December 29, 2011
There is no weather forecast this week, nor will there be one in future weeks. I’m off the hook. It seems that Miss Cecelia Davenport’s great niece gave her a “weather station” for Christmas, which, Miss Cecelia says, is way more accurate than I’ve ever been in my short four-week tenure as Walnut Shade’s meteorological prognosticator. Just because I missed that fourteen-inch Christmas Eve snow storm…
Sandy Cramer thanks everyone for their patience during the aforementioned snow storm. The city’s snow plow was finally extricated on Monday from the ditch on 8th Street and completed clearing the streets that evening. Carl Cunningham says that he suspects that most people appreciated the excuse not to have to go anywhere on Monday after Christmas on Sunday.
All three churches were packed to the rafters on Christmas Eve despite the weather forecast and the snow that began to fall about 8:00 p.m. From all reports, everyone got home fine after the services, except for Curt Jackson, the town’s part-time, one-man road crew who spent most of early Christmas morning trying to get the previously mentioned snow plow out of the ditch on 8th Street.
While the power was out Sunday afternoon for a couple of hours, Kathleen Johnson tried making coffee in her old stove-top percolator. She says that nostalgia is fine, but burned coffee is not and she’s happy for her reliable Mr. Coffee.
The weather was so mild during the fall that not many people had used their fireplaces until Christmas day. We are happy to report there were no chimney fires in town, though a few people, who request to remain anonymous, admit that they now remember that the damper should be open at the very beginning of the fire-building process.
Lou and Lois Hawkin’s grandson was in town for Christmas on his way to Tucson where he begins his new job as assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Arizona. Jeff just graduated with a PhD from Columbia (the one in New York, not the University of Missouri, in Columbia).
Christmas Day dinner at the Finley’s included George and May’s son George, Jr., his wife Hazel, and their two sons, George III and Ronn; daughter Grace Pulley and her husband, Norman, and their daughter, Emma; daughter Rose Herman and her husband, Harry; George’s mother, Louise; and May’s uncle, Stan Colson. May’s mother Gloria, who lives in New York and will be 98 on New Year’s day, sent a floral arrangement. Fortunately, George and May have great accommodations at the winery and everyone had come in a few days before the snow.
Bill and Pam Heath planned to host family and friends for a Christmas Day brunch but Pam called on Saturday to warn them stay home. Good planning, because McDougal Road was impassable until Wednesday.
Well, in Walnut Shade, we pride ourselves on doing the impassable, so…
Until next week, I remain
Your Faithful Correspondent
In My Antonia, Willa Cather wrote that “winter lies too long in country towns; hangs on until it is stale and shabby, old and sullen.” We can only hope that she will be proved wrong by the first appreciable snow of the year, that it will disappear almost as quickly as it appeared and leave us with nothing but good memories. Something tells me, though, that that probably won’t be the case. The last few winters in this part of the country have started late and stayed well past their welcome.
Winters in rural America, particularly out here on the plains, can be unbelievably beautiful (Irving Berlin/Bing Crosby “White Christmas” beautiful) at the same time that they are down right annoying and inconvenient. Getting home from Christmas Eve services was not too difficult, seeing as how by 11:30 p.m. when St.Brendan’s let out, we only had four inches on the ground, but by 1:00 a.m., an additional four inches had fallen. It began to “taper off” then and only accumulated six more in the next two hours. It was at that point that Curt Jackson climbed into the town’s combination dump truck/snow plow/salt spreader and began to clear the streets.
Curt has been on the city payroll for eighteen years and knows every pothole in town, most of which he re-fills every spring with a mixture of what appears to be asphalt and chocolate pudding that seems to dissolve with the first tenth of an inch of rain. People in Walnut Shade are, on the whole, sanguine about the potholes that never seem to go away. We’ve learned to dodge, straddle, swerve and ignore them for the most part. We understand that they provide at least two people in town steady employment: Curt and Fred Tucker at the Stop and Go who does a thriving business replacing shocks, struts and blown out tires for those folks who forget where the craters are.
Now, the city road job is just a part-time gig for Curt, who spends most of his time with his shipping business. The two jobs are usually pretty compatible; most of the road issues occur in the spring and summer and package delivery really picks up just before Thanksgiving and has pretty much run its course with the February “white sales.” Winter has its challenges when we do get snow or an ice storm, but Curt can usually clear the streets in just under an hour. Christmas Eve/Day was the exception.
The town’s maintenance shed is on the north side of town, so Curt begins his route on 10th Street and weaves back and forth from east to west until he gets to downtown, where he changes direction and begins clearing the north/south streets. Curt had moved the snow from 10th and 9th streets and was two block into 8th when he hit a slick spot that sent him into the ditch. Apparently, when the plow slid off the road, it got hung up in a culvert. Not wanting to cause damage to the plow or the culvert, Curt finally gave up trying to extricate the truck about 5:00 a.m. and walked home.
