At a gas station in northern California, a man driving a black van pulled up alongside me and told me he really liked the Scamp Trailer I was pulling. I thanked him for his compliment and we chatted a bit about the camper. He changed the subject. “I noticed you have a big dent in the side of your car. Are you going to get that fixed?” He asked. “Yes, someday I will. For now, I’m leaving it there to remind myself of what happens when one does stupid things.” We shared a laugh about that.
“I have a shop where we do no-paint, dent removal, on cars. I can take that dent out of your car without disturbing the paint.” He said, adding, “It will look perfect, you’ll never know it was ever damaged.” “I’m familiar with such services,” I replied, “it won’t work on my car because there’s a crease in the dent and the paint is already damaged.” The man went on to say, we have new techniques for pulling the dent out, and special products that work with heat to blend right over the chips in the paint. Can I give you a free estimate?” “If you want to,” I said, then explained, “but you’d be wasting your time because I’m not from around here.”
The man got out of his van, looked closer at the dent and said, “I can remove the dent for $200 and I guarantee it will be perfectly smooth.” He said. I explained, “I’m leaving town right after I fill my tank.” He was persistent, and introduced himself as if to build trust. “My name is Geraldo. I have a shop where I fix cars. I also do mobile repairs for people at their home or work. I have my mobile tools with me. I can do the job right here and be done in twenty minutes.” “Naw,” I said, “I don’t want to spend the $200.” “How about $150?” He offered. “No thanks.” I said, he countered, “$100 and your fender will be fixed.” “I’m really not interested, but I appreciate your offer.” I said, but he wasn’t ready to give up yet. “$50?” He asked. “No.” I replied.
“Okay, you look like an honest man,” he said, “here’s my best deal.” Geraldo said. “Let me take the dent out of your fender. If the dent isn’t completely gone, you don’t pay me anything, but if it’s gone, like I promised, you pay me fifty bucks.” He saw the skeptical look on my face, “I am Geraldo. I told you I guarantee my work. If you’re not completely happy with my work, it won’t cost you anything.” I must admit he had my interest.
I repeated his offer. “Let me get this straight. You’re going to take the dent out of the car, making the chipped paint blend in perfectly. The fender will look like new, and if I’m not completely happy, I don’t have to pay you anything?” He looked at me and said with confidence, “That’s right, and it will take twenty minutes or less or the job is free.”
I didn’t want to be a sucker, but I rubbed my chin thinking, I’ve certainly wasted fifty bucks on more foolish things. What could go wrong? He couldn’t make it any worse. The fender needed to be replaced anyway. “What have I got to lose?” I said, he replied, “Nothing but the dent.” I said, “Okay, go for it, but if it’s not perfectly smooth, I’m not paying you anything, right?” That’s right.” He said, then hollered in Spanish to a man in the van. “Papa…”
His dad came out with a tool I have seen before. It has a big suction cup on one end and a stop on the other; there’s a long shaft with sliding weight in the middle. He attached the suction cup to my car, then pulled the weight back very fast several times, slamming it against the end stop. It worked like a hammer in reverse. He released the suction cup, positioning it differently and started pulling the weight again. He did this several times but the dent wasn’t coming out as he planned. Because the two men spoke Spanish, I had no idea what they were saying, but could tell from their tones of voice and body language, they were having trouble. The dent wasn’t coming out. A bent support on the inside of the fender was making their job more difficult.
Geraldo got a come-along from inside the van. He attached one end to the support on my car and the other end to the bumper on his van. He began cranking the tool. Papa was yelling at him to stop as the hook was pulling the vinyl bumper loose from his van. He removed the hook from the bumper and attached it to his trailer hitch. “Okay.” Papa said, giving Geraldo a thumbs up to continue. The part he was pulling on my car was plastic and I knew it wasn’t going to come straight – I think he knew it too.
Geraldo removed the hook from my car and asked, “What do you think? Are you happy with it?” “Seriously?” I asked, “It looks worse now than before you touched it.” “Well I’m not done yet.” He justified, “Remember I told you we have new finishing products that work with heat? I still have to apply the finish.” The two men started talking in Spanish again, as if they were trying to figure out what to do from here. Geraldo pointed to a big gap between the fender and the vinyl bumper. He was rubbing his hand over the crude attempt to remove the dent, while instructing his dad to get something from inside the van.
Papa returned with a bottle of drinking water that was half gone. He quickly splashed some on my car, then rubbed his hand around to remove the dirt and grime that comes from the road during winter driving. He gave it another quick splash – a rinse cycle, if you will. Geraldo then started applying a product I recognized, while telling me, “This is going to finish the job. This special product will make the fender perfectly smooth – like it was brand new.” His dad dipped his fingers into the container, then helped by smearing the product over my fender with his hand. He was trying to fill the big gap with the green goop.
