by Bruce Patterson, December 21, 2016
When I was a little boy in LA, my mom told me how when she was a kid the snow in Chicago turned black. Burning coal and firewood was all that kept my mom and the rest of the people living in the rattrap tenements from freezing to death. The ashes blasting out the city’s chimneys settled on the snow and painted it black. The ashes plus the oily black soot of a million exhaust pipes spitting blow-by, and a million pedestrians leaving behind salty yellow footprints and craters, candy wrappers and cigarette butts.
Snow made Chicago look dirty and my mom hated it. She hated the miseries caused by “cold snaps” that froze trees solid and glazed every surface with glassy ice. Under deep blue skies came the most vicious cold snaps and they’d kill you if you got stuck outside in one. Back alley, ice-filled potholes laid hidden under the snow, and god help you if you stepped on one. Then came the wind that flew as fast as a hawk off Lake Michigan and streaked between the skyscrapers. Face the hawk head-on and your eyebrows break loose and fly off the top of your head while your hairdo’s curled-up under your coat collar praying. Turn your back and you’re ice-skating down the sidewalk, your arms cartwheeling, your feet skittering. Escape into the windbreak on the leeside of a building and your ears pop. A lobby door opens and you feel it sucking you in.
So I was to leave my mom’s bedside, stop pestering and go outside. I should be glad we’re not in Chicago and go enjoy the warm sunshine. She didn’t care if, as I claimed, the weatherman was calling for rain. If it starts raining, I can come home if I want. But, barring that, she didn’t want to see me till after the street lights came on.
So I’d usually strike off on my own. At the bottom of our stairs, I’d turn downhill on Avenue 63, cross Garvanza Park and head for the Taco Stand on Figueroa Boulevard. Located next to the railroad tracks leaving the Arroyo Seco trestle and Santa Fe Hill, the Taco Stand faced the original route of old US Highway 66. Once “Fig” reached downtown some five miles downstream, Route 66 turned west onto Sunset Blvd. and followed it to its end atop the sandstone bluffs overlooking the wide sandy beaches of Pacific Palisades Park. As an insider joke, the treasure in the movie It’s a Mad, Mad World was buried atop the bluff “Under dah Big Dub-yah” at the end of the rainbow. . .
I was maybe ten years old when, after I came back from “running away,” my dad finally realized I’d probably never entirely fit in anywhere. I got that impression, anyway, when he told me how when he was a boy my age he too had wanted nothing more than to run away from home and strike out on his own. My dad’s childhood dream had been to buy a canoe, cast off from the east bank of the Chicago River under the Wacker Bridge (Chicago has more drawbridges than any other city in North America) and float downstream to the Illinois River and follow it down to the Mississippi and then drift all the way to New Orleans. (A big fan of Mark Twain, during one of our Chicago trips we left Route 66 at St. Louie and followed the Mississippi north to spend a day and a night sightseeing in Hannibal).
When I asked my dad what he planned on doing once he got to New Orleans, he responded with a belly laugh. “I knew I’d never get down there, son. Least not by canoe. Wishes aren’t horses and beggars get to hitchhike. I had work to do, my weight to pull.”
A big-shouldered young man in a big city chock full of them, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor my dad was feeding furnace in a Crane Steel Co. foundry over in East Chicago (or was a Calumet City?). Now correctly hand-operating a scoop shovel for ten hours meant taking your shirts off and tossing them in buckets of water to grab ahold of and wring-out over your head when need be. Feeding furnace meant drinking at least a gallon of water per shift just to keep your muscles from cramping up. It meant singeing the peach fuzz on your face and chest and getting blood-red suntans and chapped lips.
After you’d punched out and was standing in the company shower, you’d watch the black soot curling down the drain and, when the water turned clear, you counted yourself clean. Step outside the building in a cold snap and your wet hair and damp clothes froze solid. Like glass wind chimes, your pants tinkled as you stepped it out toward shelter. Spit on the sidewalk and your lougie bounces.
