The finest of foul-weather friends

There was a flurry of snow this morning, bringing a sudden gaiety and white charm for the last time of the winter season. The flakes descended in blizzard force in the early morning hours. Then I heard the blast of the "no school" signal followed by the gritty, metallic grind of the snowplow cutting a wide swath in our driveway.

Within days, it'll be spring here in central Maine, so it should be this orange behemoth's last go-through. And it would be my last chance this year to wave goodbye to Jeff White.

Jeff White is our city snowplow driver and one of the people I know just because of the weather. I call him my foul-weather friend, because I only see him after a winter storm has blown through.

Jeff's red earmuffs and plaid cap are about all I can espy from my bedroom window. That and his heavy wool-clad arm turning the steering wheel sternly so his glistening blade won't yank up the front steps and the milk box. One year, Jeff deposited the milk box and a quart of two percent at the end of the driveway. We didn't find it until Easter.

Now after 15 minutes of grumbling sounds, there is a silence, and my foul-weather friend salutes me from his frosty cab. Then, tipping his hat, he points to the intact milk box with a smile.

I'll see him again next year. In the meantime, I am relieved and thankful that I can get out of my home today. Later, I'll dig through Jeff's firm snowbanks and offer the crocuses a bit of air.

Once we are fully into spring and its rainfall, however, we'll see another weather-related friend, Ernie Violette. Ernie appears only once a year in our backyard. And it's a good thing he does. He'll be over with his backhoe as soon as the ground thaws. He'll dig out the exit pipes by our basement door. They clog with mud every year, and by mid-April we need hip boots to enter what looks like a pool but is really our basement.

We never see Ernie unless foul weather brings his name to our lips, as in, "Uh-oh. The water is up to the first riser. Better call Ernie." After things are running again, underground, Ernie hoists himself up on our pitched roof and cleans out the gutters with a long, stiff brush.

"The gutters have been freed!" he chirps from his shingled perch. "Now you're all cleaned out from top to bottom!"

Again, I am relieved. Thank goodness for Jeff and Ernie, who come to our rescue every year. Foul weather brings us together and keeps us together.

Years ago, my parents hired a local schoolboy to shovel off their front steps after every snowstorm. They used to see him only one season of the year, but Sam quickly became a household name. He set my parents free to collect their mail and walk the dog every day of the winter. As soon as they discovered that Sam could also wield a rake, he was a fall friend, too. They sent Sam a Christmas card every year, and even started to look forward to the first snowstorm of the season.

E.B. White had his seasonal help, too. He hired a woodcutter in the fall. Arthur Cole would arrive at White's place trailing his sawing machine behind his coupe, and saw almost 6-1/2 cords of wood a day. White knew his sawyer's age, his wood mishaps, and the happy fact that Arthur still had all 10 fingers. But that was about it.

I don't know much about Jeff White or Ernie Violette, either. In fact, I don't know where they live or who their other customers are.

But then again, I don't know much more about the doorman who tips his umbrella for me every time I visit my son on a rainy day in New York. We exchange a quick "Hello" and a "How's your day?" as the door opens and closes. He's just there to make the climate seem less harsh and my life more pleasant. I am glad that he is there.

It's easy to see why one might await foul-weather friends with some eagerness. I'm not quite at the point where I am looking forward to poor weather. But every once in a while, I am curious as to how these friends look and live when they are not in my pipes, gutters, and driveway.

One hot summer day last year, I met up with Jeff White. I was in our local hardware store purchasing seedlings, and I caught a glimpse of a fellow who looked familiar in an off-season sort of way. Truthfully, I hardly recognized him. He was in shirtsleeves. No red earmuffs or wool hat. In fact, I was stunned to see that he had hair and was quite tall. I only knew him in winter, sitting in a truck cab, inadvertently dragging my milk box to the roadside.

These foul-weather friends stick to the calendar, in my mind anyway, and throw me off when I see them any other time of year.

"See you again when the snow flies!" I chirped, with a tomato plant in hand.

Then I got to thinking about our typical spring storms with that wet, heavy snow that clogs gutters. I watched Jeff climb into his truck. He donned a baseball cap and then waved. Then I thought about Ernie on a blustery day, perched beside my chimney.

All I can say is, good thing my foul-weather friends are not fair-weather friends.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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