“Turtle Wax?” I asked, laughing. “Turtle Wax is your special product?” Geraldo said, “This isn’t regular Turtle Wax,” He quickly showed me the can, “It’s Turtle Wax with yeast. Do you know what yeast does?” “Yes, I do.” I answered, “I do a lot of baking.” “Good.” Said Geraldo, “Then you know yeast makes things rise when it gets hot.” I asked him if I could see the can and he handed it to me. I looked at the container, pointing out, “The label doesn’t say it has yeast in it.” He justified, “That’s because the company doesn’t want anyone to know the secret ingredient that makes this product work so well. To avoid addressing the look of disbelief on my face, Geraldo quickly instructed me, “Don’t wash the special wax off your car: leave it on as long as you can. Tomorrow, when the sun shines on the side of your car, it will heat the yeast and raise the rest of the dents from your fender.”
Still laughing, I said, “Yeast has to have sugar to activate it.” Trying to convince me the magic product would work, Geraldo assured me, “Turtle Wax does have sugar in it. That’s what makes it smell so good.” I asked him, “Do you know what snake oil is?” He said he did not.
I explained, “In the old days of the wild west, a snake oil salesman would come into town in a horse drawn, wagon. It was usually painted up pretty fancy. He would set up a stage to draw a crowd. When the people gathered, he began his sales pitch. He told the people his magic elixir would cure everything from hair loss, to gout. He promised it would cure arthritis and remove liver spots. He’d tell them, ‘My special potion will even heal you from rabies, and rattlesnake bites. It will cure measles, the mumps, yellow fever, the plague and the common cold.’ He told them it would even chase demons out of a loved one who was possessed by the devil himself.”
Geraldo was listening patiently. I continued, “The salesman would guarantee his potion to work in thirty days or less, or he would gladly refund their money.” Geraldo asked, “Did his product work?” ‘No.” I answered, “Their products came to be known as snake oil, and they didn’t do anything.” Seeming concerned for the people, he asked me, “Did he refund their money?” “No.” I answered, the salesman always left town by the twentieth day.”
Geraldo thought about my story and asked, “You’re not happy with the work, are you?” I looked at him and said, “There’s no such thing as Turtle Wax with yeast.” He was still attempting to keep a straight face, when I said, “You should have added some baking powder, too.” That was too much. Geraldo started laughing with me and admitted, “I bake, too. I know about baking powder.” While Geraldo and I were laughing together, his dad seemed to be getting upset. He was asking his son something in Spanish. His demanding tone indicated he was not happy with me.
Geraldo was trying to get his dad to settle down. He placed his hand on his dad’s chest and gently guided him toward the van. I’m not sure what he was saying, but I clearly heard him say “policia,” three different times. I know what that means and was pretty sure he was telling his dad something like, “He’s on to our scam. Let’s just go before he calls the police.” His dad said something to me in Spanish as he walked back to the van. I didn’t understand him, but I’m sure it wasn’t anything good.
Geraldo grinned. With embarrassment and hope in his smile, he ,asked, “You’re not going to pay me, are you?” I smiled, “I’m not going to give you fifty dollars, but I will give you twenty for providing me with some great entertainment tonight.” Seeming ashamed, he asked, “Are you sure you want to pay me anything?” “I’m sure.” I answered as I extended my hand with a twenty-dollar bill toward him. He took the money saying, “Gracias.” I knew what that meant and could tell he was sincere. I gave him a warm smile and said, “You’re welcome.”
As Geraldo was walking to his van, he stopped, turned toward me and said, “I’m sorry if we messed up your fender.” “Don’t worry about it,” I said, “you didn’t hurt anything. It has to be replaced anyway. Besides, it gave us both a good laugh.” He waved goodbye and climbed into his van. I looked at the fender on my car, covered in green gunk, shook my head and laughed. “Turtle Wax with Yeast - snake oil”
It had been a long and very full trip and it was a long way from over. I drove my pickup back east to retrieve my car. I left it stranded when the engine went kapooie last December, in the small town of Moosic, Pennsylvania. I found a mechanic who would change out the motor for me, and I could pick the car up at a later date.
While I was in PA, to get my car, I was able to have dinner and spend a night with my daughter, Delaney and her husband Jared. The next day I drove two hours farther north, to Moosic, loaded my car onto a rented trailer and started for home. I stopped along the way to visit my aunt Sally and uncle John, in Lewisburg. We had a nice conversation while I baked a cherry pie for them. When the pie was out of the oven, they treated me to dinner at a Thai restaurant downtown. Afterwards, Sally offered me a bed to spend the night, but I insisted I needed to put some miles behind me before the night was done. I wanted to drive as far as Ohio before stopping for the night and that was still 200 miles away.
I was pulling a steep hill in the mountains of western Pennsylvania, when it suddenly felt like the trailer was swaying really hard. I let off the accelerator and looked in the review mirror. The trailer was steady, but the weird feeling was still there. It occurred to me, I had blown out a tire on the truck! Great! I turned on my flashers, then pulled over, stopping on the shoulder, to get out and assess the damages. The tire was shredded.
It was after 10:00 p.m., very dark, cold and windy. I haven’t changed a tire on this truck, and truthfully, never even looked for the jack and tools. To make matters worse, I was on a hill, with a heavy trailer behind the truck. For the jack to lift the truck, I would probably have to remove the trailer. I started weighing my options. I could try to change the tire myself, or call AAA for roadside assistance. A tow truck would have the proper tools, including wheel chocks to keep the trailer from rolling down the hill. Calling for help would be the smart thing to do.
