Layers

Layers
Image Source: The Edmontonian

I love winter, and I embrace it. I can’t afford to go skiing anymore, but even so I love all the outdoor fun that comes from a good, deep blanket of New England snow and sharp cold: tobogganing, ice fishing, pond hockey, you name it. As a Maine man, I also love the romance of winter and the pride of merely surviving day-to-day in extreme conditions.

From November on, I love the absence of light. The sun leaves the sky by 4:00 PM and to me there is nothing cozier than returning home and settling into the night immediately. The back roads are covered in a fog of wood smoke, the most intoxicating smell in the world. These are the days of stews and pies and baked bean suppers, and finding comfort wherever we can. When the snow flies, we Mainers fly into action, and shoveling and plowing snow and sawing and stacking wood become activities ingrained into motor memory. It takes a special character to survive and thrive in a Maine winter, and we pride ourselves on having this fortitude of spirit and intestine.

One of the most critical aspects of surviving a Maine winter is dressing for the occasion, and that means layering. From November through April, my standard wardrobe is t-shirt and a sweater, or t-shirt and a flannel, and often I go t-shirt, long-sleeve Henley and flannel. And frequently I throw on a pair of Long Johns for extra warmth below the equator.

Layering is a time-honored Maine winter tradition. Ironically, I learned the lesson in Florida on a day of national tragedy.

January 28, 1986: I was in seventh grade at Hendricks Methodist in Jacksonville. I was not Methodist, nor anything else: my family went to church as often as we flew first class, which is to say never. I had run into some major bullying issues in public school during my first three years in Jax (as we saw in the five-part series that started here), so my parents thought private school might be a good fit. Good idea, not so great results. But I digress.

Eight days earlier, my science class, led by Ms. Harm, had taken a field trip to Kennedy Space Center in anticipation of the launch of the Space Shuttle Challenger and the First Teacher in Space, New Hampshire’s own Christa McAuliffe. It was a brilliant, chilly day, and I had Led Zeppelin IV for my Walkman. We devoured all the exhibits and went crazy in the gift shop, and as we were herded back to the bus, there it was. The great ship was on the giant transport tractor, making the slow journey to the launch pad. Challenger and her booster rockets practically glowed against the brown/orange of the fuel tank. It was a magnificent site, and we all felt a sense of pride in the upcoming mission.

Eight days later, as the Challenger launched on her doomed flight, one of my “chums” spilled a full carton of chocolate milk all over my lap. The humiliation of my entire table laughing at me as my crotch and legs were doused was bad enough, but there was also a practical problem: my jeans were soaked and it was literally freezing out. What the hell was I going to do to stay warm?

I must have thought of my days tobogganing at the farm and my trusty Long Johns, because I went to my locker, grabbed my gym sweats and put them on, then pulled my jeans back on. I reeked like stale chocolate milk and humiliation. But I was warm.

The layout of Hendricks was definitely unconventional. There were rows of classroom buildings, almost like cabanas or military barracks, with outdoor paths in between wending through palm trees and evergreens with Spanish moss. I remember sitting in Ms. Harm’s science class, warm with my sweats on under my jeans, when she said, “The Challenger has exploded, and there were no survivors.” My class gasped and cried, and we all went outside. And 160 miles to the south, we saw the smoke in the sky: the Y-shaped cloud of death with the huge ball of fire in the middle where the shuttle blew up and the rockets separated. I stood there in the cold, stinking like sour chocolate milk, but layered in warmth, gazing at the smoke in the sky and realizing that the world had just changed inalterably forever.

Later at home I watched President Reagan’s “Touch the Face of God” speech in a fresh pair of pants. I remember the sky outside the Oval Office and how much it reminded me of winter sunsets in Maine (as we’ve seen here, this was a common occurrence for me back then). In spite of the horrors of the day, I remember dreaming of being back at the farm, back home in Maine. I dreamed of those 4:00 PM sunsets and cozy early evenings and wood smoke and sitting by the wood stove, safe and warm, and playing in the snow in the glorious winter cold.

And I remember thinking that when we moved back home, whenever that was, I would spend the rest of my winters layered and happy.

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2 comments
  1. I don’t think I’ve gone a day this winter without my long johns on! You paint the New England winter oh so well.

    • Ah, my brethren winter warrior!

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