Of thaws and storms and creepers

The January thaw has been eliminated from Down East affairs, and probably somebody should do something about it. We haven't had one for some years. But there was a time the January thaw was as certain as the line storm and taxes, and a body could count on it along between Christmas and Twelfthtide - a ripping baister of a no'theaster that would pour hot water all night and melt away the snow, leaving the landscape brown and treacherous under a film of ice.

One reason we don't have January thaws now may be that we don't get all that much to thaw, something that must puzzle these weatherwise experts who say the seasons are not changing.

We haven't had Thanksgiving pond skating for over 10 years, and time was we always had it. Not only that, but we often had to shovel snow off the ice before we could skate. Which we gladly did, although if asked to climb a ladder and shovel snow from the shed roof, lest a collapse, we felt that was work.

This year we didn't have a killer frost until late October, no skating in November, and ferns along the shore stayed perky and green.

Parenthetically, I'd like to be able to do something about our newspaper and magazine and airwave people who persist with the nor-easters. There is no such word, and for that matter, there is no no'theaster, either. The word is northeaster, and should be retained as such. The way to pronounce it is something else again.

A northeaster is a wild storm, rain or snow, that rouses down from Newfoundland and the Grand Bank and pummels the Maritimes and New England for at least a nasty day and night. In usage, northeaster is rightly pronounced know-theaster, with the ''th'' of ''those'' rather than the ''th'' of ''think.''

There is a reason.

In the days of sail, orders from the deck to men working the rigging had to be clear, and in any kind of a wind they had to be very clear. That's why ''larboard'' was dropped and ''port'' adopted - larboard and starboard sounded alike and made confusion. There is no time in a squall to cup your ear and call back, ''What'd you say?'' And the compass points were too important ever to be slurred. North, so it would always be understood, was knowth. South, sowth. Sow-theast and sow-west. Nor-west was fine, but nor-east would bother. So there was never a nor-east aboard ship - it was know-theast. Did you know to propitiate the storm gods a Down East skipper starting a voyage would always ''fill to the knowth''? Set his sails to draw northerly, and then go on course. Aren't these good things to know? So, know-theast.

Parentheses closed.

So the storm that brought our January thaw was a northeaster, and after swelling all the brooks with melted snow it would clear off by ''backing in.'' That was the pattern. A northeast storm that clears through north into the northwest is said to back in, and the clearing will be short lived. To clear off right, and bring good weather for some time, a northeaster has to ''veer'' and ''haul around.'' From northeast through the south and into the west. So the January-thaw storm would back in, and then we'd have a ''breeder'' - a day that was making up a brand new storm. Breeders are lovely days, but omens. Next we'd get a repeat northeaster, except now it would bring snow and would drift the countryside all white again.

That ''breeder'' was usually the big day for creepers. Creepers are little metal biters that strap to the shoes - crampons. With ice covering everything, nobody ventured without his creepers - except some joker who would skate to the post office. There is a posture that goes with walking on creepers, and for that day the whole town went about in that straight-up posture - everybody fully expecting to wind up flat on his back.

Unless a horse were sharp shod he wouldn't be taken out on that breeder day. My grandfather had a sharp-shod team, and one January-thaw day he took advantage of the good ice and hauled a load of sawlogs to the mill. For years people shuddered at the memory of the panic when his sled skidded through the village, horses at the trot.

But we haven't had a proper January thaw for a good many years. We had mostly bare ground, and sometimes no frost in it. Which may please most people, but when you've been brought up with a custom, you miss the observance. I'm hopeful, and I have my creepers handy on a nail in the shop.

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