I pulled out my AAA membership card, picked up my cell phone and…no signal. Are you kidding me? I started laughing. When a state trooper pulls us over for speeding, we ask why they aren’t out chasing robbers? When we have a problem on the road, we wonder if they are out chasing robbers when they should be here on the highway to help. “I sure would be happy to see a trooper right now.” I said to my dog, June.
When I called AAA, I was on hold for about fifteen minutes. There were a lot of weather-related calls that night, and I would just have to wait my turn. When the operator came on, they gathered my information, then put me on hold again while they made calls to find out which tow service was available.
I heard the operator come back on the line. “Mr. Palen? Mr. Paaaalen? Are you there Mr. Palen” I snapped to, “Yes, I’m here.” I was embarrassed. I actually fell asleep while I was on hold. How did he know I was still on the line? Was I snoring? OMGosh! He told me a service ticket had been entered and I would be getting text messages to keep me apprised of the progress. A few minutes later I got a text saying the service ticket was opened. Then another saying, “Help is on the way.” A third text read, “McCandless Towing will arrive at 11:06 p.m.” When I saw amber lights flashing in my rearview mirror, I looked at the clock. It was indeed 11:06.
The driver looked over the situation, “I’m going to need your jack handle to lower the spare tire.” He said. I admitted I didn’t know where it was. “It’s under your back seat.” He said with confidence. I got the handle for him, then watched as he worked in his green fluorescent vest. I asked if he needed any help, he said, “Nope. This is what I get paid to do.”
Most cars going by moved over to the left lane, but several others did not. They didn’t even slow down, and one car blasted their horn as they went flying by. “What a jerk!” I said, “They’re supposed to move to the other lane.” The tow driver chuckled, “It happens all the time.” He said, and kept working. I started thinking about the different situations tow truck drivers find themselves in. Some are dangerous; some are the result of stupidity.
I recalled a time many, many years ago, when my brother Richard called me and asked, “What do I have to do if I hit a deer?” I answered with a question. “How bad did you mess up your truck?” He replied, “I didn’t say I hit a deer with my truck.” I questioned, “How bad did you mess up your van?” “I don’t think it did any damage to the van,” he said, “but the deer didn’t fair so well.” “Is it still alive?” I asked, he replied, “Yes, but her leg is badly broken and she’s bleeding.”
I told him that he needed to call the county sheriff’s department. They would send a deputy out to put the animal down and give him a deer tag, if he wanted to keep it. He explained, a deputy came out, but the deer had made its way up over the hill and was sitting in the tall grass along the fence line of a bean field. Richard went on, “I told him it was just over the top of the hill on the other side of the ditch, but he said he wasn’t going to walk up there to chase a deer.” Richard went on to tell me, “The deer needs to be put down so she isn’t suffering. I would go back out there but I don’t think my van will climb the drive into the field…but a four-wheel drive like yours would.” He suggested. I agreed to go help Richard find the deer.
By the time we got to the place where he hit the deer, it was getting dark fast. We drove up into the field and along the fence line where he said the deer was laying but we never found the deer. “Are you sure it was here?” I asked. Richard said, “I know it was here. I came up and saw it.” “And you’re sure it was a deer you saw and not a clump of dirt?” Richard rolled his eyes, “It was the deer.” He insisted.
It was now dark. The bean field had been cut, so if we drove around the field for a bit, maybe we would find the deer. We went back and forth making passes about twenty feet apart. Finally, in a grassy draw, a deer stood up in front of us. “Is that your deer?” I asked. “I don’t know.” Richard answered, “They all look alike.” The deer took off running with her hind leg flopping. I took off chasing her in the truck. She was running toward a wooded area. I thought we should stop her and put her out of her misery. I passed the animal and quickly turned the truck in front of her. She fell down, and I jumped out with my shot gun.” Just as I approached her, she got up and ran again. I jumped in the truck, and resumed my pursuit but the truck was acting funny.
Richard told me, “You have a flat tire.” “What?” I said in disbelief. He explained, “When you made that high-speed turn, your front right tire came off the rim.” Flat tire or not, I did what I had to do, I locked in the four-wheel drive and continued the chase. “This is great,” I said, “A three-wheeled truck chasing a three-legged deer, after dark, in a field we shouldn’t be in. We’re going to jail for sure.” I was trying to head the deer off before she got any nearer to the woods. She really needed to be put down, but she beat me to the tree line.
At the edge of the woods, I stopped the truck, grabbed my shotgun and walked in on the path she took. We were able to get the deer, and put her down. It was the humane thing to do. Not wanting it to go to waste, we put the deer in the back of the truck. We knew a family that could use the meat. I would call later for a tag. Right now, we had to deal with the truck and the flat tire. I got the jack out, positioning it under the truck on a small board to keep the jack from sinking into the ground.
Richard started lifting the truck while I went to get the spare tire. Once he had lifted it high enough, I removed the flat tire. “You have to lift it a couple more inches for the good tire to go on.” I told him. “It’s up as high as it will go.” He insisted. “It can’t be.” I said, giving a look under the truck. “Crap! “The jack is sinking!” I said and hurried to get the bad tire back on the hub. Just as I was about to put the wheel back on, the truck fell off the jack to the ground. “This is not good.” I said. “There’s no way we were going to get out of this mess without a wrecker.”
