After such a long, hard winter, I thought you might enjoy the following reminiscence.
© By Jack Bogut
"Awright, if you wanna do something, go get the rope!" My uncle shouted. I was excited.
I'd wondered about that huge coil of rope, hanging in the shop on my Grandmother's farm, for a long time. I had no idea what it was for; we were not cowboys, we were farmers, but I used to ask about it all the time. My Uncle Ray, who was kind of a joker, told me it was a Prairie Christmas Wreath. I knew it wasn't but I couldn't for the life of me figure out what it was for. We never used it. The rope just hung there, year after year, gathering dust…
I can't remember how old I was that day, maybe six or seven, but I was at the age where I wanted to help with everything I couldn't do. I do remember Uncle Ray smiling when he sent me to the shop. He knew I'd have to push up and pull like crazy to get that coil off the peg. When I did, the weight of it almost knocked me down. I half dragged and half rolled the rope back to the house and flopped it at his feet.
"Here it is," I said. "And can I help?"
"You wanna help, huh? Alright, can you tie a bowline?"
"Yup," I said, not having the foggiest notion how to do it. He sensed as much as he gave me instructions along with the order:
"Here, take the end of the rope. That's the rabbit. Make a loop. That's the hole. The rabbit goes through the hole, around the tree, back in the hole again and pull the knot tight."
And that's exactly what I did. I can still remember how nervous I was when Uncle Ray tested the knot. He really jerked on it! I thought he was gonna break the rope, but the knot didn't come undone.
Then he took the other end of the rope from the coil and handed it to me.
"Now, take this end and run over there and put it through the metal ring on the side of the outhouse. And then through the ring on the chicken coop, and then the one on the barn," he called as I got farther away.
The more rope I pulled from the coil, the heavier it got. When it was too much for me to handle by myself, he and I pulled it together. By the time we'd dragged that long, heavy, piece of rope to the outhouse, the chicken coop, the barn, the granary, the shop, the well and all the way back to the house, we were both out of breath.
Then we went back and stretched the rope as tightly as we could get it, and then we went back AGAIN and checked it for frayed or weak spots. I was really puzzled so I asked my favorite question:
"Why did we do that with the rope?"
"Blizzard's coming," Uncle Ray said and then walked away before I could ask "why" again. I didn't understand that either; it was a nice day.
"How do you know a blizzard's coming?" I shouted after him. He just grinned over his shoulder and kept walking.
"That's for me to know and you to find out."
I later learned that signs of the approaching storm were all around us. For example, animals know; livestock head for shelter long before the weather gets bad and won't leave until the storm passes. That day, all the cows and horses had been hanging around the barn as we strung the rope. I just hadn't noticed. (I also learned that my Uncle listened to the radio for the weather forecast. He didn't tell me that either).
The two of us worked until late afternoon getting ready for the storm I didn't think was coming. To keep the wind from pushing the bitter cold in around the foundation we shoveled dirt around the base of the house and tramped it as hard as we could. Then we made a mixture of barnyard clay (I'm being delicate here) and water and brushed it on the earth with old brooms. When it dried, it formed a kind of hard crust to keep the dirt from blowing away (I told him it wouldn't work but he didn't take my advice).
We hauled extra buckets of water in the house, emptied all the "thundermugs" under the beds, brought in extra coal for the stoves and hauled the ashes outside; all kind of useless activities as far as I was concerned. Little did I know.
Late the next day the wind started to moan softly around the corner of the house. You've heard that sound; "Woooooo, woooooo," it went, rising and falling, catching on a board or a shingle. It was spooky. To a six or seven year old it sounded like it was saying, "Oooooh noooooooo!" Oh, no, what? Scared me to death. And the wind got louder and louder until it sounded like some unearthly creature trying to get in out of the cold.
"Is there somebody out there?" I asked my Grandmother.
"That's just Old Man Winter," she said.
"What's he doing?" I asked, peering into the darkness.
"He's hunting for Spring so she can take over the weather and he can go back to bed way up north where he lives."
"Why can't he find her?"
"Because Spring stands and waits behind Old Man Winter, hiding until he gets tired of blowing and snowing."
"Why?" I asked.
Grandma stopped what she was doing and looked at me; "What did I tell you about the seasons, do you remember?"
"One season follows another," I said.
"That's right, and Spring always follows Winter."
"Is she behind him?"
"I guess you could say that," she said, smiling.
"Why doesn't Old Man Winter look behind him and see spring standing there? Then he could go to bed."
"I don't know!" Grandma said, looking over the top of her glasses at me, probably sorry she'd brought it up.
"Let's tell Old Man Winter Spring is behind him so he'll go back to bed NOW," I said.
"Old Man Winter doesn't listen to people, especially children," Grandma said.
Well...the first chance I got, I went out on the porch and hollered into the wind,
"Look behind you, she's standing behind you!"
It didn't seem to make a bit of difference to Old Man Winter. Made a big difference to my Grandmother though.
"You'll catch your death of foolishness out here," she said as she yanked me through the open doorway back into the house. "Who were you hollering at, anyway?"
"Old Man Winter," I said. "I want him to go away."
"Go stand by the fire," she said, chuckling and shaking her head.
Just then the wind died down...I mean REALLY died down. My Grandmother stopped in her tracks and listened to the sudden silence.
"See!" I said.
"Well I'll be," she mumbled to herself as she walked to the window and looked outside. And then the wind came up again.
"Humph!" she snorted.
