Friday, March 22, 2013

On the next episode of Survivor

When Stephen and I were first dating, one of our mutually favourite Monty Python routines was the  SPAM sketch. "Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam, SPAM lovely Spam, wonderful Spam!"

And so, as newlyweds, and just getting started in our small apartment in Omaha, Nebraska, one of our first purchases for the pantry was a genuine can of Spam.  We never intended to eat it, but kept it as a knick-knack on the shelf as a memento of our early days of shared humour.  Over time it became a symbol of our relative prosperity: we had never been too poor or too hungry to have to open it.

After about ten years and being relocated several times to different houses and kitchens, we noticed that the can was beginning to bulge! It had held pride of place in our home in each move, but by now long past its expiration date, it was time to dispose of it.  Somehow, simply buying a new grocery-store replacement lost the original significance, so we were resigned to simply and unceremoniously throw it out.  Later, Dad saw a novelty gift catalogue that featured the familiar SPAM can (with the key-turn opener on top and everything) that had been made into a battery operated clock. He had it shipped to our door.  Now, in our 30+ years of marriage, it sits in the Cleveland Place pantry reminding us that though we've had a few hardships along the way, we've never really suffered, we've survived.

Several years ago I travelled from New Jersey to New Brunswick on the tail end of a fierce winter nor'easter. Kathryn, Olivia and I drove in our minivan following snow plows, sand trucks, salt spreaders, and passing several abandoned vehicles that had skidded off the snow covered roadways. It took us about 20 hours to take the typically twelve-hour trip because of the road and travel conditions, and we finally arrived in Alma particularly road-weary.  We weren't surprised to find the driveway at Cleveland Place completely snowbound, so we parked next door where the wind had blown the church parking lot clear.  We waded through drifts to Cleveland Place only to find the normally unlocked door was locked!  Even the secret hiding place for the spare key only revealed an empty and cold disappointment, and we realized: we were locked out ....after midnight, below freezing, with no cell phone.

Undaunted, I announced we'd drive onward to the Gazebo (our three-season cottage) about 10 minutes away. We could start a fire and hunker down until morning, when we could round up a spare key from somewhere.  The drive took another 1/2 hour since we had to take a longer route (the minivan couldn't get up the hills of Alma with the recent and yet unplowed snow). Arriving at the Gazebo, we found that more drifting prevented us from driving right up to the door as we usually did.  So we parked on the road and hiked up the driveway through deep snow to get to the door (one that I did have a key for).   Finally inside, the three of us found ourselves in total darkness -- flicking the light switch uselessly, we remembered that the power had been shut off for the winter.  We lit a candle or two to shed light and as our eyes adjusted, we saw to our further dismay there were merely a few sticks of kindling and two small logs for the wood stove.  This would not get us warm, let alone keep us warm until morning.  Nevertheless, we set to the task of lighting the fire. The wood burned with the sound and the speed of a freight train, quickly reducing to ash while we huddled under sleeping bags.  The remainder of the woodpile outside was under several feet of frozen ice-covered snow, probably with the missing hatchet close by.

Unanimous with our complaints, we realized we couldn't stay and freeze until dawn, so we hoofed it back down the hill to the van and drove back toward Alma.  By now it was about three in the morning, and sliding sideways down the hills with absolutely no traction, we assumed our safest position for the night in the recently plowed parking lot of the general store, just a few doors down the street from Cleveland Place.  Sporadically snoozing and waking and freezing and running the engine to keep us warm, we spent the next several hours in fitful, uncomfortable bouts of sleep. When the store opened, we used their phone to call Dad to rescue us and deliver a spare key. 

There was no rest for the weary, however, since once Dad arrived almost two hours later, he employed the girls to shovel out the driveway, and chastised me for not choosing a window to carefully break and sending one of our skinny girls through it, to get ourselves inside.  Damned if you do, I thought to myself, damned if you don't.  But we survived.


Alma in winter is a much different place than in the summer.  Many of the residents are seasonal, and spend winter in Florida or warmer points south.  Though there are plenty of winter activities -- amazing cross-country ski trails, pristine snowshoeing conditions, and miles of snowmobiling opportunities -- most of the tourism-supported businesses shut down.  Many of the fishing boats keep working, though, and being tide dependent (Alma has the highest tides in the world) the fellows going back and forth with their trucks or equipment on Main Street in front of Cleveland Place are scheduled by tide-time, not clock time, for their work at the village wharf.

The waters of the Bay of Fundy are some of the most treacherous in the world, too.  Winter fishing can be brutal.  The guys on their boats have to be strong; they have to withstand the rough seas and frigid waters, resist the harsh winter winds, haul the weighted lobster traps, and winch the scallop trollers -- all physically demanding non-stop activity in the open seas. Tough work for tough men.

Several years ago, we were enjoying the company of friends with a cheerful wee fire on a snowy, howling, winter night at Cleveland Place. We were wearing cozy pajama pants and slippers (as we certainly weren't going outdoors). Our house guests told us that the front storm door had come unlatched, and it wouldn't close tight now due to the snow that had blown in.

So Stephen -- just starting to be known in the village as a new resident -- grabbed the tiny metal shovel from the coal hearth and a short scarf that was handy, and shuffled out to the front door. There he tried to shoo away the drifting snow, free the threshold, and relatch the door.  He returned just a few minutes later, breathless, as the wind was cold and strong as it came straight off the ocean up to the front porch. He came back into the living room, paused, red-faced, and held up the tiny black shovel with a chagrined expression as he described for us all his perceived reactions of the fishermen passing by in their trucks watching him.  He could imagine them all shaking their heads on their way to the wharf at high tide, about to cast off a line into sub-freezing temperatures in white-capped waters, hauling eighty-pound lobster traps, and seeing Stephen, in thin pants, a dangling skinny scarf, and a T-shirt, out in the weather and battling the snow drifts with the smallest shovel ever known. "That's guy's never gonna survive a winter around here."

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