The cell phone signal was week, but enough to make a call. “Deran, it’s Tom Palen. Are you busy?” He laughed, “What did you get yourself into this time?” “I’d rather not tell you on the phone, but I’m about a half mile off the road in a bean field.” I said. “Are the beans cut?” He asked, “Because I’m not driving into an uncut field.” He didn’t want to damage the crop if the beans were not harvested.” “The field is cut.” I assured him, adding “You better bring your four-wheel drive rig.” I gave him directions to where we would be. “I’ll be there is 25 or 30 minutes.” Deran said. I told Richard, “We need to walk to the highway to meet him.”
Richard and I started walking in the pitch-black night. The light flurries of snow had now turned into a steady snow and it was getting colder. It was a night where one could easily become disoriented and get lost. The temperature continued to drop while the wind was picking up. To make matters worse, neither of us were properly dressed for such weather.
Richard had on khaki pants, a dress shirt and a waist length brown leather jacket. I was wearing a wool suit and tie, and a long trench coat. I did have a hat that had ear flaps and a pair of thin dress gloves.
We walked side by side for a while, trudging across the field. Crossing a grass covered draw, both of us nearly jumped out of our skin when it seemed we disturbed a vicious animal! It was just a pheasant we flushed up between us. We were close enough to hear the whistle of her wings cutting the air as she lifted off and flew away. It sure scared the daylights out of us. Daylight. What a wonderful thought. It seemed to be getting darker as the snow came down heavier. Our saving grace was a streetlight on the road ahead that glowed in the night like a beacon, showing us the direction to go.
The wind continued to blow harder and we were getting colder. I told Richard to walk directly in from of me, so that I could block the wind from him. I put my gloved hands up over his ears to try to keep him warmer. “Okay, that’s just too weird.” He said, so I gave him the gloves and put my hands in my pockets. He could hold his own ears if he wanted to keep them warm.
The longer we walked, the farther we seemed to be from the road. Crossing another grass draw, we both stepped in a large puddle of water. The puddle was deep enough to fill our dress shoes with cold, muddy water.
Cold and now wet, we continued on. “Do you think Deran has already driven by?” Richard asked, “Could we have missed him?” “No, we would have seen his headlights go by.” I assured him. Just then we could see headlights in the far distance on the highway to the south. That was a good sign. It meant we were getting closer to the road. Thinking it might be Deran, we ran the rest of the way to the pavement, coming out the same entrance to the field, from which we entered. We started walking down the shoulder, headed south toward the lights.
The headlights got closer and finally a car drove by. They never even slowed down. Richard said, “You know, if I was driving down a remote country road after dark, and saw two guys in dress clothes walking in a blizzard, I would stop to see if they needed help.” “Yep. Me too.” I said.
We continued walking south, keeping an eye out for Deran. The road was quite a bit higher than the fields on either side. The wind seemed to be getting stronger, blowing the snow almost horizontally. We decided to go down the bank of the ditch where we would be sheltered from the wind. Exhausted, we laid down in the cold grass. Despite the nasty weather and being cold, there was a calmness in the night. We rested there and talked about irrelevant things just to break the silence and pass the time.
“I think I hear a car coming.” Richard said. He jumped up to check. Seeing it was another passenger car, he came back to the sheltered bank. “Did you give Deran good directions?” Richard asked. “Yes,” I said, assuring, “He’ll be here soon.”
We heard another vehicle coming. It was my turn to look. I ran up to the road. “It’s Deran.” I called out to Richard with relief. “How do you know?” He questioned. “I can see the amber marker lights on top of his cab.” Richard jumped up and joined me on the shoulder, standing beside me.
The deep treaded snow tires on his duals made a high-pitched whine on the pavement. We both waved our arms in the air as the vehicle approached. The whine deepened in tone as the vehicle slowed down. The truck pulled onto the shoulder, driving right up to us. The passenger window was lowering. Inside, Deran grinned, “You boys looking for a ride?” He asked. I climbed into the warm cab, Richard followed. Both of us began rubbing our hands in the warm air coming from the dash vents. Richard said, “Don’t get the wrong idea, Deran, but you look more beautiful right now than I’ve ever seen you look before.” We all laughed, “Yeah, well just stay on your side of the truck.” Deran replied.
I pointed to the driveway that led into the field. “Up that way.” I said to Deran. He stopped at the end of the drive and pulled the lever to lock his transmission into four-wheel drive. “Do you want to know what we’re doing way out here?” I asked Deran. “Nope.” He replied. “Why not?” I questioned. “Because if I get subpoenaed to testify against you in court, I can honestly say, ‘I don’t know what those two fools were doing out there in a snowstorm.’” We all shared a good laugh over that.
I had been worried that my truck might have to sit out in the field until spring, but Deran made quick work of it, lifting the front end. I grabbed the good tire, but he took it away from me saying, “I’m getting paid to do this. You stand back.” “You’re going to charge me for this?” I asked in jest. “I thought we were friends.” Deran laughed. “Everyone thinks I’m their best friend when they’re stuck a half mile off the pavement, in a field where they shouldn’t be, during a snow storm.” We all laughed about that.
