Country inhabitants of the Ohio river valley have endured the most arduous winter in memory, at least for people 77 years and younger. While the blizzard of '77 lingers on in family photo albums, with drifts up to eight or ten feet reaching the gutters on some homes and several weeks of subfreezing weather perpetuating the isolation and power outtages, all the oldtimers agree that '14 outdid every winter in memory.
"It never got record cold, and the snow never got deep, but for three months there just wasn't hardly no days when you wanted to go out and do anything," most everyone agreed. "We never got a break." Country folks who either supplement food stamps by hunting, fishing,cutting firewood, and doing outdoor odd jobs or else actually make somewhat of a living by logging or construction or farming stared out the windows idly. Cabin fever set in worse than ever, exascerbated by rampant unemployment, unusually high electric bills, and the Indiana Hoosiers playing mediocre basketball. Most older homes in our region are constructed with the same lack of concern for insulation as those that went up in Boonville in the logging boom. On average winters, a half-ass woodstove keeps the house cozy enough if you stay away from the howling windows, but with temperatures below 20 degrees the cold overwhelms the atmosphere in the home. This past year, many friends of mine had their water pipes freeze for weeks on end, as well as their sewers, hauling buckets of human manure out to dump in the snow. People hid out in bedrooms with space heaters.
Wild animals suffered worse than unemployed rednecks. Coyotes, accustomed to dining on moles and mice most of the time, could not break through the ice crust on the snow for months on end and had to resort to attacking deer who countered by clustering in massive herds.
"I never saw more deer together at once," my friend with the trailer in Honeytown said. "My dad counted over 100 in one field."
Jetta carved out a milk carton and we hung it from a tree in the front yard, filled with millet and sunflower seeds, cracked corn, for the wild birds who were flocking to the salted roadsides in starving desperation. At least we had something besides blinding snow to watch out the bedroom window.
"I knew we'd eventually attract a bird of prey," I said this morning as we lounged in bed.
"Like a hawk?"
"Well yeah, we got all these songbirds feeding, and the hawks are hungry, too."
"On that branch in the elm."
"That's no bird of prey. It's a robin."
"It's at least four times the size of a robin," I said. "I happen to be blessed with excellent vision and depth perception.
Just then the bird turned around, sporting a red breast.
"Fuck you," I said, while she giggled.
My teenaged son, homeschooled and bored out of his mind, had to take a vacation from the farmhouse. Luckily the mother of one of "the girls" who stayed and worked at the farm last season offered to take the boy in until the weather finally breaks. Since the girls left the farm in a huff on account of Jetta moving in with me, the household offered him political asylum, a sympathetic ear for his grievances about living with an eccentric organic farmer who recently picked up the banjo. "No doubt they're all smothering him with affection," I assured Jetta. "At least he'll be the center of attention for a while."
"They're gonna believe everything he says about me."
Meanwhile a high school classmate of Jetta's moved into my son's bedroom, escaping the chaos of his own home. James Lane is one of the only people I've met who can entertain packed parties for half the night armed with nothing but a guitar and his raw voice, no amplification. For now he rides behind the seat of my Ford Ranger en route to small musical gigs in local bars and helps out a few hours a day with whatever farm work is starting to emerge as the cold retreats north. He doesn't drink alcohol beyond the occasional bottle of Mike's Hard Lemonade, so he is reliable and doesn't cause me unnecessary beer runs. Since he and Jetta went to school together and all, they already are comfortable around each other, and we might be starting a band together but you never know how all the music stuff is going to play out. We usually pow-wow a little after noon while I sip a beer and tomato juice breakfast, get some bacon and (finally) home grown eggs going on the skillet, and manage to do a few hours of this or that around the place before returning to the house. Our schedule may change when the weather warms, but my plan is for my son to move back in soon, and for us to hit the fields in late afternoons with a party of half a dozen or more merry folks to hoe weeds or transplant starts. I don't see any point in going for the early morning efforts in today's social climate.
Though last night's low dipped to the twenties, and tonight is supposed to be a little colder, I worked enough ground this afternoon to plant the first round of carrots and beets. Rather than using a tractor, I pushed a mechanism about fourteen inches wide that I'd discovered at a yard sale in Verona several years earlier. This contraption consists of toothed steel blades forming a wheel in the front, with eight short harrow shanks in the rear, and in our veritable beach sand I can comfortably push along at a walking pace, stopping every round or so to have a few sips of beer. Though the air temperature never exceeded 45, the top few inches of sand had warmed to about eighty and felt great to bare feet that had spent the winter in boots. In one hour, with that implement, I could easilly skim half an acre when the weeds are just starting to sprout, barely disturbing the soil and thus not pulling more weed seeds up. But I didn't work an hour because James Lane was in my bedroom playing guitar and singing with Jetta. Not that I was jealous, but I didn't want to miss out on the fun.