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The Best in People
We generally go through about two 500-gallon tanks of LP gas in a heating season. We had the tank filled mid-December. We were on the third day of a cold snap. The weatherman said the arctic blast of cold air was forecast to stay in our region for another week.
I checked my laptop. The temperature was negative 27 degrees, with a windchill pushing forty below zero. My trips outdoors needed to be useful and planned. I would check the fuel level in our tank and take June Bug out to potty.
Bundled up tightly, June and I walked out the door onto the front porch. June darted down the steps to find the squirrel that had been on the feeder. "Leave it alone and go potty." I stood for a moment to enjoy the cold air. Just to breathe was exhilarating. I thought, how many times I've stood here when it was even ten degrees above zero, taking deep breaths, filling my lungs with crisp, fresh Northwoods air and the scent of pine. Not today.
There was a tingling sensation around the edges of my nostrils every time I inhaled. In these temperatures, I didn't want to fill my body with bitterly cold air rapidly. I was very aware of my breathing being slower, as if trying to warm the air a little so that it wouldn't freeze my lungs. June was off to her business meeting in the yard. "This is awesome," I said. I genuinely love these cold snaps. "Cold weather brings out the best in people."
I walked down the steps and to the left. The snow squeaked under my boots. I only walked a few feet in the deep snow before getting on a path the deer had made through the yard. The walking was much easier there. June saw me heading away from the house and came plowing toward me through fresh snow.
Each time she came down on her front feet, she intentionally pushed her head into the snow, then lifting her head, shaking about, she threw a cloud of the white stuff around her with every leap. She was having a blast playing in the snow, and the cold didn't seem to bother her.
At the LP tank, June sniffed about the area. "What's this?" She wondered. The deer had packed the snow down in the area. Perhaps they huddle there using the tank and the pine tree as a windbreak, finding shelter from the cold. We'd been using the woodstove a lot on these colder days. The tank level was still more than one-third full. I would order more fuel just to be safe; I don't want the tank getting too low, especially with another week of this weather ahead of us.
June and I walked around the other side of the tank. There was quite a gap in the big pile of wood from me restocking the smaller stack up on the deck. "Maybe I should move more wood up to the deck while we're out," I said but decided I would take June in first. "Come on, Bugs, let's go inside."
June took off running and splashing through the snow. About twenty feet ahead of me she stopped, and gave me a helpless look as if to say, "Dad, my feet are freezing." June does not like me to pick her up, but she gladly let me lift her and carry her back to the house. "Thanks for giving me a ride, Dad." She tried to give me an affectionate kiss, but I turned away.
"I don't want my face wet from you licking me; it would freeze." She understood. "As for the ride, June, it's just what people do when it gets this cold – they help one another out." She offered me another kiss, but again I turned away. "Save the kisses for inside."
As we walked on, June asked, "Dad, is our woodpile getting smaller? Have the squirrels been taking our wood? I can chase them away for you."
"The squirrels are fine, June." I said, "With this cold snap, we've been using the woodstove a lot more." I chuckled and added, "We're going through firewood as if the stuff grows on trees." June and I shared a good laugh about that as I turned up the front steps to the house. Inside, I dried her paws, took my coat off, then June and I sat in front of the fire to warm up.
I had an early dentist appointment the next morning in Duluth. To allow travel time, I would leave by 6:30. I went out to start the van about fifteen minutes before I needed to leave. It was bitterly cold; the temperature was negative thirty-five degrees with a windchill of minus forty-six. When I turned the key, the motor sounded a bit labored as it turned over, but it did start. "Good girl," I said, then set the temperature to high and turn on the windshield defroster and parking lights. When I went back inside, the belts on the motor squealed and howled.
I finished getting ready and ate breakfast, then went back to brush my teeth. I filled my thermos with coffee and let June out one more time. I checked the time. "6:40. Darn it. Not a problem. I allowed a fifteen-minute cushion." I needed to leave right away to be on time, but I still went back to the bathroom to check my teeth one more time, making sure there was not pepper or anything else in them.
While I put on my coat, hat, and gloves, June came and sat by me, looking at me as if she wanted to go along for the ride. "Baby, it's too cold outside for you to wait in the van while I'm at the dentist's office." I walked back to the kitchen and gave her a treat. "Maybe next time, okay?" I gave her a rub on the head, then walked out the door.
Steam flowed from the exhaust pipes of the van as it idled in the driveway. The red taillamps made the rising cloud of steam glow with pink billows. It was pretty. When I reached for the handle on the driver's door, it was locked - with the keys inside. I must have bumped the knob when I got out. I have a spare in the house, but fortunately, the van has one of those digital code pads on the door. I climbed in and sat down on the cold, hard seat. "Too bad it doesn't have heated seats too."
I shivered, turned on the headlights, and shifted the van into drive. The tires made a crunching sound as I pulled away. I glanced at the clock. "6:45 - I'm still okay." It takes exactly one hour and fifteen minutes to get there. At the stop sign, I took my glove off to feel the air coming out of the vent. It was warm, but the large interior of the van takes a while to heat up. The steering wheel was still ice cold, so I put my glove back on, then turned right on highway 61.
As I went south to Duluth, I could see a car on the shoulder ahead. Its amber flashers cut brightly through the frigid air - I could tell there was no steam coming from the tailpipes. Perhaps the car wasn't running. As I got closer, I could see someone leaning over the car's front – but the hood wasn't up. I turned on my flasher and pulled over behind them.