Deran picked up the bad rim and tire. “You’ll probably want to have this looked at before you try to use it again.” He said, laughing as he put the wheel in the bed of the truck next to the deer. “Tisk, tisk.” He said shaking his head. “It’s not what you think.” I said. “I don’t want to know.” Daren said.
“What do I owe you?” I asked. Deran said, “Oh, just give me twenty bucks.” He said, and I did. “Now get in your truck and get outta here. I’ll follow you to the road in case you guys manage to get stuck again.” I often think of that night, and many other times when Daren pulled me out of messes, I’d gotten myself into.
Back on the interstate in Pennsylvania, the tow truck driver had my good tire mounted. He lowered my truck to the ground and took his jack back to his tool box. He came back up and put the bad wheel into the bed of my truck. “Do I need to pay you or sign anything?” I asked him. “Nope.” He replied, “AAA took care of it already.
As he was getting ready to leave, I said “Thank you, Deran.” “How did you know my name?” He asked, looking puzzled. I was surprised myself and said, “I’m sorry, I was thinking about a friend of mine that runs a towing business in Iowa. Is your name Deran, too?” “Oh, no.” He replied, laughing, “I thought you said Derek. My name is Derek.” We shared a good laugh about that.
Derek’s phone rang. When he answered it. I could hear the person on the other end asking, “How much longer will you be on this call?” Derek answered, “I’m leaving now.” The voice said, “Good. I need you to go to...” The voice tapered off as Derek waved, and walked to his wrecker with the phone against his ear.
As he pulled away, I thought about Derek, Deran and all of the men and women who operate tow trucks. The way they’re always putting themselves in harm’s way on the edge of speeding traffic to help us out. To each of them, I give thanks for your help in our times of need.
Here’s a helpful tip for surviving the harsh winters of northern Minnesota and the upper mid-west, actually, the entire Midwest this year, look for the simple wonders of winter. They are there and they will keep until you find them because they’re frozen. Well, so long as you find them before the spring thaw. Here’s a few simple winter things I found recently, that entertained me.
The other day, at the crack of dawn, our dog, June, started barking like crazy at the front door. I hushed her, “Go back to sleep! Whatever it is outside that’s bothering you, is meant to be outside. It’s okay.” I assured her. A couple hours later when I went to shovel the snow, there were deer hoof prints coming up the steps and onto the front porch. I’ve never seen that before. There was no doubt in my mind this deer was coming to raid the bird feeder - until her plot was foiled by our trusty guard dog sounding off.
This morning when I went out to shovel the new snow off the front stoop, there were hoof prints again coming up the steps and onto the porch. This time the deer made her way across the porch where the bird feeder hangs. Her efforts proved fruitless as the chickadees don’t take long to empty the feeder each day when I refill it. The doe left hungry. The small birds do however spill quite a bit of sunflower seed on the ground below the feeder. In this environment, no source of food goes to waste. The grouse that lives under the pine trees would claim this fallen bounty as her meal.
The hen made a neat little trail where she had come out from under cover, making her way across the top of the powdery snow, leaving a channel behind. The imprint was shaped perfectly by the bird as she plowed her breast through the snow, just like a boat pushes its bow through the water. In the bottom of the track there were marks left by her feet. It looked like she swam through the snow to reach her destination where she cleaned up all the spillage. There was no path going back to the pines though; I supposed she took flight on her return. Perhaps she was scared off by the guard dog inside.
When I let the fearless guard dog out to do her morning business, she ran down to the driveway. I wish she wouldn’t do that, as she leaves unsightly yellow circles in the driveway under the new snow. I have a place cleared for her to go in the yard, but apparently, she thought the snow in the uncleared driveway was less deep than the yard. Maybe she just wanted a change of scenery today.
A couple hours later, after my morning coffee and filling the bird feeder, I went out and started the snow blower to clear the drive. Our driveway is rock, and if the snow blower catches them, it can throw those rocks pretty fast and far with a fury. I have to be careful which way the snow chute is pointed to avoid windows, the house and cars. The rocks make quite a racket when going through the powerful machine.
Making my way down the driveway near the edge of the grass, I shot three rocks together, out with the snow. They landed up in the yard. I watched the rocks and thought I was going crazy as they continued to move sporadically up the hill in the yard! “Rocks can’t roll uphill like that. Why didn’t they sink into the snow?” I asked myself. As I continued to watch it occurred to me, those weren’t rocks - they were voles! A vole being a small mouse like animal with a stubby tail that burrows into the ground – or a redneck on the game show, Wheel of Fortune: “I’d like to buy a vole.” Okay, that was a really bad joke, let’s get back to the story.
The voles apparently weren’t hurt when they went through the auger, the chute, then airborne to their landing spot. Almost immediately they started to burrow back under the snow, but not before a raven swept down to the ground snatching one on his way by. It was really cool to see and as I said, no source of food goes to waste up here, especially in the winter.
