dug themselves out, hurrying to buy groceries, trying to get home before it started to snow again. The town's plows had pushed snow up in big piles all around the square. Kids were playing king of the hill up and down the snow ridges. It looked like they had turned the whole park into one big snow fort. Maybe someone in town thought that the old white warrior was planning to attack again.

When we started home, everybody in the car except for Aubrey, who was driving, was holding sacks of groceries. He was the only one who could see out. The rest of us were buried under stuff we had bought. We had our supplies now, and we could hold out for a long time, if we had to. It was a good thing, because the bright sunshine we had in the morning was gone, and overhead now there was another gray "snow sky." During the early afternoon, the temperature had come up to somewhere around zero, but it was beginning to fall again, and it was bitter cold and getting dark by the time we started evening chores. Off to the north, the sky glowed a dull, sullen kind of glow. The old warrior was getting his armies ready for another try.

We were just about finished with supper, and we were all set to go in the front room and listen to the radio, when we heard the telephone ringing the party-line ring for our farm - two long rings and two shorts. We could tell it was a neighbor, because the phone gave a weak, feeble kind of ring, instead of the strong one you got when the call was from "Central" in town. Maude was the only one who answered the phone at our house, unless she told me to do it. I heard her say, "Thanks for letting us know, Jim."

Maude came back into the kitchen. Her face was blank, like she was thinking. "Aubrey, that was Jim Hartz. He said we should turn on WHO. They're talking about a bad storm coming tonight. They say this one looks like it might be a real, old-fashioned blizzard."