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Thursday, October 22, 2009

THE DEVIL DRIVES A SALT TRUCK

Chapter 11 from The Chicken Whisperer

I can’t really talk about growing up without talking about snow days. Snow days were God’s way of saving me from the monotony of math and his way of punishing my mother for hiding Oreos in the freezer. For me, these snow days were a welcomed reprieve from sitting still, sitting up straight, and breathing chalk dust. For my mother, these snow days were a dreaded refresher course on what it felt like to be a monkey trying to survive a plunge into a river of piranhas. However, for my father, these snow days were a seasonal sacrament that reconnected his heart with his spirit of survival.

Snow days resulted from two types of precipitation: snow and ice. While snow presented its own set of problems, ice had the power to paralyze a town. And that is exactly what happened in 1976.

When I was six years old a major ice storm shut down our school system for five days when falling trees cut power throughout the county. Iced in, we spent the daylight hours sliding down hills and watching icicles grow. Without power, we spent the nighttime in the dark huddled around our fireplace reminiscing about noodles and barbequed rabbit. After four days without power, our hunger got the best of us and my mother set about cooking a pot of chili in the fireplace. Starving, we patiently watched my mother stir the steaming chili for four hours while we munched on crackers in anticipation of the feast to follow. At the precise moment the chili was almost finished there was a sudden shift in the logs and my mother’s attempt at saving it sent a ball of soot and ash flying into our dinner. It felt like I was watching my dog get run over. Indeed the ash was fatal. We threw it out and snacked on potted meat and pickles. I think I remember crying about it.

Seeing how difficult is was to cook in a fireplace, Timex eventually invested in a wood-stove to ensure his family would stay warm and not go hungry. His memories of frost on the rafters during his own childhood motivated him to often run the wood stove wide open achieving an ambient temperature of ninety. Sometimes my sister’s couldn’t sit in the den because it melted their makeup. Now that he is older, Timex enjoys keeping it hot enough to melt the M&Ms in the candy dish but cool enough to avoid my mother’s fuzzy housecoat spontaneously combusting. It does smoke at times.

Although unlikely, I would love to see my parents retire to Florida, buy a wonderful condo on the beach, look around, and hear my father ask, “Where’s the wood stove? Quarter of million and no wood stove!” I guarantee my dad could learn how to burn pineapple trees and clams in a wood-stove. He’s a genius.

Timex believes the art of surviving in the winter involves staying warm and having a plentiful supply of pecans to shell. Shelling a pecan is like cracking a safe to get a penny. Timex likes pennies. He has a light in his eyes when winter intrudes and he sits in his living room, fire roaring, socks steaming, shells flying, and Paul Harvey talking. He looks like a famished but happy Santa.

When I was child, Timex prepared for our winter survival by cutting enough firewood to heat the Whitehouse and by loading the 1972 green Dodge with cinder blocks for traction. The woodcutting consumed my Saturdays for about two months in the Fall but I didn’t mind being serenaded by a chainsaw and anointed with sawdust because I wanted to be a lumberjack. But before I could throw a hatchet into a tree I had to learn to split firewood with an axe. I broke a dozen wooden handles trying. Eventually Timex got tired of my miscues and welded a metal handle to my axe head. After that, a miscue was like hitting an iron pole with an aluminum baseball bat. At first it felt like I was getting electrocuted and then it felt like someone was sticking needles between my fingers. As numbness ensued, a high pitch ring developed in my ears while my eyes vibrated in their socket. It was motivation to learn to hit my target. Sometimes the way a father affirms his son is by trusting him to do something dangerous but important. At the time it felt like I was in charge of the fort and there were about a million Indians. When he handed me that metal axe handle it was as if he was saying, “Son, I’ll be gone for a long time and it’s going to be a hard winter. I may not make it back in time but I know it will be ok because I am leaving you here.” We never ran out of wood in the winter and now I can slice a tomato with an axe.