I continued to make my way up and down the driveway. With each swath I turned the direction of the chute to pile the snow where I wanted it. At the end of one pass, when I turned the machine around, I noticed two new yellow circles. “June!” I hollered toward the house, as if she would hear me and know what I was scolding her for. I try to keep the snowblower set to a level where I can get the snow but avoid throwing rocks. That doesn’t always happen and I threw a few more…wait a minute! Those weren’t rocks, they were frozen… I again shouted toward the house, “June! You’re not funny! And don’t even try to blame the cat, because Edgar hasn’t been out here!”
Despite June’s unsightly deposits, I thought to myself, how lucky I am not having to clear this driveway with a shovel. The snowblower was making quick work of the project. Soon I was done and headed into the house to warm up. I was pretty pleased with my accomplishments for the day. It wasn’t until after dark when I remembered an outdoor task I forgot to do – an important one too – checking to see how much fuel is in the LP gas tank. I would be leaving town in the morning, and having plenty of gas is critical. The last time I checked, the tank was at thirty-five percent, which should be fine, but that was a couple weeks ago. With the recent frigid temperatures, I’m sure the furnace has been running more than usual. I needed to be sure I wasn’t going to run out of gas while I was gone. The last time I walked to the gas tank, the snow was up to my mid thighs, tonight I would put on show shoes to go check the level.
I went to the basement and brought up a pair of snowshoes. I put them on at the front door, where the entryway rug would keep the cleats from scratching the wood floors. With the netted contraptions securely fastened to my feet, I grabbed my coat, hat and gloves. I wanted to make sure I was dressed nice and warm before heading out into the dark night to make my trek across the big back yard. Speaking of the dark…where’s my flashlight?
You know the story; you just get a little kid all bundled with multiple layers of clothing, coats, scarves, mittens, hats and boots and then they announce, “I have to go to the bathroom.” That’s exactly how I felt as I looked all the way across the wood floors to the kitchen where the flashlight sat on the counter. I didn’t want to get undressed. “No problem,” I said to myself, “I’ll just get on my hands and knees and crawl across the oak floor.
I would have to hold my feet up high behind me so the long snow shoes wouldn’t touch or scratch the floors. Wearing a heavy down coat, a hat and gloves, crawling across the three throw rugs that laid in line across the wooden floor was very difficult. My jeans kept catching on the rugs, trying to drag me down. The knee bent at a 90° angle is perfect for crawling…unless you have a 30” contraption strapped to each foot. This was not an easy task. As a matter a fact, when I fell from my hands and knees, flat on my belly to the floor, I admitted it was an impossible task.
I laid there pondering the predicament I had gotten myself into. In front of my face, were two heavy, gray shipping blankets that were waiting to be taken to the basement. I was thinking, “I really don’t want to remove the snow shoes, but I don’t dare walk on the wood with cleats! It’s not worth risking damage to the floors. There was only about seven feet of bare wood flooring between the throw rugs and the ceramic tile kitchen floor. I could use the packing blankets, lay them over the oak floors and walk on them, protecting the floors and saving me the hassle of removing and replacing the snow shoes. That’s exactly what I did, easily recovering my flashlight from the counter, then returning to the front door. I was pretty smitten, with my genius thinking.
With the flashlight tucked into my pocket I stepped outside crossing the porch to the top of the seven steps. Great! How was I to go down the steps wearing snow shoes? I thought, life must be a challenge for Ronald Mc Donald and all the other clowns with their huge shoes. Again, genius stuck. I side stepped downward with my foot parallel to the front of each step. It was going slow, but well, Thinking I had this under control I tried to pick up the pace. On the last two steps I tripped and landed in the snow bank at the bottom of the steps. Trying to push myself up was a real challenge as my hand kept sinking into the snow.
I finally got back up on my feet, climbed over the mound of shoveled show, and made my way into the yard toward the LP tank. It was a beautiful walk through new uncharted territory. There were no tracks in the snow, not even from animals. With each step, the snow shoes pressed down through the six inches of powder snow on top, then the wide shoes became stable on the snow below. I kept thinking what it must have been like for early explorers and pioneers to travel through such conditions. It was probably a couple hundred feet to the tank; nothing compared to what people used to travel on snow shoes.
When I reached the tank, I was surprised how low it was to the ground. It wasn’t really any lower than it was in the summer, I was just standing on top of snow that deep. The tank sits below two pine trees. I keep the branches on these trees trimmed up, so I don’t have to duck when mowing around them. The tree branches also seemed really low tonight, but again, it was the snow I was standing on combined with the weight of snow accumulated on the branches. The heavy snow caused the branches to bend downward toward the ground. The branches were really with all that snow on them.
I walked under the branches and bent over, brushing the snow away to lift the lid that covers the valve and gas gauge. I took off my right mitten then reached into my pocket for the flashlight, but it was not there. I frantically searched all my pockets with no success in finding it. In my brief panic, I dropped my mitten and it filled with snow. Oh brother. I pulled out my cell phone; an old flip phone so it does not have a “flashlight app.” Holding the phone close to the gauge it provided just barely enough light to read the numbers on the dial. 20% remained, as I suspected, I would need to order more fuel.
