New Year’s Eve on the farm was a time for sledding on the ice-covered roads or tobogganing down the long hillsides in the pasture under the stars, crunchy skiing under a full moon and then hot cocoa just before midnight when all of the kids would gather back at the farmhouse to be together with the larger family as the clock slipped past midnight.
Twenty miles to the east at the State Line where North Dakota begins, it has already been the new year for an hour when we quietly catch up and begin the march through the new weeks and months that would be given us. By New Year’s Eve, we would have been in the grip of snow storms and zero/subzero temperatures for six weeks already, with three months to go in those high northern latitudes. But winter wasn’t so bad . Really. It wasn’t.
We weren’t frustrated by winter because we didn’t try to evade it. Our normal winters featured unheated second floor bedrooms (sometimes with light snow cover on the blankets in the morning); frozen rabbit turd collections in the wheelbarrow, shotguns in the moonlight and kittens in the barn.
We kids occupied the unheated second floor bedrooms with an occasional light covering of snow on our blankets in the morning. True story.
The big farm house had more than 20 windows, and each of them had its own heavy storm window which was installed each fall and removed each spring. We certainly had proper protection against winter storms and sub-zero temperatures; however, if a blizzard with 40-50 mph winds spent 7-8 hours working the house over through the night~~that sifty, fine snow surely did work its way through the unsealed corners of old windows and the storm windows that covered them. In the morning, there might be a very thin sand-like trail of frozen snow across the up-to-thirteen blankets that covered us.
My Dad would bank the fire in the coal furnace in the evening and heat production was pretty well shut down overnight. The main floor would stay halfway comfortable so that when the furnace was fired up in the morning, the downstairs would be warm in 30 minutes or so just because it had been heated all day the day before. Now it made absolutely no sense to spend the energy and coal to heat the three upstairs bedrooms and hallway all day just to preserve the possibility for heating at night and quicker reheating in the morning, so–the upstairs bedrooms were unheated during winter (unless we had Sunday company).
When our mother was in her 70’s. we learned that she was not happy with our laughter about “snow on the blankets on winter mornings” and she denied vociferously that any such thing had ever happened but of course, she was in the bedroom on the main floor and wouldn’t have known about it. Her indignation did let us know that she probably had wished the upstairs would have been heated better, so we teased her only briefly and gently about that. We really didn’t mind, and were always warm at night.
Frozen rabbit turd collections in wheelbarrows: When it’s below zero (F), has been for a week and we wanted to play outside in the dead of winter (or perhaps we got sent outside to play) and everything was frozen solid, the one truly entertaining thing we actually had plenty of was frozen rabbit pellets. They lay everywhere in the tree line that had been carefully planted in the 1940s to provide shelter from the Montana winds, and they were plainly visible on top of the crusty snow. We gather at least a couple hundred pellets in the wheelbarrow. Why? Well, the wheelbarrow is for transportation and inventory control. and the FRTs are going to be used to create a checkerboard outline on the snow . The rocks that we pry off the frozen ground will serve as the checkers. “Kinging” our opponent was a little tricky with the thick pairs of mittens we wore, so instead of “doubling up” to “king” we would just substitute a bigger rock to indicate king status.
Or we might draw pictures on the snow with the Frozen Rabbit Turds serving as pen and ink. Or play Tick-Tack-Toe. The possibilities were endless and the FRTs are very sterile. FRTs are highly entertaining. Found Art In The Raw is what FRTs are.
Shotguns in the moonlight: The crunch of snow is underfoot. I have the .22 and my brother has the .410. We hunt rabbits in the bright, bright moonlight late at night across hundreds of acres of frozen prairie. Brilliant silhouettes of trees and buildings can be clearly seen. The stars are amazing. We hunted rabbits for the sheer joy of crunching through the snow in the moonlight looking at the stars. We didn’t hunt rabbits in order to actually shoot them, and since we never did shoot a rabbit in the moonlight that worked out very nicely.
Kittens in the barn: My neighboring cousin and I had a running contest, the results of which were dependant on the mating habits of our cats. The contest was driven by the country conviction that Any Cat Herd Numbering Less Than 20 Head didn’t count for much. (A Three-Dog-Night can be handled by 15 cats just as well.)
When it’s bitter cold on January night, I bundle up after supper and head down to the barn. I make myself a spot in the hay and gather cats. I’ll sit there hunched over the pile of cats in my lap for a long time, just scrunching their fur and talking to them. I don’t feel bad for them at all when I leave to go back to the warm house because they will just wrap themselves in one another’s paws and be very cozy.
The big barn door lurches a bit when I go to close it. It’s frost-stuck to its rails so it needs to be yanked. Then I turn my attention to the sky that’s always flooded with stars out here on the dark prairie consciously enjoying the fact that since it’s so cold, I don’t have to worry about spiders lurking on the big light switch that I push to “off” as the door rolls shut and the 4″ hook gets dropped into place.
But then I can never resist running like crazy for the house because of random and sudden fear. I’m never totally sure whether or not there is something out there in the night, something from which I should flee. Is that small pack of coyotes watching me, sloping down off the pasture hills and watching me? I never see them–but it seems they just could be close by, just beyond the circle of light.
The fear evaporates as my foot pounds on to the frozen sidewalk at the back door and I hustle safely into the house where the sudden warmth is almost painful to my face. I struggle to get the overshoes off first, then multiple pairs of jeans, and finally the layers of shirts and sweaters which are hung up on great hooks that line the stairwell leading up to the kitchen
Now the sensible thing is to get up to bed in the unheated bedroom on the second floor, get under the pile of blankets and wait for enough of my body heat to be shared with them that finally both the blankets and I are cozy and warm. Mom is reading a magazine at the dining room table, as usual, as I fly by with a “G’night!” and then through the living room where my Dad sits in his big rocking chair, reading a history book or his King James Bible. He laughs as I fly through the double doors leading to the long stairway to the bedrooms, and says, “Sleep tight, don’t let the bedbugs bite!”
Drifting off to sleep, maybe I’ll dream about piles of cats that are mine. All mine.
Life is good.