Thursday, January 15, 2009

Cold Weather Stories

It’s Cold. Since all the talk seems to be of the weather, I thought I’d tell a few stories about the chilly times on the mountain.

Old steamshovel wreck on North Mountain. Granddaddy Don is in the back row, 3rd from the right (wearing a toboggan).

I remember my granddaddy Don used to tell of how cold it got out on the mountain when he worked in the timber camps back in the early 1900’s. He said that it was a real danger for the timber men when it got down real cold. Frostbite and hypothermia were regular occurrences in the camps. He even told of it being so cold one time that a tree exploded when they started chopping it down. He said the tree split apart into several pieces and piece shot in every direction for several yards around and that the base log cracked up the tree about 15 feet. Granddaddy Don also told of how deep the snow would get in the mountains around lumber camps. He said many’s the time they’d cut timber in the winter while standing on the packed snow, and come spring when the snow would melt, they’d go back over the same area and get another 8 to 10 foot log off the stumps which were previously buried under the snow.

Granddaddy Don & Grandmaw Mary

This reminds me of another story that occurred about the same time as when Granddaddy Don was working in the timber camps. This one involves Grandmaw Mary and the kids who were left at home while Granddaddy Don was off at work, sometimes for months at a time. He’d send money to them in the mail, but not on a regular basis. Grandmaw always fended for herself, so she canned and put up food all summer long so they usually had enough food, but they’d sometimes run short on firewood, especially when Granddaddy was gone for long periods of time. One time, it got down real cold and Grandmaw Mary saw they were running out of wood. She told the older children that they would have to go cut down the old Chestnut tree near the fence line in order for them to have enough wood to get through the cold spell. The oldest of the boys was only about 12 at the time, so it was a major undertaking. Well, the kids took to chopping at the huge chestnut tree with axes, and since the tree was dead (courtesy of the chestnut blight), it made a great racket as they hammered away at its base. Well this noise alerted the cantankerous neighbor man who lived up the holler from Grandmaw. Well, the man came down to where they were chopping down the tree and cut a fit on them. He said that the tree belonged to him, and that it was on his property, when it was clearly on the Burns side of the fence. The boys went and got Grandmaw Mary and told her about what the man was saying, and she went out to talk some sense into her neighbor. She told him that the tree was on Burns property, but the man argued that the fence line was in the wrong place. Grandmaw then saw that it was futile to argue about whose tree it was, so she tried a different tact with him. She explained to him that since Don had been gone for the past few months, that they were running low on firewood and were in great need of it. She said that the tree was dead and needed to be cut down anyway, lest it fall over on his fence. Besides she added, Chestnut wood wasn’t the best for burning, it cracked and popped a lot and created a lot of sparks, so really it wasn’t her first choice either, but when you need wood, you get what is readily available. The man seemed to understand that Grandmaw meant to have that tree, and he appeared to acquiesce but just as the boys finally felled the giant Chestnut, the man took to cussing and carrying on and saying how he was going to have them all arrested for stealing his tree and damaging his property. Grandmaw once again told him that the tree was on Burns property and that it belonged to her, and she instructed to boys to keep cutting. The man then started cussing the boys and threatening them with his gun which he said he was going to go get and he’d show them whose tree it was. Well, Grandmaw, fed up with the cantankerous old man, said to the boys, “Come on boys and let’s go back in the house, and let the old bastard have the tree. Maybe he can use the lumber to make himself a coffin so he can go through Hell a-cracking”.

Grandmaw Mary

Well that old man was so stunned by Grandmaw’s words, that he immediately took to apologizing to her and the boys, and he said, “Now Mary, if you need that wood, why you just go ahead and take it.” Grandmaw, now with her dander up responded, “I aim to.” The old man then told her, “I’ll go get my boys to come and help you all split that wood up, and get it stacked in the woodshed. Now Mary, are you all okay with food? We have some hams in our smokehouse that we’d gladly share with you all.” Grandmaw told him they had plenty of food, they were just out of firewood. She always got amused at how fast the threat of a crackin’ coffin in Hell will turn people around!