I closed the lid, shook as much snow out of my mitten as I could, put it back on then tried to turn around to head back to the house. When I lifted my foot, it felt like something grabbed it from below. Was it more voles? Were they still mad about the snowblower incident earlier in the day? I had a brief vision of a herd - hundreds of voles - taking a man down in his own back yard, carrying him off to their vole village and sacrificing the one who was responsible for their cousin being swept away by a raven.
Fortunately, it wasn’t angry voles that held my foot. When I went to lift my left foot, the back of my right snowshoe was on top of the back of my left snowshoe. Anyone who has walked in snowshoes has experienced this. It can easily cause you to lose your footing and fall down. I avoided the fall by grabbing the tree branch above to steady myself. It worked; I didn’t fall down!
Unfortunately, grabbing the branch and moving it, caused the snow to fall from the branch, onto the person below – that would be me. I had to gasp for air under cold, white tidal wave, like a swimmer coming up for a breath. Do you remember the scene from the movie Grumpy Old Men, when the snow fell from the roof, showering the IRS agent at John Gustafson’s front door. I knew exactly how the agent felt – and even more!
You see when I let go of the branch, it sprang upward, hitting the branch above it. That branch sent a second avalanche my way, then snapped upward hitting the branch above, which dumped its snow on me, then hit the branch above…they went upward the same way dominos fall down. I think I cleared the branches, all the way to the top. I had snow all over me, down the back of my shirt, in my shoes – everywhere! Somehow, I could image a herd of voles looking on from a distance and laughing their little fool heads off.
Once the snow settled, I tried to turn to start my way back to the house, but I couldn’t lift either foot. It seems the weight of recent waves of snow coming down on me buried my snowshoes and had me pinned in place. I struggled; I tried to twist and turn each foot without success. I couldn’t lift either foot due to the additional weight of the snow. I thought I could pull my feet from my shoes and walk back to the house in my socks. When spring came, I could retrieve the snowshoes from the yard. There had to be a better solution.
I bent over and began digging in the snow to free snowshoes. Once it was cleared, I was able to easily return to the house with the snowshoes still on my feet. Back near the front porch I very cautiously maneuvered over the mound of shoveled snow where I had tumbled when coming down the steps. Once I was safely back on the shoveled walkway, I wisely bent over to loosen the straps on my winter footwear. Feeling there was no need to try climbing the step while wearing snowshoes, I removed them. While I was bent over, I picked up the flashlight that fell from my pocket when I crashed at the bottom of the steps.
I was going to put the flashlight back in my coat pocket, but my pockets were also full of snow, so I slipped it into my back pocket with my cell phone. I picked up my snowshoes, clapping them together to remove the excess snow, then started up the steps.
Inside the house, June greeted me at the front door. I took off my snow-covered hat. When I took off my coat snow fell from inside the garment. I slipped off my tennis shoes and shook the snow from inside them. There was more snow inside the back of my shirt. I stripped down to my boxers at the front door to avoid dragging snow through the whole house. I went to the bathroom and dried off with a towel before slipping into my warm pajamas.
In the kitchen, I made a cup of hot chocolate, then went to the living room where I pulled a rocking chair over to the fire. I sat in the chair and covered myself with a green, knit afghan. June came over to join me; sitting at my side. As I watched the fire, I slowly rocked the chair, sipped my cocoa and enjoyed the warmth. June spoke, “Dad?” “Yes, Bugs,” I replied. “You forgot to check the mail today.” I didn’t respond. June added, “I’ll go out with you to get the mail, Dad.” I pressed my toes to the floor, giving the chair another gently rock. I sipped my cocoa, wrapping both hands around the warm pottery mug. June said, “Dad, do you think those voles will try to come in the house? I’ll get them if they do.” I rubbed her head and replied, “Shh, June. Enjoy the fire, it’s one of winter’s greatest wonders.”
It never ceases to amaze me, the things we will do in the name of convenience. Sometimes I wonder if we go too far? For example; our ancestors cooked over an open fire, which presumably, was outdoors. To make life easier, the woodstove was created. It served multiple purposes, two of which were cooking and heating the house. Wood fuel became a bother for cooking, so, someone invented the gas and electric range. With this modern appliance, there was no wood to cut or messy ashes to deal with, (unless you burned dinner really badly.)
Over time, the range was no longer fast enough for us, so someone invented the microwave oven. Very convenient…unless you let a bowl of oatmeal boil over, or re-heated uncovered leftover spaghetti. Have you ever seen a microwave oven after an egg exploded, or popcorn burned? In any case, it might have been faster to build a fire for cooking outdoors, than to clean the inside of the microwave.
Another great example of convenience is the television. In the old days, people would go to town for entertainment; maybe take in a show at the movie theater, if they could afford it. If not, just watching people on Main Street was entertaining enough. But we wanted more entertainment and we wanted it in our home so we didn’t have to go outside. Thus, the TV was invented.
It was a kid’s job to get up and change the channel or adjust the volume, whenever instructed to do so by Dad: the head of household, who was home from a hard day at work. But little kids grew into teenagers. As their interests changed, they were spending more time out with friends. Dad had to get up and change the channel himself. Oh, he might have tried asking his wife to change the channel, but as time went on, we demanded more conveniences, and soon it became necessary for Mom to work outside the home as well, to help pay for all of this convenience. At the end of a hard day at work, she was just as tired, if not more so, than he was. The invention of the remote control would keep peace amongst them.
