Frozen in time … and an unheated bedroom

Uncle Veikko in 2014

If you write something and a bunch of your readers say they love it, you’d better watch out.

Thing is, the writer’s first reaction to that is to think what they wrote was, if not a work of staggering genius, then at least uniquely brilliant. But the sad truth is it’s probably neither.

Instead, the readers loved it not because of the quality of the writing itself, but because they related to it personally. And the more they related to it, the more they loved it. Such was the case with my last column.

Want a shipload of Adirondackers to relate to your writing? It’s simple — just write about our winters … especially the old and brutally cold ones. Which is what I did. And I got so much feedback on it, I decided to write about those winters again this week. Think of this column as the Sub-Zero Chronicles, Part II.

Never too cool for school

Last week’s column was about the Paul Smith’s foresters and what a rugged bunch they were. Of course they HAD to be since they were in three-hour outdoor labs at least three days a week — brutal winter temperatures be damned.

That prompted a reply from Hans Michelin, who taught forestry and maintained the tool shed for decades. Hans taught a logging class on St. Regis Mountain, for which he operated the skidder. The standard rule was if the skidder started, so did the class. And once the class started, it went its allotted time. Hans wrote me about a stretch where it was 20 below each night … but the skidder always started.

Now a note about Hans: If he’s not the nicest guy in the world, he’s at least tied for it. Proof of that? During that cold spell he let each crew build a fire at the job site, plus they kept a bonfire at the landing. Nothin’ like livin’ in the lap of luxury in the Great Outdoors.

Want another PSC saga from The Good Old Days?

I knew you would.

I heard this one from one of my rave-fave students, Melissa McDonald, who was a 1975 forestry graduate.

Back then, Paul Smith’s owned the White Pine Camp, which it used to house students.

Given their distance from civilization — both literally and figuratively — the Piners were a breed apart. All of them were foresters, and they were not only rough around the edges but proud of it. They had a strong affinity for facial hair and snooze, and an equally strong aversion to clean laundry and scrupulous body hygiene. But when it came to being cold weather hardcores, they could walk the talk with the best of ’em.

In the winter of ’74, in one of those monster cold snaps, they woke to find none of their cars started. How cold was it? I’ve no idea, except their cars always started at 20 below.

OK, so there they were — with no cars and with 8 o’clock classes on campus. What to do? No problemo, pardner. They just strapped on their snowshoes (standard issue for all foresters) and jogged to campus through 5 or so miles of woods.

When they diddy-bopped on campus (in time for class, I might add), they probably had ear-to-ear grins, but you couldn’t tell. Since they’d wrapped scarves around their faces, only their eyes were visible. And you couldn’t see their scarves, either, since they were covered with icicles.

Northern overexposure

And now, keeping with the theme of winter stalwarts but shifting locations, we go to West Paris, Maine.

West Paris is a town of about 1,800 with a surprisingly high number of people of Finnish ancestry. Matter of fact, according to the 1930 census, fully one-third of the town’s residents were Finnish speakers.

My best friend in the Navy, and still one of my besties, is a fellow named Dale Piirainen. Both Dale’s paternal grandparents emigrated from Finland in the early 1900s, and the succeeding generations stayed in West Paris. The only one of his father’s siblings there now is Uncle Veikko.

He still lives in the family farmhouse, built at least 120 years ago. It has electricity and running water — running cold water. So if he wants hot water, he has to heat it on the kitchen cookstove, one of those huge ancient affairs, which is also the house’s only source of heat. The “facilities” are a classic Chick Sales in the back 40.

Almost all his life, Veikko has worked in the woods. I say “almost” because due to a pinched nerve in his back, he hasn’t logged this year. In fact, he’s not supposed to do any heavy lifting, so Dale goes over every other day to check on him and carry firewood into the house.

[Author’s note: A picture may be worth a thousand words, but sometimes a few words can be worth more than any picture, and this is one of them.]

In the middle of their last cold spell, Dale went over early in the morning and found Veikko sitting in front of the roaring stove. They chatted a bit, when Dale noticed on the floor next to Veikko’s chair was his thunder mug, which had been in his bedroom.

“Hey,” said Dale, “you want me to take that out and dump it in the outhouse?”

“You can’t,” said Uncle Veiko.

“I can’t?” said Dale. “Why not?”

“Because,” said Veikko, “it still hasn’t thawed.”

Oh yeah, I forgot to tell you, Uncle Veikko’s birthday is June 5. And Lord willing and the glacier don’t drag him away, this year he’ll be 98.


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