Anxiously lurching up the icy driveway after a month away, our first impression was that losing almost 100 degrees in transition was not only palpable but might take some serious adjustment. And even though we’d regularly monitored the frigid Vermont November while traveling, the house itself looked foreboding, smothered under a couple of feet of sagging snow, courtesy of the melt-freeze cycle, a lot more Salvador Dali than Currier and Ives. I generally like winter, but it’s never been dropped on me like a piano before ... and this was only the beginning.
A friend had turned up the thermostat earlier in the day but entering the house felt like walking into a beer cooler even though we could hear the furnace grudgingly humming along. Figuring it hadn’t been going all that long, I went downstairs to split some kindling for the wood stove. As I walked past the one vent focused on heating the basement, I realized it was functioning as an industrial strength air conditioner, blowing ice-cold air throughout the house.
The next morning, a reputable local plumber delivered the obituary: our 9-year-old furnace essentially slept with the fishes. Later in the day, as we discussed options, the situation became even more complicated when our phone, internet and consequently, our cellphones, withered on the vine, leaving us pretty much cut off, incommunicado, isolated. The 5 miles of frozen dirt between us and the nearest paved road began to feel like 100. So deep was my own self pity that I began thinking of myself a latter day Doctor Zhivago.
Though our predicament felt unprecedented, exacerbated I’m sure by a portion of our brains still calibrated to the opposite side of the globe, it also felt vaguely familiar, like a dream hovering just out of consciousness. As my focus sharpened, I pondered the impending holidays, gently plopping me back in December 1983. Winter Solstice in a galaxy far, far away.
Somehow, without having any money, we’d managed to scrape together the down payment to buy a house in the country, an ignorant flatlander dream come true: mostly fantasy until reality came knocking at the door — or more precisely, blowing through the walls. I approached every aspect of home ownership with an ineptitude so staggering that our survival that first winter was nothing short of miraculous. I bought log-length wood without owning a chainsaw and after borrowing one, swore I never would.
We fed dampened wood into what appeared to be a homemade stove that glowed orange when it was sufficiently cranking enough to warm some of the living area, its flickering flame reflecting off the copper sheeting along the wall through a 6-inch crack. Although we never discussed it until years later, we both at some point that first month realized the rough hewn interior we’d found so rustic and attractive was also so dry and crispy that one errant spark would most likely level the place before the fire department could locate the driveway in those pre-GPS days.
A series of cold fronts, each delivering billowing snow squalls and an unrelenting sequence of steadily dropping temperatures, culminated in the most frigid holiday season we’ve ever experienced, with the high temperature that first Christmas in double digits below zero with a penetrating wind that I learned would quickly freeze your beer if you were stupid enough to venture out. With alcohol consumption, brains are not a readily available commodity, so the night before, with the wind chill in brass monkey territory, I found myself circling the exterior of the house in nothing but a pair of Frye boots, the price of losing a bet with my wife that I was certain I’d win.
It was the last holiday I consumed anything more potent than pomegranate juice but before that particular curtain came down, I decided on a well-oiled, reading aloud of several lengthy excerpts from George Orwell’s “1984,” since it was only a few days away, and it was a decent gambit to frighten our company with a few highly unlikely scenarios. Termed “an excess of satire” when published in 1949, the book introduced two-way telescreens as implements of surveillance, as well as the notion that “big brother” was watching you.
Orwell’s world was involved in non-stop warfare, (War is Peace) supported unconditionally by “Proles,” mindless workers who are simply happy to be fed. The Ministry of Truth advocated a language called “Newspeak” designed — according to the author — “To diminish the range of thought.” Of course, the irony is that everything produced by the Ministry of Truth is a lie. Our guests were insufficiently terrified largely because most of what I read was so far out, no one took it very seriously ... I wonder what Alexa thinks about that.
As I wait for the new furnace to arrive, I realize 1983 marked the last of my wild holiday celebrations. A couple of years later, we were fast into adulthood, raising a family and creating our own solstice rituals. Instead of reading anything scary, I gravitated to reading Dylan Thomas “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” to the kids while they were growing up. I still do.
I don’t recall whether it “snowed six days and six nights when I was 12 or 12 days and 12 nights when I was 6” ... but the first December we spent in this house 35 years ago? That I remember pretty well.
Walt Amses lives in North Calais.