The remote control was so handy with the TV, we started making remote controls for everything - and they’re great…when you can find them. With many remote controls, you also have to figure out how to use it and make sure you have the right remote control!
One day, I was trying to change the channel to find a show I wanted to watch, but every time I pushed a button, the ceiling fan came on or off; went faster or slower or reversed in direction. Obviously, I had the wrong remote. When I grabbed what I thought was the right one, it turned the lights on and off, yet another remote seemed to adjust the furnace setting, or inadvertently turn on the stereo. By the time I found the correct remote, my show was over! We have a remote for everything. Are they convenient? Sort of sometimes.
A remote controller is what we need to open and close the door on the garage, which was out behind the house at the back of the drive. When I was a boy, Dad or Mom would pull into the driveway and one of us kids would get out of the car to lift the garage door. But kids grow up to be teenagers and…
It became burdensome to get out of the car to open the overhead door, so we invented a contraption that would open and close the heavy door for us. Still, it didn’t seem convenient walking though the elements of weather to get to our car, so we began to attach the garage to the house. The garage became a handy place to store extra stuff too, like bicycles, lawn mowers, Christmas decorations, a treadmill that no one uses anymore, an old TV that we replaced with a newer model – all kinds of stuff that we won’t get rid of because we might need it someday. The garage stall became so full of our “stuff” there wasn’t room for the car. Someone came up the idea of the two-car garage. Theoretically, for two cars, but truthfully, one stall was for a car and the other was for our stuff.
For many of us, our stuff grew, getting closer to the car’s space. One had to be quite flexible to squeeze out of the car and maneuver the narrow path between the vehicle and our stuff. As long as there was a path, there was room for more stuff and eventually it took over the second stall as well. I myself can attest, we have a two-car attached garage, both sides have automatic garage door openers. In truth, there hasn’t been room for a car in our garage since shortly after we moved here. Both sides are full of storage items and remodeling materials for the house. But I digress. Part of my next stage of remodeling will be making room in the garage to once again conveniently park our cars.
When I remodel the garage, I will put a light switch on the wall by the entry door and another by the door going into the house so we’ll never have to walk through a dark garage at night. When you can control the same light from two different places, it is called a “three-way” switch. (I’ve never understood why they didn’t call it a two-way switch, but again I digress.) It was designed for convenience, so that we wouldn’t have to walk in dark places to turn the light on or off.
I like three-way switches and I installed a lot of them when remodeling our house. I put them in the stairwell, one at both the top and bottom of the basement steps. There’s a three-way switch in the hallway, so we can turn the hall light on from the living room, or from the other end by the bedrooms. We can turn the driveway lights on from the basement garage, or from the front door when guest come and go. There’s a switch at both doorways coming into the dining room from the living room or the kitchen. There’s a light over our kitchen table, a corner booth, which can be turned on from either and of the table. The outdoor lights on the deck can be turned on from the three-seasons room, or the kitchen, since both have a door going outside.
Speaking of the kitchen: there are three ways to enter ours. From outside on the deck, from the living room, or from the dining room. I wanted to be able to turn on the kitchen light from any of the three points. Three different locations would require a four-way switch. (I don’t know why they didn’t call this a three-way switch…again, I digress) For the sake of convenience in our kitchen, I had to learn how to wire a four-way switch.
This knowledge came in handy when I wired the living room which has five entry points: The front door, the dining room, the kitchen, which is right next to the hallway, and the top of the steps from the basement. To control the same light from four locations requires a… No, not a five-way switch - there’s no such thing - it requires a four-way switch. (Which finally makes sense to me, but doesn’t fit in with the rest of the electrical lingo program. Again, I digress.)
I wired this house for our convenience. Someday, when we sell the place, the new owner will either say, “This house is really well wired.” Or, “The guy who wired this house must have found a good deal on light switches.” My brother, who was around when I was doing the wiring, declared, “You went a bit OCD with the switches.” But, the point of this story is not how many switches I installed. It’s about things we do for convenience that sometimes aren’t so convenient - like having so many light switches.
You see, I can be a little OCD at times. One thing that drives me nuts is when the switches are in all different positions. For some reason, I like all the switches down when the light is off, and only one switch in the up position when the light is on. To make this happen, I often find myself running down the steps to turn the light off, then running up the steps in the dark, so that the switches match.
A team effort is helpful. If my wife is on the other end of the hallway, or at the top of the steps, I might ask her, “Hey, can you flip that switch for me?” If she turns the light off, I can turn it back on at my end, and then turn it off again when I get to the top of the steps. Crazy – I know! But walking down a dark hallway is not uncommon for me, if it means the switch positions are coordinated, which will allow me to sleep better,
It’s a real thrill to find which of the three kitchen switches is “out of position.” With four switches in the living room? Well, that could be another story in itself because, it never ceases to amaze me, the things we will do in the name of convenience, that can end up being conveniently inconvenient.
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