Russ Ringsak

Once Again Winter

December 11, 2007

A stately straightline shelterbelt of thirteen high pines stands onthe edge of the short grass at this old farmyard. One night in the last week of November the house began an agitated creaking and a high whine rattled the window panes. I stepped outside into an oncoming hard cutting northwest howler. Those close set trees were wailing and moaning like a sixty-foot harp, out of tune and seldom used. Sounded like a bitter horde of wolves overhead. Winter for sure. Then I had second thoughts when I came back in. It's maybe just a warning, I thought. Probably will warm up in two days.

But it didn't. The wind let up by morning but left behind a harsh cold and it's been genuine winter all the way here into the second week of December. Snow fell last Saturday, not quite a foot deep but cold enough to stay around. Fish houses are out on the lakes. Big 4x4 pickups are pushing blades or pulling trailers strapped with snowmobiles, shacks, small rubber-tracked dozers, snowthrowers, augers, ATVs, firewood, propane tanks.

In uncommon quickness the landscape and population morphed in unison into the season. The real estate became a soft white and we the people put on four inches of foam-filled girth and big feet and became gnomes under the hoods and caps and the scarves. Problems associated with partial exposure of the glutei maximi and of loud music from open car windows are gone. Very little skin is visible on anyone and windows of any kind are all shut. Most of the loitering in the state has moved indoors to small scattered shacks and it's called 'ice fishing,' and it's a big industry.

My orange snowthrower fired the driveway snowfall into the sky. A friend's pickup used to plow it but now that the big truck is parked here the banks from the plow become a mess and it makes a neater job to just hurl it high, where it apparently goes back into the clouds. Sometimes winter slips in quietly on a soft pale blanket in the moonlight and you wake to a high sky and a fresh soft layer of white on every last twig and the world is suddenly so beautiful you can hardly look at the unreality of it. The next year it might come blasting in the late afternoon gloom with three feet of hardpack gale- driven crusty snow.

Sometimes it starts with days and days of sloppy wet snow followed by a deep cold that congeals it into a stubborn mess of frozen knobby banks that last for months and other times it doesn't really come in at all; it just fools around, week by week of mild dithering; a little snow, some freezing rain, another thaw. Or it'll slide in on a subzero solid freeze with no breeze and no snow at all. This is the preferred arrival to those optimistic few who own iceboats, and we saw it do that last year.

It doesn't happen every year but when it does the lakes and rivers freeze smooth and glassy, and if it's followed by a stiff breeze you can drive over to White Bear Lake and watch those iceboats swoop and fly faster than sea birds. Running a reach across the wind they whip along five and maybe six times the speed of the air. The unofficial but accepted record is 143 mph, set in the late 1930s on Lake Winnebago over there at Oshkosh, Wisconsin, by the good ship Debutaunte, now in the process of a complete restoration.

The sport is roughly contained to the ice belt, the area between the 40th and 45th parallels where you can find smooth ice without snow. It began in Europe in the 1600s and for about 300 years was the absolute fastest way a person could travel. And you could haul freight in them. In 1871 the big racing iceboat 'Icicle,' 69 feet long, beat the Chicago Express between Poughkeepsie and Ossining on the Hudson River. It became popular to race your iceboat against the train.

Most boats these days are built by the owners or the few companies who will make one for you; they don't have'em at Walmart or Cabela's. There are a number of boat classes and a lot of regattas out there. As a graceful and exciting substitute for watching television a person could do worse than taking up iceboating. It's not only fast and fun but it sounds cooler than the snowmobile. That slick steel-on- ice sound, cutting your frigid winter afternoon into wide sweeping arcs.

* * * *

The other side of ice of course is that a killing storm is devastating the country's midsection this week, leaving fourteen people dead and untold property damage. An inch of ice covered by five inches of snow, it is, and in the aftermath of these disasters is a swath of destruction that dwarfs that of tornados. I've driven through it in upstate New York and last year in Missouri and the mile upon mile of flattened forests and structures is something you don't forget. They are of a most sobering bleakness, bringing to mind photos of the German winter invasion of Russia in WWII.

