Staying where it's cold

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ON a pleasant Maine winter day when the wind simmers down and the thermometer bursts up to zero, there is always wonder about the disintegration of our climate and a new relation by the old-timers of the verities in the good old days when a pot of boiling water on the stove would be frozen solid. The first chronicler of honest old-time Maine winter weather was Marc Lescarbot, the scribe with the Champlain expedition of 1604. His style probably started the tradition, because he had his whimsy and was far from a dry historian. He called winter ``hoary snow father,'' perhaps swiping a good phrase from the Indians who walked on the ice out to the French settlement at St. Croix Island to tell stories about winters past. Lescarbot says the Frenchmen stayed pretty much indoors, and Samuel Champlain added in his diary that ``the air that comes in through the cracks is colder than that outside.'' They had no cellars in the cabins, so everything froze, and the frozen cider was dealt out by the pound. The first heavy snowfall came on Oct. 6, soon after the last summer frost, but by the 15th of the next June the ice had gone out, so a vessel from France could bring new supplies. That sounds about right.

Having culled in a long career the heavy saga of Maine winter yarns, I like best the one about the salesman for dry goods, notions, and sundries who got off the train at Mattawamkeag one January afternoon. Mattawamkeag is a junction for the Canadian Pacific, Maine Central, and Bangor & Aroostook railroads, a place where salesmen would stay while working the North Countree in all directions. This was the first visit of this salesman to the territory, so he was directed to the Huston House by the station agent. It was a fine inn dedicated to the traveler's every desire, and its dining room was unequaled -- you could even get a side order of baked beans breakfast, dinner, and supper. The landlord welcomed our salesman, bestowed his sample cases behind the desk, gave him a key to his room, and said the dining room never closed. After a fine supper the salesman told the landlord, ``Wonderful meal! We don't have a dining room like that in all Barstin!'' Then he took his kerosene lamp and went upstairs to his room.

It was a cold night. The salesman wore all his clothes to bed except his shoes and hat, and he piled up his blankets and ``comfortables.'' But he just couldn't get warm. The ice in the Penobscot River froze more deeply and expanded amongst itself, causing an occasional boom which rocked the hotel and jingled the windows, and this proved a disturbing thing. At one point our salesman nearly dropped off, but a train had frozen its air brakes and the steam hoses brought to thaw them made a jerooshly hiss that was also disturbing. The poor joker just couldn't get warm.

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So he got out of bed, gathered together all his blankets and quilts, and descended to the hotel lobby, where a huge stove was glowing red under the persuasion of dry, upland hardwood. He arranged himself in a rocking chair close by and drew his bedding around him. This was some better, and after a time he fell asleep. He didn't even know when the landlord came by now and then to stoke the stove.

You have to know that in those days in that country cold weather was an asset. Lumber was harvested on snow.

This salesman was probably the only person north of Bangor who realized this was a cold night. And one of the things that went on in that country during a winter night was icing the log-hauls. The great steam tractors that pulled sled-trains of logs from the cuttings to the river worked best on glare ice, so crews would turn out to sprinkle water over miles of roadways, finishing this job just at daybreak before the tractors went to work. If a wind blew, and it was known to, the men in the icing crew would get crusted with ice. So at daybreak Jim Fletcher finished his work with the icing crew, and he came along to the Huston House with a hot breakfast in mind. He stepped into the lobby and stomped his feet, looking more like the Greenland glaciers than a man.

Our salesman roused up at this, peeped from his blankets, and surveyed Jim in disbelief. Then he asked a reasonable question. He said, ``What room did you have?''

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