Reluctantly, he called Sandy Cramer, who supervises the town’s roads as part of her duties as councilperson and told her what had happened. Sandy, being a practical person (and most likely half asleep at 5:15 a.m. on Christmas morning), told Curt to wait until 8:00 and call Walt’s Tow Service in Fremont to see if Walt could pull the plow out of the ditch, which he did, call. Now Walt is, under the most perfect of circumstances, one of the grouchiest, most cantankerous people in Miller county, perhaps owing to the line of work he’s in. He hardly ever encounters someone who is in a good mood. Dead batteries, flat tires, keys locked in the car, standing at the side of the road explaining to a law enforcement officer why the other person is obviously at fault in an accident, these are not times that one is in the best frame of mind and Walt gets to hear about them in detail. In the beginning of his career, he was pretty sympathetic to the woes of his clients, but forty years of grumbling, whining, grousing, moaning, sniveling, carping and bellyaching weighs on a person and Walt takes none of it. Tell him the problem and he’ll fix it, but he doesn’t want explanations or excuses.
So, when Curt called, he said simply, “Walt, the town’s truck is in a ditch on 8th. Can you pull me out?”
“On Christmas morning? Do you how many other people are in line in front you and every one of them absolutely has to get to church.”
“Well, no one’s driving to church in Walnut Shade, but I do need to get the roads cleared so people can get to work tomorrow,” Curt responded.
“Yeah, I know. Listen, I’ll be there as soon as the county gets 75 cleared. I’ll give you a call when I’m on my way. Typical Christmas; I spend it getting people to where they need to go and not a one of them so much as says ‘Thanks.’”
“Walt, you do this and I’ll make sure everyone in town sends you a ‘thank you’ card.”
“I’m not holding my breath. Call you later.”
Curt reflected that that was probably most civil conversation he’d ever had with Walt; he must be in the holiday spirit.
When Walt called at 4:30, he was absolutely not in the holiday spirit.
“County can’t get to you until later tonight or tomorrow morning. Everything in the north part of the county is shut down. My rig is stuck in Fremont.” Curt could hear the frustration in Walt’s voice. Not being able to get to people meant that his bank account would stay stuck in a snowbank, also, no pun intended.
“Okay, just let me know when you’ll be down this way.”
Curt had been on the phone off and on with Sandy Cramer all day and now he called to give her the bad news. Sandy, likewise had been on the phone all day with Walnut Shadians wondering when they’d be able to get out of their driveways.
The snow storm itself had come and gone pretty quickly, leaving behind a cold, but bright day and by Christmas afternoon, kids all over town were out with their sleds and cardboard boxes in which their presents from “Santa” had arrive taking advantage of the mounds of snow and no traffic on city streets. Seventh Street has always been a particular favorite of sledders, owing to it’s two-way incline. From Douglas Street on the west to Church Street, the road slopes downward west-to-east. From Church to Fremont, it rises just a bit. One of the traditions among Walnut Shade young people is playing “chicken” on Seventh when the sledding conditions are just right. Every year, there are a few bumps and bruises and on occasion, broken bones have ensued. Every year, adults warn the kids about the dangers of their activity, but every year, the kids play out the excitement their parents experienced in their younger years.
As for the adults, they spent Christmas afternoon shoveling their walks and driveways, only of few which were actually shoveled, snow throwers having made a significant appearance in town a few years earlier. The sound of gasoline engines being started all over town broke the silence the snow imposed on the landscape. Word spread quickly that Curt had put the town snowplow in the ditch and that it would probably be sometime on Monday or Tuesday before Walt could extricate it, so as neighbors were clearing their walks, a plan began to emerge, the important points of which were these: 1) a concerted effort would be made to clear the walks in town in order to get as many snow throwers as possible onto 8th Street; 2) if 8th Street could be cleared a bit, there were several four-wheel drive vehicles in town that might be put to use to pull the plow out of the ditch; 3) with the plow freed, the streets could be cleared; and, 4) everyone agreed that the plow should be extracted rather late in the day so anyone who might not have a day-after-Christmas holiday would still have an excuse for not making it in to work.
So, just before dark on Monday evening, the Walnut Shade snow plow was dislodged from its entanglement with the culvert, which sustained minor, but acceptable, damage and Curt Jackson, who had been allowed to take a good long nap while all this was taking place, climbed into the cab and began to finish what he had started thirty-six hours before. By nine-thirty, the streets in Walnut Shade were wiped clean and several teenagers were out cruising the circuit from Harris Park to the Tasty Freeze to the Stop and Go. All was once again right with the world.
