At Least You Don’t Have to Shovel it!

At Least You Don’t Have To Shovel It

By Steve Hathcock

(The following was first published in the Coastal Current Weekly sometime in 2001)

The cold front came through early last night and it felt kind-a nice to be able to wear jeans and a heavy shirt for a change. My store, Padre Island Trading Company Bookstore/ Coffee Pub, was filling with customers. Gabe Patterson, our coffee maestro and resident computer guru, was doing an excellent job of keeping up with the calls for espressos, cappuccinos and lattes. I, in the meantime, was leafing through an old stamp album, comparing watermarks and paper varieties of a collection of very early stamps of Great Britain. There were numerous sub-varieties listed in the catalogue and I needed to be absolutely accurate when pricing and grading these philatelic gems.

A rather heated discussion about weather and false advertising had broken out between a retired man from the north, who now makes the Valley his full time home, and a couple from Iowa. It seems the folks from Iowa expected the climate in South Texas, to hover in the low 70’s the year around. “That’s what they advertise,” the wife snorted indignantly. Her soft-spoken husband nodded his quiet assent. I shook my head sadly. I’m always amazed at how a couple can settle into rhythms of dominance. There was no need for an opinion from him. She was willing to shoulder that burden for the both of them. She would tell him when he needed to voice his opinion and what it should be.

The transplanted Texan reminded the woman that though the “year round” average temperature is somewhere in the high 70’s or low 80’s, the temperature in the entire northern hemisphere will dip in the winter and rise in the summer. “You add ‘em all up and divide by the number of days and that’s how you reach an average,” he said, not yet realizing this woman had no use for an answer. Rather, she just wanted to hear an echo when she spoke!

A gust of wind rattled at the back door and I felt my mind drift……back…..back to Sparta, Wisconsin. I was 12 years old. It was late

A typical winter scene Sparta Wisconsin circa 1950s

December and the storm of 1963 struck our little town. The temperature dropped to around 50 below. Wind chill factors were not reported then, so you can imagine how cold a forty-mile an hour wind can be.

     The schools had closed and travel advisories were issued. The storm raged for several days, dropping a total of about a foot-and-a-half of snow. Numerous cold related deaths were reported throughout the Midwest that winter. The local news carried stories of people in the Dakotas being stranded along highways, freezing to death before rescue efforts could be mobilized.

For the first couple of days, we kids stood out on the porch for as long as we could bear the cold, which was usually only a couple of minutes. We listened to the loud cracking sound, made by nails contracting so much in the extreme cold, that they literally “Popped” out of the wood of our one-hundred-year-old frame house. The cold produced other strange phenomenon, too. It was a source of great amusement for us to watch how quickly a flashlight would dim as the cold sucked the life out of brand new batteries. Sound carried far in the thin cold air. Without straining, it was possible to hear the distant grinding of metal on metal. About twelve miles away, over near Tomah, long haulers downshifted gears, racing their engines in preparation to climbing the slippery slopes of Maynard Pass. The change in revs told the story. It was all downhill now. The driver could coast most of the way before the rig would again have to work its way through another pass to the west of town.

The storm finally wound down. Now it was time to dig our way out. The horrific wind had piled the white stuff into huge mounds. The snowplow drivers had done their best to keep up with the blizzard but most of the streets lay buried under five-foot drifts. There was money to be made and it was time for me to get to work.

Each winter, I had a snow shoveling route of about twelve regular customers who counted on me to keep their sidewalks clear. In the summers, these same folk kept me busy mowing yards and trimming hedges.

My first stop was the Murphy’s. An elderly brother and sister, relatives of my friend Mike Schotten, the Murphy’s lived on a huge corner lot about a block from my house on Central Avenue.

The sidewalk was made up of small eighteen-inch cement squares that at one time been level. But the years and nature had taken a toll. As a result, it was harder to clean. The shovel would get hung up on the edges of the paving stones. This was one of the longest walks on my route so I would try to tackle it first.

On this particular day it took over two hours of shoveling before I cleared a path. I was frozen and exhausted by the time the job was finished. Miss Murphy always fixed me a cup of steaming chocolate when I finished. Today, she added a plate full of hot buttered toast. I chewed slowly, letting the heat seep back into my bones. As best as I can remember the two were probably in their eighties when I first started shoveling their sidewalk. They were also very frugal. I called it cheap but my Mom explained how they lived on a very tight budget and that I should do their walk as cheaply as possible.

As I prepared to leave, Mr. Murphy, who was every bit as penny pinching as his sister, grabbed my hand. “Good job,” he intoned, all the time pumping my arm as if he half expected to see water spout out of my fingertips. “This is for you,” he whispered as he placed his stooped frame between his sister and me. “Thanks,” I replied in the same low whisper. (This was the scenario we always played out.) A deft palming movement and I would retrieve the fifty cent piece he always gave me. This time it was different, though. My reaching hand now gripped an shiny silver dollar. I was flabbergasted! Never having expected this prize, I was at a loss for words.

 “That’s from both of us. Have a very Merry Christmas,” Mrs. Murphy said as she stepped around her brother and handed me a bag of cookies. A moment later I was out the door.

I must-a been smiling at the old recollection because Gabe asked me, “What’s so funny?” I looked over at the winter visitors, holding my reply until I had their attention. “Because,” I intoned solemnly. “No matter how bad it gets down here, we never have to shovel it!”

Merry Christmas you-all!

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