But I was absolutely convinced I had made a difference; that Old Man Winter had heard me. Anything is possible when you're six or seven years old, right?
The storm grew more and more intense until it sounded like a train was running through the yard. It roared and tore at the house until it seemed the siding would come off. At first it was just wind. And then we could hear the snow start to beat on the windows like dust and sand blowing against the house in the summertime.
The blizzard howled like a pack of wolves all night long. My younger brother and I burrowed down in our feather mattress like small rodents going into hibernation. It felt so good to be safe and warm when it was so cold and miserable just a few feet away, outside.
The next morning, friction almost set our clothes on fire as we jumped into them so fast. We looked out the window and could see nothing but swirling snow; we couldn't see the fence, the trees in the windbreak, the garden, the barn or anything, just the churning blizzard. When we got downstairs my uncle was dressed to about twice his normal size and headed out the door. Then, as we watched through the window, we saw what the rope was for; he took hold of it at the porch railing and, hand over hand, disappeared into the boiling, blazing whiteness of the storm.
"Where's Uncle Ray? Is he all gone?" I asked.
"He went to take care of the chickens and milk the cows," Grandma said.
"I can't see him anymore!"
"He'll be back. Just watch the rope," she reassured me.
Now, you should understand that my Grandmother was an extremely busy person, always moving. She never stopped working and running around. But she and I stayed almost motionless, staring out that window for what seemed an eternity, until we saw my uncle coming slowly, hand over hand up the rope again, like a ghost; all white with snow, his breath streaming out to one side and disappearing like something was pulling the air out of him.
When he was safely back inside we had to help him get undressed because his clothing was stiff as a board. He was almost like a knight in a suit of frozen armor. His hands were so cold he couldn't even undo the big buttons on his coat. I worked on his overshoes until they came off in my hands like short, frozen skis.
I held the first one up proudly, for his approval, but my uncle's face was so cold he couldn't change his expression. All he could do was blink his eyes and pant like a tired horse. When he got his gloves off, my Mom handed him a cup of coffee. He took one big drink and then rubbed the warm cup all over his face. He didn't smile or talk for a long time. I was far too young to understand that he had just returned from a dance with his own mortality. But he understood it all too well.
As I grew older and spent more and more time with adults, I heard stories about blizzards. I learned that if the rope broke, the only thing you could do was to drop in your tracks and stay in that spot, not to move. Someone in the house always watched the rope to make sure it didn't go slack, but disappeared into the storm in the same direction. That was they only way they knew the rope was not broken. If the rope started to wave and dance in the wind they would know something was wrong. Then someone would get dressed and go very slowly to the end of the rope, tie a large, hard knot in it so it wouldn't slip out of their hand and search back and forth like a windshield wiper until they found the lost person. But they wouldn't dare let go and venture beyond the end of the rope, or they might be lost too. Then I understood why Grandma and I stayed at the window such a long time.
I only made one trip out the rope in a blizzard. It was in another storm two or three years later. I asked my uncle if I could go with him. He and Mom and Grandma discussed it for a while and finally said yes. I was really excited.
They put so many clothes on me I could barely move. Just before we went outside, my Grandmother took me by the shoulders and looked me squarely in the face.
"Whatever you do, don't let go of the rope, do you hear?"
I nodded my head.
"Do you hear me?" She said again.
"Okay," I said, mildly annoyed, and we left.
I went just ahead of my uncle, hand over hand along the rope, looking back over my shoulder every few steps, making sure he was still there. I was not prepared for what the storm was; five or ten steps from the house, I wanted to holler at Old Man Winter again, to see if I could make him go away. The swirling snow stung our faces like a thousand bees, the wind howled like demons in a nightmare and ripped at our clothing.
We both leaned, shoulders against the monster, and fought for our balance, staggering and sometimes falling, both of us with a death grip on that rope. I'd been happy to get to the outhouse before...but never like that time.
And each time we left one building for another I wanted to stay where I was but I didn't say anything; after all, I'd asked to go. There was no childhood fear I'd ever had to equal that experience. It was also the first time I was really aware of the life within myself, and how fragile and precious it was.
The final leg from the well back to the house was a heart-pounding victory; it seemed like we'd never get there. The wind and snow were directly in our faces, beating at us like frozen fists. We had to pull hard with each hand to make any progress up the rope at all. The kitchen window appeared and disappeared like a mirage in the swirling snow, until we were finally there. I'll never forget the warmth from the house that flooded my face when Grandma opened the door. It was overwhelming.
I still remember a cup of hot chocolate and how good it felt as I rubbed the warm cup all over my frozen face, just like my uncle. I knew one thing for sure, there was no need to ask my favorite question again; about blizzards and rope anyway. That rope was a lifeline. Literally!
The really bad storms didn't happen every year. In fact I only remember those two. But we still heard stories about people who had to go out in a blizzard and never got back. They either lost their grip on the rope or had the rope break and were spun around by the storm. Totally disoriented, they must have staggered and crawled through the swirling snow, searching in vain for the end of the rope, or the house or shelter of some kind, until they came to a fence...and then had no idea which way to go, right or left. They must have followed the wire, just like the rope, hoping it led somewhere. Somewhere safe and warm. Sometimes, after a bad blizzard, they'd find someone frozen in a fence corner, usually sitting up, facing south, their back to the bitter wind. I couldn't help wondering what their last thoughts were; if any of them ever shouted into the storm at the top of their lungs:
"Look behind you! She's right behind you!"