Finding some fun at 50 below

Even for Maine, the weather report was astonishing: tonight the temperature will sink as low as 45 to 50 degrees below zero. I recall reading, at some point in my high school career, that 50 below is the temperature at which spit will freeze before hitting the ground.

I had also read, more recently, that the temperature in Antarctica has been nosing around minus 40. I guess this gives Maine an unenviable distinction, at least in the eyes of those interested in such statistics.

It's been an unusually cold winter. And because of the deep, protracted cold, it has seemed an unusually long winter. I remember once listening to a Garrison Keillor monologue on "A Prairie Home Companion," in which he relates that the weather in Minnesota had been so cold that it was still yesterday.

I also once read a book by an African who went to live in, of all places, Greenland. Stunned by the bitter temperatures, he wrote that the cold did not come at you from outside but seemed to arise from within you.

Yes, that's how it's been here. It feels like yesterday, and even when I enter a warm place I can feel the cold filtering outward through my clothes.

There have been other clues as to the depth of the cold. Upon waking this morning I noticed frost on the inside of the walls. I went outside to the woodpile and quickly stoked the woodstove, but I couldn't get the maple to take fire, as if the wood were too cold to burn. Then, later in the day, as the sun shed a modicum of warmth, the roof began to leak.

I felt positively guilty about calling the roofer. There are two miserable times to be up on top of a house: during a scorching July sun, and in midwinter, when the wind cuts like a whetted knife and there is the ever-present danger of slipping on the snow and ice.

But people have to work, and roofers, like all outdoor laborers in Maine, are resigned to the turn of seasons. My man came out and, without preamble, hied up onto the roof and began his deliberate work as I lingered below, my arms wrapped around me to conserve whatever warmth I could.

I watched Rock (his name) as he examined skylight, flashing, and shingles. He tapped here, peeled there, and generally scraped about. Then he lifted a sledge hammer and brought the broad side of the head down onto an ice dam. He must have hit the sweet spot, because the wall of ice shattered and cascaded down at my feet like broken glass.

"How's it look?" I asked anxiously.

Rock bit his lip, the picture of empathy, the picture of a man who takes his work to heart. I watched as he gingerly peeled back the edge of a shingle. "Look here," he said. "See how it gets in?"

Yes, I could see it. The frost had crept - as if it were alive - under the shingles, lifting them up and then thawing when the sun caressed it. "What can we do?" I asked him.

Rock rattled down the ladder, faced me, and dispensed his advice with all the gravity of a lawyer outlining his case for the defense. "You gotta keep the ice off the roof until spring," he said. "Then let 'er dry out. After that, I think I can help you. But you gotta call me." Rock wouldn't take a penny for his work, but as he drove off he reemphasized his commitment to my problem by mouthing, "Call me!"

When I returned inside there was no water because the pipes had frozen. Then a meeting I was supposed to attend was canceled because the diesel fuel in the chairman's car had jelled. The whole world was under siege by the invisible enemy, cold!

The mood was lightened considerably when my 6-year-old son returned home from school that afternoon. He was bundled so densely, with so many layers, that he looked almost round. Two cheeks as pink as fresh peaches glowed in the space between his hat and scarf. "Let's play outside!" he called as he threw his backpack down onto the porch.

Play? Was he kidding? Was it really possible to move in such cold? Well, maybe it would help. I threw on a few more layers and then ran and jumped with Anton over the snowdrifts. I pulled him on his sled and we tunneled pathways through the two feet of snow in the backyard. After 15 minutes or so I was feeling a good burn in my muscles and even my fingertips were toasty. We began to feel cold only when we slowed down for any period of time.

Finally, the temperature began its late-afternoon descent. As we entered the house, Anton paused and looked out at the frozen landscape, his breath steaming off in the frigid air. "It's cold," he said with a forced shiver.

"It's going to get colder," I said.

"How cold?"

I cleared some snow away from the ground with the toe of my boot. "Spit," I told him. His eyes lit up. After all my admonitions about burping, spitting, and covering his mouth when he coughed, here I was, backpedaling. "Go ahead," I said. "Spit."

With delight, my son let one fly. I examined his work and nodded. "We'll try again in the morning," I said, and then we went in for hot chocolate.

Even if it got as cold as they said it would, at least now we had something - however small - to look forward to.

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