Mom & Dad, Summer 2005

Another story about the cold weather was when my Dad was a young man. After Granddad Thompson died when Dad was 10 years old, Dad moved up to Monkeytown to live with his parents. You see, in my family, it was custom that the oldest grandson live with his grandparents. Well, once Dad moved in with his parents, it became abundantly clear that there wasn’t enough room. My granddad worked in Baltimore at the time and came home just long enough to get Grandmaw pregnant, and then he’d leave again. He’d sometimes send money, but often he did not. So the next summer, when Dad was 11 years old, he went to work in the hayfields in order to get money to help out with the family expenses and in order to build himself a room onto the house. Dad was big for his age so the farmers all thought he was about 15 so they hired him on for a dollar a day. Dad worked all summer and come the fall, he had saved enough money to buy the lumber to build him on a room. With the help of a few people, they built a very crude room onto the front of the house. There were cracks in the walls that you could through a cat through, and it had one little window that resembled the one in the storybook of Noah’s Ark. But it didn’t matter to Dad, he finally had a bedroom all his own. Well, for a few days anyway. His little brother Tom decided that he would sleep there too, so Dad soon had a roommate. Since Tom was still little, he often wetted the bed, and Dad would have to get up and change the covers out, and give them to Grandmaw to wash the next day. Well, winter soon set in, and Dad said that many mornings he’d wake up with a dusting of snow on the bed covers. He said they left the door open which was next to the kitchen where the wood stove was, and that on the side facing the door, you’d be real warm, and on the side facing the window, you’d freeze. He said you learned to turn a lot throughout the course of the night. As the weather got colder, someone gave Dad and Tom a big old feather tick to sleep under. Well, one night when the weather was down around zero, Tom pee’d the bed and Dad didn’t realize it, and when they woke up the next morning, the feather tick was frozen to Dad’s bed clothes! Dad then told Tom that he couldn’t sleep with him any more until the spring! Dad’s room is still on the house, only now it has been remodeled, and is now the kitchen area. It doesn’t, however, resemble the rough little room of necessity that Dad built so many years ago.

Me & Shirley, Fall 2007

My final story about cold weather concerns one of the first times that I took Shirley home to the mountain to meet my family. Shirley, although a child of the coalfields, always led a pretty pampered life. She grew up with all the amenities, including central heating. Well, Mom and Dad still have a wood stove so the heat comes from only one area of the house. Shirley insisted on closing the bedroom door that one night, which I advised her was a bad idea. I told her to sleep in my bed…a heated waterbed…but her modesty and upbringing wouldn’t allow her to sleep in the same bed with someone she wasn’t married to, so Mom set her up the old cast iron bed to sleep in. Well, it was down around zero that night, with the wind whistling around the corner of the house. Shirley kept waking me up with her question, “What is that? It sounds like a banshee.” I’d always reply, “It’s the wind. Haven’t you ever heard the wind before?” She’d say, “Not like that!” and would soon go back to sleep. Well this went on nearly every hour, until finally about daylight, I was awakened by a nudging on my shoulder. It was Shirley. I asked her what was wrong and I turned on the lamp by my bed. There stood Shirley, pitifully asking, “I’m s-s-s-s-oooo c-c-c-c-old. C-c-can I g-get in b-e-e-e-e-ed with you?” I swear to you that her lips were blue! I reminded her that I told her it would get cold if she shut the bedroom door, and that of course she could get in my nice, warm, heated waterbed. She then decided that she needed a drink of water and walked over to get her glass of water on her nightstand. She gasped and I asked her what was the matter now. She said, “my water is frozen!” I told her to open the bedroom door and to get in bed with me. As soon as she opened the bedroom door, the warm air flooded into the room and she soon warmed up. She slept like a baby the rest of the night. Shirley still claims that is the coldest that she has ever been in her life. Poor girl, she sure has led a sheltered life!

So just keep in mind over the duration of this current cold spell, that it won’t be long before we see the first green sprouts of spring, and soon thereafter, the warm breezes of summer will return to these hills. The nightbirds will once again croon their songs of passion, and nature will once again caress us into slumber with the softness of the season.


Vera said...

Matthew, I don't know how you can remember all these things about the past, but I love reading them.

Anonymous said...

It's cold here in the foothills of the Blue Ridge, but yesterday I was thrilled to find my Snowdrops just peeking above the month they'll be blooming and soon after them the Heleborus and primrose... Soon now soon, it's just a little longer.
(GrannySue's Sis)

Janet, said...

Liked your stories Matthew. I remember when we rode the Cass RR they told stories about how cold it would get in the winter on the mountain. The ground froze solid and if anyone died, they would have to wait till the spring thaw before they could bury them.

tipper said...

Matthew-loved all the cold stories!

Granny Sue said...

Now I'm cold all over again, Matthew.

The coldest I can remember was the winter of 1976-77. Our house wasn't anywhere near finished but we were living in it, and heating it with a Franklin fireplace which anyone knows (except we were so green we didn't know) is no good for real heating. We lived in two rooms that winter, sleeping on the floor in sleeping bags in the living room close to the fire. That winter the water lines in Ripley froze over 2' down in the ground, and our neighbor's well which was 45 feet down to the water froze over. It was cold. Just cold.

Kim Austin said...

Hi Matthew

Your writing is great -- I really enjoy how you are able to bring to life the experiences of your family -- things that occurred before you were ever thought of. All wonderful stories. Your grandparents endured a lot, and I know that we of the 21st century don't realise the sacrifices that those who came before us made.

I did not know that about the oldest grandson having to live with his grandparents.

Keep up the writing Matthew -- you have a ever interested reader back in Australia.