Vermont Short Story (and True, Even!)

Land of the Right-Angle Smoke

The morning alarm woke me long enough to discover that the mercury read eleven below. I rolled over to catch another 20 minutes of slumber and dreamt of Vermont.

Montpelier--typical winter scene from a chimney's POV
Eleven below is pretty rare here in western Massachusetts, but not in northern Vermont, where I made my home for seven years. There were always two weeks in February where thinking about temperatures above zero was fantasy on par with imaging yourself on a Maui beach sipping a tropical drink. Fort Knox, the Maginot Line, the Great Wall of China…? They’re child’s play compared to a Vermont February. There’s no release from that Monkey Puzzle layer of cold until Old Man Winter decides to loosen his hold. My wife and I used to call Vermont the land of the right-angle smoke–a place where burnt wood cautiously crept up the chimney, reluctantly slid into the outside air, and made an abrupt 90-degree turn when it smacked into an atmospheric wall. Wintertime Vermont is a place where anti-freeze is an oxymoron and every sensible person has a block heater for his car and a woodstove for the house. The family stove–whose alleged efficiency is the source of endless tall tales–isn’t there just to be economical. In the Vermont cold a person can die if the power goes out–as it so often does in frigid conditions that snap electric wires like a bored child breaking pretzel sticks.

Three things not for the faint of heart: the death of a loved one, getting older, and a Vermont winter. We learned the last the hard way. We grew up on the Pennsylvania side of the Mason-Dixon Line. Winter is gray and chilly there, but mostly it’s a place where a “cold” day is one where you wear another layer under your jacket. We moved to Vermont in late summer, our acrylic jumpers, gloves, corduroys, and unlined work boots stowed away in boxes. They all came out in early October. None of them did a lick of good once winter arrived. I recall walking outside and taking in a deep draught of cold air. I had to prise free my nostrils before I took the second breath. I also learned why Vermont was once the sheep capital of the world: wool. Acrylic is as useless as a Tea Partier on a human rights panel in the Green Mountain State. Next order of business–lined pants from the Johnson Woolen Mills, a pair of sturdy insulated Canadian Sorel boots, and some mittens. Yes, mittens; gloves let in too much air. A Burlington day in which the wind was ripping down the east side of New York’s Adirondack Mountains and across the 12-mile-wide frozen tundra known as Lake Champlain taught me another lesson: ski mask. 

Thinking about and coping with weather was still another adjustment. Where we grew up, a few inches of snow closed down cities like Washington and Baltimore and it took days to get back to normal. Vermonters clear a foot and a half of the white stuff over night. Less than four inches of expected snow, if noted at all, is called “flurries.” It took an active storm of around a foot to cancel school, or Vermont kids would be making up lost instructional days into their thirties. There are few images that can compare to the bus circle on a sub-zero day with the steam rising off those lumbering yellow behemoths as if they were snorting, mutant, ice-covered Percherons. Nor is there a sound as distinctive as that of parents, students, and friends standing–only someone with a death wish would sit–in an unheated arena smacking their mittens together when the high school hockey team scored a goal. Clapping, by the way, always took place a few seconds after cheering subsided; it took a moment to put down the coffee thermoses and free the hands.

We were such greenhorns that it’s a miracle we survived that first winter. That summer we took a trip to Scotland and filled a suitcase with sweaters because: (a) they were really well made, (b) they were cheap, and (c) they were wool. We declared our purchases when we landed at Logan, but nonetheless were given a quick visual inspection. The agent looked over the field of assorted collection of disembodied sheep and told us that if all those sweaters were for resale we’d have to pay duty on them. “Not for resale,” I told him. “We moved to Vermont last year and these are to keep us warm.” He looked up and replied in unmistakably northern New England tones, “Ayup. I’m from up to Houlton, Maine, and y’awr good to go.” The next winter was better. Thank you Scotland. Thank you Houlton.

It’s eleven below zero. I rolled over and dreamt of Vermont–the land of the right-angle smoke.  Rob Weir

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