I walked up to the car. A young man, probably in his early twenties, was fiddling with something on the vehicle. The wind chill was minus forty-six degrees, and he didn't appear to be dressed warm enough for this weather – he didn't even have gloves on. "Is everything okay?" I asked.
"Yeah," he replied, then explained, "my wiper blade keeps trying to come off. I'm just putting it back on so I don't lose it."
"I've had that happen before." I told him, then asked, "Your car's not running. Is it going to start okay?" It was an older car, which can often have many little things that need attention or repair.
"It should," he said. "My gauge doesn't work, and I know I'm pretty low, so I shut it off to make sure I won't run out of gas before I get to Beaver Bay."
"I have a can of gas in my van. You're welcome to it if you'd like." I offered.
He was polite. "Thanks, I should have enough to get to the Holiday station."
"Are you sure?" I told him, "I always carry gas just in case I meet people who've run low. It'd be no problem to give you a couple of gallons." I could tell he was considering my offer but then said he thought he'd make it. "It's pretty cold out here," I took my gloves off and offered them to him. "Do you want these? I have another pair in my van."
He reached in his pocket and pulled out a pair of worn, brown jersey gloves. He smiled and said, "I'm good."
"Okay," I said, "I'll tell you what; I can wait in my van until you get your car started, and I'll follow you to make sure you make it to Beaver Bay." He seemed genuinely relieved by my offer.
He smiled and said, "I would sure appreciate that, sir." I went back to my van. He got in his car and turned it over two or three times. Each time it started, coughed and died again. I opened my door to see if he wanted the gas – or offer him a ride to where ever he was going. Just then, his engine started. He revved the motor a few times, then pulled away.
He drove well below the speed limit the next five or six miles. His taillights dimmed, and his brake lights never came on as he turned into the gas station drive. I was pretty sure he ran out of gas and coasted in. I stopped on the shoulder to make sure he got to the pumps; if not, I could help him push his car the rest of the way. He got out of his car and waved at me. I gave a couple of toots on the horn.
Pulling away, I looked at the time. Now I was going to be late, and that was fine. If it had been thirty degrees outside, I probably would have driven on past. But it didn't matter if I was in a hurry; I wasn't going to just drive by someone stranded on the side of the road in these bitterly cold temperatures. I do believe cold weather brings out the best in people – even me.
I called the dentist's office to tell them I would be late and make sure they weren't going to reschedule me. "No problem," a friendly voice replied, "Drive safely, and we'll see you when you get here."
I rushed to the front desk, taking off my coat as I walked. "Hi, I'm Tom Palen; I have an eight-o-clock appointment. I'm sorry I'm late." I said, huffing.
She looked puzzled at her computer screen. "Mr. Palen, we have you down for nine. You're forty-five minutes early."
"Early?" I was confused. "I don't know what to do. I've never been early for anything in my life. Should I leave and come back?" We shared a good laugh about that.
She looked again at her schedule screen. "You're here for a dental cleaning. Actually, her first appointment canceled because of the cold." The receptionist said, "We can get you in now if you'd like." That sounded good to me.
When the dental hygienist finished, I paid my bill, bundled up, and went to my van. I climbed in and sat in the cold, hard driver's seat. "Boy, it didn't take long for the van to get cold again. I should have just left it running." While I let it warm up, I pulled down my sun visor. I opened my mouth wide, closed my jaw, and turned my head back and forth, looking at my teeth in the mirror. "They sure looked good." Then I ran my tongue across them from side to side. "They feel good too." It's a routine I go through after every dental cleaning. I don't know what I'm looking for; I just do it.
After running several errands in Duluth, I decided to eat before going home. Today I went to Perkins to breakfast for lunch. After the hostess seated me, I noticed two elderly ladies across the way. Their coats were on the bench next to them; they each wore their knitted scarves wrapped around their neck.
It appeared they had finished their meal and were enjoying coffee and conversation. I was eavesdropping as the ladies talked about how cold it was. "I don't mind this cold," the first lady said, "I just have to dress a little warmer and be careful." The second lady added, "I do believe people are kinder to one another when it's cold like this." I couldn't agree with them more. I wanted to join their conversation, but the waitress was coming with my coffee.
She set the coffee down, asking, "What can I get for you?" I took note of her name tag.
"Before I order, Jordan, could I get the ticket for those two ladies over there? But I don't want them to know who paid for their meal." Handing her my card, Jordan smiled and said she would take care of it.
When she returned, Jordan handed the ladies their receipt and told them someone had taken care of their ticket. There were several tables of people. They asked who paid for their meal. "They didn't want me to say." She answered, smiled, and wished them a good day. The ladies looked around the room. I remained nonchalant and kept looking straight ahead at my computer screen.
After the ladies left, Jordan approached my table, "That was a very nice thing you did," she said, setting their ticket next to me. On the back was a note. The handwriting was very neat and looked like my mom's: "Thank you to the anonymous angel that paid for our lunch. We will pay it forward also!! God Bless You." They made a smiley face with the exclamation points. I smiled, folded the note, and tucked it into my top shirt pocket. I'm not sure there is anything in the world that I appreciate more than God's blessings.
I bundled up and headed out to my van. Standing outside the driver's door, I reached inside, turned the key, and started the engine; then I climbed in. The thermometer read minus 14 degrees. I felt my hind end tingling - rapidly chilling on the cold, hard driver's seat. Unzipping my coat a bit, I reached in my pocket, took out the note, and shivered as I reread it. "I'd take a note like this over a heated seat any day!"
That note from those ladies completely made my day! I pulled out of the parking lot, thinking, "This cold weather really does bring out the best in people."
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