Monday, September 18, 2006

A Story for the Grandkids

I was over at One Good Thing, reading about how Flea's cats figured out how to open a Tupperware container with ten pounds of sugar in it and how her husband cried out,"No!! No!! God, no! What have you done?!" Instead of getting upset, she had her husband help her (by tossing the cat and the sugar he had cleaned up back on the counter) take a picture of the mess and how that had turned the frustration into a funny blog post. I remembered recently when Julie got a very bad ear of corn served in a restaurant in a town famous for its corn and took a picture of that for her blog and I realized that I have been doing this sort of thing long before the Internet. These days we say, "I'm going to have to blog about this," and I used to say, "This is going to make a great story to tell my grandchildren" and the problem would reduce from admitting of no solution into narrative.

When Julie and Richard and I first moved to Alaska, in the 60s, we lived on a homestead outside of Fairbanks. It was in line with power poles going further out and so had electricity, but no indoor plumbing or phone, and was heated by a potbelly stove, which is a lot more romantic to read about than to live with. Waking up in the morning to discover that, yet once again, the fire has gone out and there is ice on the water you intend to brush your teeth and bathe with, is less fun than you might imagine. Coming home from work to no smoke coming out of the chimney is an absolute downer. So, I replaced the potbelly stove with an oil burner, with three 50 gallon drums connected and placed on a platform outside the window. At first it was the most amazing thing. No one had to feed oil into the stove, just fill the barrels periodically, and the rest of the time gravity fed it and the house was warm.

Until the snow began to melt. What my 16-year-old nephew Tony and I hadn't realized when we installed the stove in January was that the ground we put the barrel platform on was frozen and would thaw come spring. Which it did. Not some day when it would have been convenient to discover the problem, but one night when I was alone out there, with two small children and the car stuck in the snow! The back end of the platform was sinking down and settling into the mud, and there was no oil high enough to flow into the heater. The kids were asleep and I was frantic. I couldn't get them out of there in the car. I couldn't walk them out at that time of night and depend on there being any traffic when I got us to the road. No phone meant I couldn't call for help. We had hiked out earlier and called Tony from a neighbor's and he was coming to help me get the car dug out the next afternoon, but that was a long way in the future and they were already exhausted from the first walk. And the house was getting colder and colder.

I tried everything I could think of. Nothing worked. There was just no way to get any oil from the barrel up the slope to the feeder barrel and back down to the heater! It looked like we were going to freeze with 120 gallons of oil right there, just at the wrong end of the gravity feed. And so, as I had done since I was about seven years old, I found myself saying, "Boy, this is going to be a story to tell to the grandkids!" And I started telling it in my head. "I tried a hose and it broke from the cold," I said (I had and it had), "and I tried jacking up the lower end of the platform, but I wasn't strong enough to manage that (I had and I wasn't), why I even tried pouring oil from the lowest barrel into a measuring cup and then pouring it into the highest barrel . . ." and there was the answer! I was able to get enough oil where it needed to be to hold us until Tony and his cousin Davy came out, three of us with two jacks were able to get the platform leveled again, we built a floor under the legs of the platform (which we tended every weekend through break-up), and Bob's your uncle, we had heat.

So, thank you Maya. Before your mother was even as old as you are right now, Granny saved the day by telling you a story.

14 comments:

lorettambeaver said...

Yes, life in Alaska in the 60's was an adventure in itself. I am glad you wrote this down, we all need to keep track of those incidents that make life interesting. thanks for sharing, Much love, Tony's Mom, Your big siter Lori

Maya's Granny said...

Lori,
I'm so glad that you were the first person to read and comment on this. That's not the only time that Tony saved my bacon -- he was a strong friend, in addition to a loving nephew.

Joy Des Jardins said...

I can feel the panic you must have felt J trying to keep you and your kids from freezing. That's quite a story to pass on to Maya. Thank God you had a cool head about you...that was the key.

Maya's Granny said...

Joy, I am certain that the habit of casting my current frustration as a story is what freed me to get the perspective I needed. Once the problem had moved, if only in my head, from something I could do nothing about to something that (since I was telling the story years in the future) I must have already solved, the solution was allowed to occur to me. Who could predict that such a silly habit would bear such wonderful results? That is not the only time I solved a problem that way, but it is the most dramatic.

J said...

If only the house we lived in was as nice as the one in the picture you have there. ;)

Maya's Granny said...

J,
Yes, wouldn't that have been lovely?

meno said...

Ah, the excitement of the backwoods lifestyle. It's often best viewed from a distance of years.
Thank you for the story.

Maya's Granny said...

Meno,
One of the great things about the backwoods lifestyle is that it taught me that I could make it under those conditions, which greatly enhanced my self-esteem. The other -- it made me very appreciative of modern conveniences. When the first step to washing dishes in winter is "stand on the bridge with a 30-06 and blow a hole in the ice, then lower a bucket" the advent of hot running water is a miracle. I've been off the homestead since 1972, and I still appreciate indoor plumbing and heat I don't have to chop kindling for.

Cuppa said...

Oh my, what stories you have to tell. I will be back to read more for sure.

Thanks for dropping by my place to say hello. Next time I'll put the kettle on and make us a cup of tea.

laluna said...

You were ever so brave to live out in the middle of the wilderness with your little ones. It just shows what a strong individual you are.

Py Korry said...

I thought I heard most of the "big" Alaska stories, but this one I've never heard!

Good thing you kept trying to solve the problem!

Maya's Granny said...

Yeah, Ted -- where would you be if I hadn't? What a horrible thought.

kenju said...

What a scary situation to be in - and I am amazed that you found a way out of it! Good show!

Ally Bean said...

the positive power of family-- real or imagined. that's a good story.