Thursday, December 24, 2009

A Liberating Foolishness on a Cold Winter's Day

I’ve never been much for Christmas. For reasons I won’t go into here, my mother’s side of the family didn’t celebrate. They had alternative fests. Much like pork, it was the sort of thing I never quite got a taste for. It isn’t that I dislike the holiday, it just wasn’t important. All Christmas really meant was spending time with friends and/or family, and sometimes, the giving and receiving of gifts. Any religious or traditional significance beyond those acts is more or less superfluous.

This Christmas, however, had a certain uniqueness thanks to the weather. Oklahoma rarely has white Christmases. The snow and ice tends to come more in January, and usually in the form of crippling sheets of ice and sleet rather than in the white, powdery snow children dream of playing in. This December 24th, however, the snow came down hard, laying down more than four inches in an evening, and trapping myself and my friend Russ Trippett inside what was, for another week or so, my house.

Earlier in the evening I’d driven the half-block to his house to see him, and we decided to go back to my house for dinner. I had leftover pizza, and there was fun to be had with good company. Coming back to my home, it had taken a herculean effort to move my car into the inclined driveway. In the end, it was stuck and barring a change in the weather or a concerted act of several physically capable individuals it would remain there indefinitely.

When it came time for Russ to leave, he called his folks to come get him. This was at about 10 in the evening, and we rationalized that the roads would be good enough for them to reach my house and drive back, so long as they didn’t attempt to navigate the inclined driveway that trapped my own car.

After about ten minutes, Russ’s iphone rang.

“I’m stuck.”

I could hear a bit of the conversation from across the room, through the tinny, muffled speaker of Russ’s cell phone. His father had gotten stuck in the snow. We had to mount a rescue.

A lack of typically snowy weather tends to equate a lack of snow-ready clothing. I threw on a long sleeved knit shirt, donned my coat, thick socks, my sneakers, an extra t-shirt wrapped around my neck like a scarf and a pair of work gloves to keep out the cold. I topped it all with my only winter hat; a bright orange toboggan with “hat of shame” knitted into it. A gift from my college days, it was a drunk hat, to be worn by the person in the dorm who was, at that time, the most inebriated.

Thus, Russ and I set out in the cold. The snow had stopped coming down, but the wind still blew. The white snow and the thick clouds reflected the city’s light into an unnatural twilight and our vision was no more obscured than it might be on a cloudy afternoon.

Anyone who has ever been a boy can tell you that there is an exhilaration that comes only from doing amazingly stupid things. In the false-twilight of the winter snow I felt it in my bones. I laughed with each step, relishing the crunch of the snow and the tingle of wet and cold. Yards and streets were blown over with an even coat of snow. One footstep would sink a few inches, another almost a foot. We came up a rough hill, and saw Russ’s father in his car, stuck on 29th street.

Russ’s father was trapped in a six inch drift of snow that made street, curb and yard all into one unbroken plane. The cold and the absurd situation conspired to bring out the best in me. I laughed as, digging with gloved handsm we cleared the snow away from the tires. Braced against the ground and the bumper we shoved the car until it moved backwards, only to find it trapped again. Back and forth we pushed and shoved the vehicle, sliding it slowly down the hill.

Partway through our adventure, Russ’s mother appeared. She had walked from their house with a bag of kitty litter to provide extra traction. Again we pushed, shifted, and pulled. The car rolled slowly downhill.

“Keep going, don’t stop.”

It stopped and was stuck again. More digging, more pushing. I fell down as the car pushed out of my hands and rolled backwards. As the car drove slowly backwards I waved my arms and jumped about as though I were directing planes on an aircraft carrier. The wind snapped my pseudo-scarf into my face, blinding me as I shouted muffled directions. The shirt was hard as cardboard, layered with ice crystals and flecks of snow.

Finally the car was far enough back it could turn around and return home. Russ’s mom handed me the kitty litter to help me move my car and, not knowing what else to do, I took it and started walking home.

As I walked home, I thought of old stories I read in school. Most notably, To Build a Fire. Overcoming an obstacle with raw force and wit brings to life a feeling of power and accomplishment. Awash in the adrenaline high of the physical exertion and the tingle of the now everpresent cold and wet I trudged back home. Our footprints were already gone, reduced to small ruts by the sweeping wind that carved steppes and valleys in miniature in the shadow of electric reindeer lights and argon street lamps.

If this weren’t a city, if I were in the wild I imagined, I wouldn’t have found my trail back to camp. I imagined myself the archetypical hero in one of those old stories. I imagined the mundane, essentially silly set of circumstances, into a romantic adventure, complete with a beautiful girl waiting in some far-off place, wondering if I’d ever get home. ‘If I fall down and succumb to the cold right here’ I thought to myself, ‘would I have time to send a call for help, or perhaps my goodbyes, in a text message?’ I wondered if that would be poetic enough, if it would make a good enough story. If you die doing something stupid you ought to at least leave everyone a good story.

Thankfully, this adventure was a small one, a simulation of a larger man-against-nature struggle. While capable of stirring a form of nostalgia in the ‘racial memory’, it wasn’t capable of threatening my life. I wasn’t going to fall down and die in the snow. I wasn’t going to get lost and seek shelter in a fallen tree or an abandoned suburban. I could see my house from there, my car barely pulled into the driveway. Still, I felt like a man, brave and powerful, as the failing light glanced off the snowflakes that happened to face me.

The whole world sparkled like a snapped piece of white quartz.

In retrospect, if we’d just walked to Russ’s house, the problem would have been solved and the whole affair concluded with hot chocolate. We had done something foolish and soaking wet, encrusted with snow and blind from my glasses fogging up, I felt alive.

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