While my father showed his love by giving me an axe with a metal handle, God showed his love to me by giving me a long hard winter. My favorite thing to do in the winter was eat supper. My second favorite thing to do was watch the weather forecast for hints of impending icy doom. All I needed was a ten percent chance of snow within a one hundred mile radius and immediately I would start selling the idea of the storm of century to my family, friends, and anybody who would listen. With the bible verse, “With faith the size of a mustard seed, you can move a mountain,” I tried to catapult the small chance forward by begging God on my knees and promising I would serve in his Kingdom. I had no idea He would hold me to it.

With snow in the forecast it was difficult to fall asleep. It felt like Christmas Eve, like I was waiting on Santa to come and leave me presents. I wrestled all through the night, in part because my mother made me wear a t-shirt which I hated, and in part because I was expecting a miracle. My dreams took me inside snow globes to find myself pleasantly trapped and munching on a gingerbread house. My nightmares took me inside greenhouses where I prayed with Frosty the Snowman as he melted in my arms. Shortly after I would wake up sweating in that #$%! T-shirt!

Early the next morning, tired from my dreams and wet from my nightmares, I would crawl out of my bed, wipe my eyes, and rub the condensation off the windows to squint and see a world of white. There, peering through my portal, I would sometimes cry because I believed God was listening.

The next thirty minutes were spent with my two sisters huddled not around the fireplace but rather around the radio. We were simply waiting to hear, “Madison County schools will be closed today.” Those seven words sounded like holy scripture to me and I was aware they were God breathed. After a few victory laps around the house, we were busy layering up with clothes and pairs of rubber boots. I dashed outside as if I was running to meet my bride on my wedding day.

Outside, I was greeted by a completely new landscape. One good thing about snow was it covered all the junk in our yard and made even the most dilapidated shed fit for a fairy tale. I always believed if tax assessments were done on snow days, no one could afford the payment. It was simply the best the world will ever look and the best I thought God could do. Yet with all there was to see, my fondest memory of a snow day was the silence. I think the silence magnified the beauty much like a deaf person has a better sense of sight. The absence of sound helped me listen to my spirit. It renewed me and reminded me there was a heaven and a God who loved children.

The mornings were spent sledding, building snowmen, and constructing forts. The occasional sting of a random snowball to the face would interrupt an otherwise perfect time that ended with hot stew and a glowing red wood-stove. It was after lunch when all #$%! broke loose.

Just as we would be preparing for another round of throwing snowballs, the faint sound of the salt truck would freeze us in place with the look of horror on our face. It reminded me of an old movie where the children are at play when the air raid sirens go off warning that there are warplanes approaching and everyone screams and runs for the bomb shelter. With tears in our eyes, we simply watched the county truck drive toward us and throw salt on God’s perfection. I was never brave enough to look, but I am certain the driver had horns and red tail. The devil drove a salt truck. There were enough of us that we could have ambushed the truck and set it on fire but that would have just aided the melting. If the county was really concerned about safety and kids they would have sent an ice cream truck with a really loud bell.

These snow days, these answers to my prayers, these silent white miracles, were the highlight of my childhood. They brought my family together, simplified our lives, and huddled us around a wood-stove. Without electricity neighbors checked on neighbors, workers stayed home, and conversations and memories came out of the dark. Impeding doom turned out to be a blessing.

One obstacle I know I face is the fact that I am in such a hurry. When it snows I am busy at the coffee shop rather than spending time around the fire eating potted meat and pickles. My life is filled to the brim with business, cleaning, and yard maintenance. My house is beautiful and my life is full but my heart is empty. I sit in important meetings craving stimulating conversation. I sit stoic in church dying for laughter and joy. I sit at home with the TV. on and the radio playing but I sit in silence. My knowledge of real, meaningful conversation is fading into the future. Now I text instead of talk, email instead of entertain, and drive thru instead of sit down. If I am lucky a cold icy disaster will descend upon me and rescue me from my busy life. If I am brave I’ll attack the salt truck. If I am smart I’ll ask God to help.

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