Russ Ringsak


February 22, 2005

We are finally getting our real winter comforter here this weekend, a nice soft four inches of awesomely silent pure white insulation, like a layer of goose down all over the countryside. We had snow a few weeks back, not a lot of it but enough to look like the season is supposed to look; it was followed by a slow thaw and a hard freeze. The result was a yard capped with a thick layer of mounded ice; solid and brittle and hip-cracking slippery. Looked like Antarctica in National Geographic.

This yard is on a long side hill, flat in places and not flat in others, and last week I was making my cautious way along an icy little slope with a farmerís galvanized scoop of bird seed in hand and suddenly I was down. Bang. So quick. Birdseed flung ten feet. I wasnít hurt, in my padded canvas Carhartt, but I was acutely aware of how swiftly, in spite of my wary footsteps, I had been thrown on my keister. It is from moments like this one, repeated thousands of times a day throughout the northern middle of the nation, that places like Arizona and Florida are rapidly packing up with geezers. You look out over those big developments of retirement homes, miles of them, and you think that in every one of them there resides a man or a woman who, on a fine frozen northern day, went flying ass over teakettle; and who picked themselves and thought, "I might have got away with it this time, but next time, maybe not...I think somebody upstairs is sending me a message..."

Later that night there follows a thought process that goes something like this: "...Let's see — the familyís all here, everyone I know is here, my beer bowling league is here, her gardening and book clubs are here, itís beautiful with all the big trees and the fields, thereís plenty of water, lots of birds and animals, lots of lakes and green hills...thereís fishing, and great sunsets, and the seasons hurricanes, no earthquakes, no mudslides. On the other hand, how good does all that stuff look from a hospital bed with a broken hip and a bunch of hoses and surgical complications and those vultures draining the old bank account like it was a superfund cleanup site? Iím lying there thinking about shooting clay pigeons in the sunshine somewhere, and sheíll be thinking about palm trees and piña coladas. The ranks of our friends are already thinning out. Why would we stay here, again? Broken hip against warm sun? Is this really a tough call?" The oldsters do the probability tables and the money math and the physics, and a lot of them pack it up.

Others donít. In a few weeks this snow and a couple more will be draining off down the ditch and that broken hip thinking will be set aside for the upcoming summer. Some will bet that global warming will happen before they get their hips broken and others will simply set their mind to not falling down out of sheer stubbornness. They will read obituaries and see people in there who died in their nineties with no mention made of any ice or broken bones. "Lingering illness." Doesnít say, "Lingering illness due to cold-weather broken hip." Heck, you can get a plain old lingering illness anywhere, and they arenít moving. They will defy nature to knock them down. They view the southward migration as a defeat. These people are called "true Minnesotans." Or "died-in-the-wool Wisconsinites," or "real Dakotans."


A snowplow scrapes by on the county road and I take a break and go down and clear the new dam at the end of the drive. The air is still, the only sound coming from the metal edge of the plastic shovel scraping the ice beneath the new snow, a weak muffled imitation of the big fellow that just rolled by. The new snow has improved oneís traction, and I come back and load the bird feeder, meddling with nature like youíre not supposed to, and then come inside and pour a cup of coffee. I watch the traffic in the bare trees as the clientele take their turns.

But the doves, sweet as theyíre supposed to be, are starting to get on my nerves. They hog the platform, parking their chubby butts right in the middle of the pile while an impatient backlog of smaller and more colorful species builds in the branches. They lounge in there for long stretches, in ones and twos, snapping at new arrivals, and Iím beginning to feel myself endorsing the concept of dove hunting. More meddling with nature. But itís their nature to hog the feeder and itís my nature to want íem to share with the others, so itís a natural thing either way.

Itís a great luxury to sit here ticked off at doves. If thatís all thatís bugging a person he should be giving thanks to his sublime good fortune. One could claim it to be a sign of maturity to only become annoyed at those few things a person can actually do something about. Conversely, if itís doves bugging you it likely indicates a lack of imagination or a pathetically small realm of influence.


A poet — and she would shy away from calling herself one — from central Minnesota told me, when we were somehow on the subject of wooden legs, that she had a grade-school friend named Betty whose father had a wooden leg. A bus would run from Foley over to the big berry patches at Willow River during the picking season, because it was during WWII and there wasnít gas available to the general public. It was a popular event and the bus was full. It would come back in the late afternoon when everyone had about all the blueberries they could pick, or wanted to pick, and most would pack something to eat for the day.

Her aunt Rhody — there really was an Aunt Rhody — sent sandwiches with her and when they got off the bus she noticed that Bettyís dad didnít have anything at all. She felt bad, especially because he was such a sweet man. At lunchtime they gathered at a clearing and she watched him go over to a round white rock nosing up from the weeds there. He sat down on it and unstrapped the leg and she assumed he was doing it for relief, that it was probably bothering him. She was much surprised to see him reach way down inside the leg and pull out a sandwich wrapped in wax paper. She still smiles at the thought of it.


©R.Ringsak 2005

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