Russ Ringsak

Between the Tens

February 1, 2008

In this part of the country the temperature has been mostly in single digits above and below (that's Fahrenheit of course 'cause I don't do Celsius or Kelvin) since Christmas time. We are taking a short 37-degree-above break from frigidity today, Monday, but they say it's all coming back tomorrow night. It's just sort of a small hole in the cold. And during this big chunk of time I never once considered moving south. For the seasoned citizen the hipbreaker fall on the ice is the prime downside to staying here but if you keep a bag of sand or icemelt handy you can deal with that, at least on your own walkway. In the Minnesota winter we don't strew our paths with rose petals. We cast forth pleasing granules of potassium chloride.

And if the air feels cold one can wear a hat. I've had no success with my small crusade to promote the brimmed hat. People are holding to their steadfast unawareness of how much warmer your ears stay under there. It's a terrific anti-winter weapon, the hat. Keeps snowdrifts from building inside the collar, the low sun from searing the eyes, the body heat from rising past the ears and on up into the stratosphere and, if you tilt your head, the breeze from biting the side of the skull. Potassium chloride and a hat, and perhaps a small flask of decent bourbon in a deep pocket, and you are good for winter. Bring it on. Ten degrees, up and down, and you are not uncomfortable.

Stylewise, a hat's a clear upgrade from the baseball cap with the little billboard on it. My caps say CAT or KW and as cool as they are they lack the style of an unmarked Stetson. Or a Dobbs or Borsalino.

* * * *

Musicians have developed a nice code of left-handed professional compliments, as in "I like what you're trying to do with your music there." Or "You should have been in the audience." Or, coming from perhaps the leader of a group: "Some of you sounded real good in there." A new one heard last week: "So, is your brother still playing?" And the old reliable, handy for moments of parting, "Well, good luck with your music."

An offstage comment from the great Johnny Gimbel: "That boy's got more talent than I got in my little finger." At the age of 78 he said to an audience at the Ryman in Nashville, following a tune by a 12- year-old fiddle phenom: "If I coulda played like that when I was twelve. . . I'd be seventy-eight now." Any additions to this genre would be welcome at R dot Ringsak at visi dot com.

* * * *

Just last month I proposed, as a cost-cutting measure, paying fistfuls of cash in lieu of actual medical treatment to chronic complainers, on the premise that it would make them feel good quicker and cheaper than the actual care would cost. Within two weeks came a story from Britain about the government there setting forth a proposal to pay the obese to lose weight. They liked my approach and immediately earmarked pounds worth 947 million bucks for personal weight loss programmes, as they spell it. And in our own Fulton, Georgia, a middle school suddenly announced it will soon be paying students $8 an hour to attend after-school tutoring classes.

I meant it as a joke. Who is out of touch with the concept of sarcastic commentary here? Is it myself, or is it the British government and the Fulton County school system? Sarah Brown of Dumbarton, Scotland, emailed a response to the news item that as a "large girl" she would not accept money to lose weight nor did she want it to be thought of her in public that she is a burden to her fellow taxpayers. "I do not take drugs, hardly ever drink alcohol, but I am as a taxpayer expected to pay for other folks addiction problems, this country is well and truly messed up, with its rules and regulations, as far as I can see all this is going to do is make our lives even more unbearable ... etc."

An educator wrote of the school proposal: "All I can say is — Unbelievable! This is the most ridiculous approach to help students succeed I have ever heard of. . . . Let's just say I'm glad I don't teach in Fulton County —I would be out of there with this type of foolish reasoning. . . . Good luck, Fulton County teachers."

I'm an innocent here. I drive a truck, occasionally play in a band and sometimes make sarcasm about the nanny state. Big Momma government; we truckers get to see it close up. Most everything I write gets seriously ignored, but somehow my idea of money for whining had a cross-Atlantic appeal. Surprised me to think they read this column. But if they're using the idea you'd think the well and truly messed up British government would at least have sent thanks, if not a nice multi-pound check. But Fulton County, I'm not holding my breath on that one.

* * * *

It was Monday the 28th when I wrote those previous bits, a briefly moderate January day. That Tuesday I went on my yearly pilgrimage to downtown St Paul to toss money at the state and federal governments and beg our truck be made untouchable for the coming season. I parked the car at an open meter. A ripping cold came down the hard streets from the west. I went and waited in line at the MNDVS office to renew our MNEC IRP and submit the 4Q IFTA report that I'd been working on all weekend. I filled out one new form and then another. They told me they couldn't renew the IRP until I did the MCS-150 updates and went to the IRS and paid the HVUT, as required by the USDOT. I went back out into the crazy cold, put more quarters in the meter, fought the wind to the IRS office and was told that for the HVUT they needed an FEIN and a VIN. I had the VIN but not the FEIN. Went back to MNDVS, waited in line. They told me they couldn't find it in their records so I called my home office four times on a pay phone that kept shutting off and finally got the number. Went back to the IRS with the FEIN and the VIN and bought the HVUT, then out again into the bonecracking wind with more quarters to resuscitate the meter and returned to the MNDVS. Was of course back at the end of the line again. Finally renewed the IFTA sticker and our USDOT number, renewed the plate sticker in accordance with DVS, increased our weight class one notch with MNDOT, to 57,000, and received another sticker.

I wrote $1580.85 in checks and in exchange got two green stickers with white block IFTA letters, a white one with a big blue O on it, and a little pink one with a black 09 on it. This plus a white paper they call a Cab Card and may God help the schmuck who loses any of it. It all took four and a half hours, longer and less fun than a spinal injection of cortisone, but I went home happy. Sanctified, road-ready. Didn't even get a parking ticket, always a good feeling coming out of the city.

By that midnight the big red thermometer needle on the north wall of the barn had moved 49 degrees counterclockwise. Which cold had been anticipated and was fine except for the wind that brought it in at forty-five miles an hour, a wind that again seems impossible to describe without using the word 'bitter.'

You can hear a 50-below wind chill out there in the darkness, hear it in an unremitting low midrange moan in the far background like surf, or like trains on all horizons. Hear it boosted close in by the high-whining salvos slicing through the tall line of spruce at the yard's edge. You go out into it to check on a slip of light coming from the sliding door on the old small garage. A light you no doubt forgot to shut off. You wonder what if some passing unfortunate is in there hiding in all the boxes and the dusty furniture, but only for the brief drama of it and not out of real expectation. You creak the door open and reach in and click the switch off and nothing moves and you slide the door shut and look up over your shoulder into the high black sky scattered with the billions of tiny bright piercings and you marvel at their magnificent calm up there above this raw ferocity and then you turn yourself to the raging cold and it knifes instantly into the open coat like your assassin, going straight to the chest without hesitation and without emotion.

Back in the house I realize what a pathetic defense against real winter is the afore-mentioned flask of whiskey and hat with a brim. I said bring it on, but for real winter you need layer upon layer and you need your ears inside the layers along with the rest of you, and you sure won't bother to top it all off with a brimmed felt hat. The hat works only when you don't need long johns. If you need long johns you also need a parka and a heavy wool or fur thing that'll come down over your ears. Forget about style. Style goes out the window when the wind whips and and you are threatened with freezing solid as a fence post. Style is the first casualty of any blizzard.

Or of any other event in which the volatile reality of life suddenly manifests itself. Especially on a small restless smidge of crusted molten iron set out here like this, way out here in the suburbs of the Milky Way.

© R.Ringsak 2008

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