The end of the year always reminds me of Billy Macdougal and St. Brendan’s Catholic Church which has a somewhat unusual architectural design for a church in that it includes a clock in its steeple. The original structure, completed in 1865, was nearly destroyed by fire in 1872. The church was rebuilt and expanded in 1878 and remodeled again in 1912, when a new steeple with the clock was added. The priest at the time, Father O’Hanlan insisted that a clock would help people in town complete their daily activities in an orderly manner and then they would be able to attend to their inevitable, perpetual spiritual obligations with abiding regularity. The small Catholic congregation accommodated themselves to the necessity of looking up every now and then to make sure that they were on schedule with their enterprises, but the Protestant and unchurched residents of the town went through periods of mild vexation at the continually, it seemed, chiming of the hours of the day. It’s one thing to live in London and hear Big Ben or Westminster’s melodious bells and another altogether to live in Walnut Shade and have your life regulated by St. Brendan’s.
The one person in town who was never annoyed by the chiming of the clock was William “Billy” Macdougal. For fifty-two years, Billy was the maintenance man at St. Brendan’s and for fifty-two years, he got up every morning at five o’clock, put on his working clothes, ate his breakfast of one hard-boiled egg and half a biscuit, and walked three block to the church where he cleared the entries of ice and snow in the winter, tended the monstrous furnace in the basement, opened the windows on pleasant spring days, polished the pews and made sure that the churches’ myriad buildings were well cared-for. One of his daily chores, and the one he most thoroughly enjoyed, was climbing the bell-tower and setting and winding the clock that occupied that space. Billy prided himself on synchronizing the giant clock, to the second, with his ornate, antique pocket watch that once belonged to his grandfather, also a William “Billy” Macdougal.
(As a bit of an aside here: Billy’s grandfather, William, came from Scotland to the U.S. in 1852 at the age of twelve and lived to the ripe old age of 98. William was what everyone imagines a true Scotsman to be: taciturn, abstemious, and frugal to a fault. There used to be a Disney cartoon that showed a Scot in his kilt opening his change purse with moths flying out. That was Billy’s grandfather “to a T.” Billy idolized his grandfather, nonetheless, and often told the story of how as child he would sit on his grandfather’s lap and listen as his grandfather would take his watch out of his pocket, check the time and say “Billy, when I’m gone, this watch will be your.” Now, of course Billy didn’t wish for his grandfather’s death, but he certainly did anticipate getting the watch. When Billy was twenty-two, his grandfather suffered a heart attack and it was clear he was not going to recover. One by one, the relatives were ushered into William’s bedroom because, it seems, they had each been promised something of his during their time together. One by one, they each exited the room with an puzzled, if not perturbed, look on their face. When it was Billy’s turn, he knew that grandfather would honor his promise of the pocket watch. “Billy, I always told you that when I was gone, this watch would be yours, as so it will. Well, the doctor tells me that I won’t be around very much longer, so would you like to buy a nice watch?”)
Someone once asked Billy how he knew that the time displayed on his watch was the accurate time, this being before the Internet and the ability to instantly check the atomic clock buried deep in the mountains outside Pueblo, Colorado.
“Oh, that’s easy. You see, on my way to the church, I stop by the drug store and set my watch by the big clock in the window. That way, I know that the time on the clock on the church will be perfect.”
Billy performed his churchly duties until about six months ago, when he decided to retire at the ripe old age of 79. A new maintenance man was hired and one of the first things he did, using the latest Internet technology, was to check the time on the clock. He discovered that it was seven minutes slow. He knew that Billy prided himself on his timekeeping accuracy and seven minutes was quite a discrepancy, especially since everyone in town set their clocks by the chiming of the bells of St. Brendan’s. Jason, the new caretaker, went to Father Rick to tell him what he had discovered.
“Oh, we’ve all known about that for years,” Father Rick said, laughing. “One day, a pharmaceutical salesman was in town, delivering supplies to the drug store and he inquired about why the clock in the window was obviously slow. Mr. Crane, the druggist, told him that for years he had been setting his clock by the clock on St. Brendan’s but one day he came in early and saw Billy setting his watch by the clock in the front window of the store. He realized that he and Billy were relying on each other to be accurate with their clocks, but that somehow over the years, one of them had gotten off a bit. Over the course of a couple of years, all of the clocks in town, in fact, got to be seven minutes slow. Apparently, everyone in town started to figure out what was happening, and not wanting to embarrass Billy, they just left their clocks the way they were. We call it ‘Walnut Shade time.’”
But there’s more to the story. When Billy retired, St.Brendan’s and the town, gave him a big party and presented him with a new battery-powered, computer-enabled pocket watch, guaranteed to always be accurate. No one noticed that the new watch had not been set to “Walnut Shade time” but was still synchronized to that Atomic Clock buried deep in the mountains somewhere in Colorado. After the party, Billy went outside and just out of habit, he glance up at the clock in the St.Brendan’s bell tower and then looked at his new watch.
Turning to Father Rick, he said, “Father, I sure do appreciate all that you have done for me over the years and this is truly a beautiful watch, but if you won’t be offended, I think I’ll just stick with my old one. I can see this new one runs about seven minutes fast.”