Sunday, December 31, 2006

Winter in the Plains of America

A friend from central Nebraska called to say the power had been out in her area since six p.m. Saturday night. Due to freezing rains followed by snow and wind, trees and limbs were down taking power lines with them. We were luckier here in southeastern Nebraska. We had slow soaking rains for a couple days with snow starting today.

When Arctic winds blow out of the North bringing snow and dangerous wind chills, I think of a story my grandma used to tell. It's one of my favorite stories, paraphrased from the book of her life, My Name is Esther Clara. It puts in perspective what little inconveniences we have today when winter winds howl around the house and snow drifts level with our porch.

In the early 1920s, Grandma and Grandpa set out from Kansas for a road construction job in Minnesota. America's roadways were sparse in those days. Cross country traveling and trucking were as rare as the roads. Americans were just beginning their love affair with motorized vehicles then, but wanted good roads to travel instead of rutted cowpaths.

Grandpa had been lured to Minnesota with the promise of good wages and "sturdy housing" if he was willing to work in winter. The phrase "sturdy housing" conjured up visions of a cozy little cabin where his family would be warm and safe. They arrived in a blizzard and were given a canvas tent to erect -- their housing for the winter -- and a small coal burning stove for heat and cooking. That they did not immediately return to Kansas is a testament to their determination, and their desperate need for decent wages.

Grandma, Grandpa, and their two toddlers spent most of that awful Minnesota winter living in a canvas tent. Wind blew so hard it ripped tears in the tent and Grandma kept the holes patched by sewing sheets over them. Her job was to get coal every morning from the company storage shed, to cook and wash their clothes by hand, and keep their kids warm. Grandpa's job was to work 12 hours a day, snow or shine, daylight or dark, in below zero wind chills to clear the woods for a roadbed. The workers got four breaks a day on schedule. Grandma kept quilts by the stove to warm her young husband at each break. She wrapped him in warm quilts, gave him coffee with milk and sugar and hot soup to heat his innards, and fed him fat sandwiches on home made bread for energy. Somehow they survived and thrived.

So today, when the snow blows and wind howls around my warm house, I'm thankful. Even if the electricity goes out, our kerosene stove is a handy source of heat and means of cooking. I don't have to patch holes in a drafty tent, and I don't have to live in the throes of winter with fragile shelter. Could I survive while roughing it today, like they did then? I doubt it. I'm two generations removed from coal stoves and life without electricity. And it's doubtful that I have their courage and resourcefulness. Modern life is a blessing that has spoiled me.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Jiminy cricket! I get freaked out if my internet speed slows down lower than a meg a second.

I would've been dead in a week back then.

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I enjoy good writing by writers and poets who are not famous. My mother said I was born a hundred years too late. The older I get, the more I realize how right she was.

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