* * * *

The other morning in a cafe in New Richmond, just across the river in Wisconsin from us, a local farmer was standing talking to some other codgers there in the booth, saying, "No, I got rid of that manure spreader fifteen years ago, and I got rid of the Chalmers a couple years after that." A man asked if he still had the horses then and he said, "I kept'em a lot longer'n I needed 'em, but I finally got rid of 'em two summers ago."

I've never made peace with the phrase 'got rid of.' The push-pull of it scrapes on my ear even after all these decades of common use, somehow vaguely seeming to be bad English. It wants to translate into 'I came into possession of their absence two years ago.' It's generally expressed as a positive — whatever it was, it was a good thing to acquire its departure. Sometimes even better than the original obtaining of its presence, as in a case of the flu.

In my big old dictionary pal Random House (occurring without definite aim, reason, or pattern, a building in which people live) the word 'get' takes up two full columns, two thirds of a page, and is given 63 definitions, none of which are 'to become.' It mostly means to obtain, acquire, procure, seize, secure; but it's flexible and there is the vague reference 'to cause to become,' as in 'to get a dog out of a room.'

The word 'rid' is given only a paragraph and is pretty clearly about being disencumbered of something objectionable. But included in its definition is the phrase 'get rid of,' meaning to eliminate or discard. So I'm just wrong in thinking it's backwards to acquire anelimination. It's settled lexicography and I need to move on. Didn't mean to bother you but I just had to get it off my mind. As they like to say.

A more pleasing linguistic anomaly is the word 'behind' when it's used as a substitute for 'after' or 'as a consequence of'. For example: "This all happened behind him gettin' drunk and bein' a jerk at that wedding last summer," or "She bought that Mustang behind her winnin' the jackpot up there at the casino in Hinckley." But it's not common Minnesota-speak and it's not new. I sometimes pick it up in truck stops, and I recall hearing it in the Army, way back when. In my own case, I got this job behind me quittin' the office and buyin' that Mack thirty years ago.

* * * *

Doing my part to keep the engine of commerce running at full throttle I just now bought a new portable computer for the upcoming trip to New York and Bethlehem, and in my ten-thumb style of computer operation I introduced it to my mailbox and abruptly deleted for all time every email ever addressed to R.Ringsak. Those sent to my previous address in the russring name were allowed to stay and the R.Ringsak still works for new messages. But losing the history is a disaster. Lost the writing as well as everyone's addresses.

I had intended to use the rest of the day to answer my outstanding mail. I know that sounds like a weasel talking there but whatever my intentions were doesn't make a difference anyway, because the old "I'm not lazy, I'm just incompetent" is about the lamest excuse a person could engineer. And it quickly begs the question of why one would mention it at all because it just sounds like plea for sympathy, leaving the reader the impression the writer is not only incompetent but overly needy as well and is this the sort of person we want to be driving a big rig over the nation's highways and is this not placing innocent motorists in danger. So I've got to get rid of it. The excuse, not the computer. It's not the new computer's fault. I'm not blaming the computer.

In fact, I think it's this unremitting winter that's already getting to me. Kind of putting me off my game. Probably wouldn't have done anything that dumb if it was 75 degrees and sunny outside.

Or it could be a necessary aspect of the job. Writers, like drivers, may need the ability to make themselves miserable through their own fumbling or they might lose focus. Nothing sustains the alertness level like the occasional utterly undeserved outrage of a self- inflicted misfortune.

The worst aspect of it is that this sort of thing keeps happening. You'd think you'd learn to avoid it, but you forget. Learning by experience may not be all it's cracked up to be: it's gradually becoming obvious to me that I am not a totally reliable eyewitness to my own life.

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