Helen Chappell - March 2011


Helen Chappell


The other day I was talking to an older gentleman who remarked that as time goes by, events from the past, scenes and things one had thought long forgotten, suddenly pop back into one’s consciousness, as clear as the day they happened.
Marcel Proust made his name writing about this phenomenon, the way a trick of the light or a certain smell or the color of someone’s coat can trigger a rush of memory. Proust’s madeleines, a kind of pastry that could really set off his search for times past, have become a sort of literary shorthand for the triggers that explode recollections into the present.
The big freeze of this winter, where ice formed thick and broad across the rivers, triggered a madeleine for me. It reminded me of a time that might have been twenty or thirty years ago(!) when the winter was so bitterly cold that we were able to walk almost all the way across the Tred Avon River on a solid sheet of ice.
The January temperatures had dropped to sub-zero and stayed there for weeks. It was so cold that you could jack the heat up to 90 and the house, no matter how well insulated and tight, never got above 50. Arctic cold blew down from the north and just lay across the East Coast like a beached tourist. That was when I found out just what chilled to the bone really meant. You could cool your beer in your living room.
My parents were still alive and living in Oxford then, and my mother told me they just stayed in bed under the covers and only got out to eat or use the bathroom. My father, notoriously fire phobic, even lit a cheery blaze in the bedroom fireplace. It barely put a dent in the chill, but comforted them, along with their large screen bedroom TV and their books.
I was younger and made of slightly stronger stuff. Slightly. Which was just as well, as I was living in a half-insulated old farmhouse in Bellevue with an ancient furnace that looked like something out of Lord of the Rings and sucked up expensive fuel oil like a junkie sucks up heroin.
Sure, I was freezing, but I bundled up in my long underwear and covered myself with quilts and tried to keep myself on deadline for some silly potboiler novel or another, even though my fingers were freezing. When I got too cold, I’d hang around the kitchen stove, trying to get some feeling back into my fingers.
Naturally, my pipes froze up. Almost everyone’s pipes froze up in those days. Those old houses were built up on pilings and open all around because of low-land flooding. All it took was a good arctic wind out of the northeast and you had no water. If you were lucky, you didn’t have burst pipes.
Until the great ice storm in the ’90s it was the most interesting weather event I’d ever experienced. At least in the sub-zero freeze, the power stayed on. That ice storm is another story for another time.
There I was with my frozen pipes and no water. So I called a friend of mine who is a handy guy. He was probably getting bored sitting around his house freezing and doing nothing, so he grabbed a couple other friends and they all came over to get the pipes thawed.
Have you ever crawled under an old Eastern Shore house to defrost your pipes? Or indeed, for any reason at all? It’s a whole different world down there. Frozen clay soil full of broken glass and crockery, bits of brick and sharp oyster shells and old bones some dog buried down there fifty years ago and God only knows what else.
It would have been an archaeologist’s dream, if the wind weren’t whipping around under there, stirring up spider webs the size of Hatteras hammocks and all those old snakeskin sheds hanging from the sills. If a blacksnake shed a skin that big, how big was it now?
Do blacksnakes hibernate under your house, curled up in the rafters? What’s that furry, flat pile with the weird smashed-up bones sticking out of it? That is, what did it used to be before it crawled under there and died? Yes, it’s a whole other world under an old Eastern Shore house, and one most people would not choose as a ride in a theme park.
So, you get under there with a blowtorch, a space heater and a blow dryer, and everyone gets to work. First you have to find the place where the pipes froze up. Since they’re wrapped in insulation, this means you have to peel it off and feel around in there. When you find it, you have a fight about how to defrost it.
Some people are firm on the Blowtorch Doctrine. They just get in there and turn on the torch and the hell with it. If it makes the pipe burst, well, too bad. An endless stream of running water, until someone can get in there and weld the crack shut, is a small price to pay for manly mauling.
Some people believe in the space heater. You turn it on and direct it toward the freeze and, eventually, it defrosts. It may take hours, but it’s generally effective, if not overly dramatic. You can, however, set the house on fire if you don’t keep an eye on it. Those old joists are full of posthole beetles and all dried out with age.
The hair dryer is a subtle weapon in the defrosting battle, almost Asian in its stealth and effectiveness. It does take patience, which makes it more of a woman’s weapon than a man’s. You just lie there on a trash bag in the defrosting mud and aim that Con Air right at the problem, as if you were drying a ’70s shag cut. Up and down, up and down until you hear the gurgle of running water again. Slower than a blow torch, faster than a space heater. It’s my weapon of choice.
Once we got the water going, and there is no better sound than water flowing through your pipes again, everyone had a celebratory Canadian Navy Rum, or two or three, and tracked mud into the house.
Fresh from our adventures under the house, we were all layered up, caked in mud and an unknown, possibly radioactive goo, and feeling pretty good, especially after that third round. Having been trapped in our various houses for a couple of days, cabin fever had set in, and no one wanted the party to end.
I don’t know who had the bright idea that we should walk down to the ferry slip and see how thick the ice was. Maybe we thought we were going to check on someone’s boat down there. I honestly don’t remember. In fact, I don’t remember much about the walk down to the water at all, or who tested the ice first. Rum, especially 500 proof rum, gives you a deceptively warm glow.
It looked solid enough. The Sandusky hadn’t come up to break up the channel yet, and as far as you could see, the river was as flat and solid as a field of earth. There were none of the chunks and slabs you usually see in a freeze. There was just a flat grey, opaque surface from shore to shore. The Strand in Oxford looked close enough to reach out and touch.
So, we all walked out on the river. Looking back, I realize this was incredibly stupid, and we were all smart enough to know better. But, between being young, being drunk, having cabin fever and having accomplished The Thawing of the Pipes, we felt immortal.
Walking across a vast expanse of frozen water is an incredible experience. Being out on the ice is so different from being in a boat. You’re literally standing on the water, which goes against everything you’ve learned about physics and nature.
Skating would have been fun, but this was different. The world was white and dead cold, made more intense by a steady north-northeast that came equipped with teeth that bit through all your layers of clothes.
My feet were numb, but I didn’t care. I could have walked to Sharp’s Island Light if they’d let me. It was magic, the magic of the unexpected and the temporal. Literally a frozen moment in time that would happen once and never again. This place, this time, these friends on this ice, laughing and happy.
Caught in the ice, you could see leaves and bits of detritus. Feathers from sea ducks, someone’s watch cap.
Then there was a crack, like a rifle shot, and a thin line shot across the ice. We didn’t have to be told twice. We already knew we were in forbidden territory. We slowly shuffled across the slip toward land and home.
That evening, the Sandusky chugged up the river and opened the channel. The wind shifted and the ice began to break up. Then the thaw came, and the spell was broken. The house was warm again and I had lots of water. But from time to time, I still think about what it was like to be all the way out in the middle of the river on solid ice – magic.