So when word passed on the foundry floor that Uncle Sam was calling for volunteers to come help him whip the Japs and the krauts, and how ole Unk was offering three hots and a cot, electricity and indoor plumbing (instant hot water!), healthcare and dentistry plus, once a month, some pocket money to piss away about any way you damned well pleased, pretty quick Crane Steel Co. was suffering through one severe shortage of labor. Crane’s facilities weren’t quite as deserted as the stockyards were, sure, and all of Chicago’s factories, warehouses, docks and railroad yards were easy pickings for military recruiters offering a sweet deal like that (back then childhood malnutrition was still fairly common in this country).
My dad spent WW2 stateside training recruits how to fly B-17 and B-24 bombers. He learned how to sit still beside a student pilot acting as commander of the ten man crew, and he knew what it felt like nearly getting killed because of defective parts, bad engineering or some grease monkey’s lazy-assed mistake. Of course he’d also sent a fair number of fine young men to their deaths. But for six years he’d done his duty to his country to the best of his ability and he wasn’t about to say anything about any of them or that.
So what did my dad think of snow? He could take it or leave it. He liked the look of fresh snow and he appreciated the calm it bestowed even on the rat race world. But too many times he’d frozen his ass off in cockpits to want to go and play out in the snow. Then back in Chicago if you jumped on a pile of snow you just might land on a broken liquor bottle or maybe even a corpse. And what did my dad think of ice? He thought it was alarming when it was forming on your wings; dangerous to walk or land on.
But probably the best part of a Chicago winter was the blizzards. My dad and his buddies would walk the two blocks to Grand Ave. and hire on shoveling the snow off the sidewalks. A nickel an hour, the storekeepers paid. Enough money to buy a hotdog every other hour (half of the money my dad made doing odd jobs got tossed into the house kitty). He was so sick of eating oatmeal, bread and soup all the time that he’d pray for the snow to keep falling long enough for him to buy himself two hotdogs at lunchtime and another two come quitting time.
Now I’m sitting here in my office drinking my morning coffee and watching the easygoing snow drifting down outside my window. The snow was late coming this year and I was starting to worry. I’m painfully aware of just how dependent on the winter snowpack we are here along Oregon’s Crooked River. Just the Upper Country has over 40,000 acres under irrigation, and down along the lower river, especially here in and around the ancient lake bottom where the Crooked River and Ochoco Creek come together in Prineville, there’s plenty more irrigated acres.
Problem is that once you’ve come to rely on irrigation it gets so you can’t do without it. So what happens if your water rights are rendered null and void due to a lack of water? What happens if you get to where you have no idea of what the next growing season is going to be like except, year by year, gradually hotter and dryer with more frequent and extreme extremes? What happens when being “the last of a breed” becomes not a righteous boast but a literal truth? Who’s anxious to get an invitation to attend that party?
So I give thanks to the lazy snowflakes getting deposited in our water bank. I give thanks to the surrounding mountains acting as slowly draining sponges. And now there’s a winter storm warning—all secondary highways likely to become impassable, we’re warned—and, feeling a bit excited, I call my sister on the phone. She lives in SoCal at Lake Arrowhead, which lies at 5,200 feet above the ocean you can eyeball from up at Rim Forest. When our boys were growing up we enjoyed plenty of White X-mas’ at Arrowhead. Sledding, tubing, hiking along the lakeshore or hopping granite boulders in Deep Creek—we know that territory well. We even got snowed in up there for three days once and you talk about getting becalmed. Trish, the boys and myself, my sister and her husband, their son and his wife, their two rug rats, six rat dogs and my dad, the Patriarch, beating me and my brother-in-law at money Cribbage between buffet feasts for all that time and without interruption made for one outstanding holiday.
“No snow so far,” my sister says over the phone. “It did rain some last week.” There’d been very little snow last year or the year before. Our love of snow is something we’ve shared since we were kids. Anyway, we both know there’s less snow now than there was back then and we drop the subject.
It’s snowing at the mouth of the Columbia River all the way to Chicago, the Great Lakes and beyond. It’s December as it should be. It makes me want to bundle up, get outside and monster walk. Trisha’s game and out the door we go. “Merry Christmas,” I say. “Merry Christmas,” says she.