Of Refugees and Lands Surrendered to Winter

Midwestern people retreat from winter to the south and west, and by the time they reach Florida or SoCal or Hawaii they are pretty well thawed out and the defeat has left their bodies.

Here in Salvation Point, though, the average high this time of year is 54 degrees. That puts us a little closer to the front both in terms of geography and climate. We are not in the thick of it – no snow cover, no frost advisory – but close enough to the Occupied Territory that when people get here the scars of winter are fresh. We are a halfway house, a field hospital where warriors of the cold begin to heal.

They come from places like Milwaukee, Dubuque or Omaha. Places where this year Cold means the kind that makes the hair in your nose recoil and where Snow means a crackling gray-black mass of sorrow that will remain on the lawn – quite unfashionably – past Memorial Day.

They are not from the Northeast, where people are comforted by a sympathetic media that makes big news from each snow event and wind chill warning, as long as it occurs on EST. They are from the Midwest where it is just as cold and maybe not as snowy but they understand that unless you live there, you don’t care. They just battle on in flyover country and when they have had enough, they take the train west.

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Two such trains arrive every day in Salvation Point, and judging by the hollow eyes and slumped, parka-covered shoulders, things aren’t going well. So many refugees have arrived here we wonder who is left to hold the fort.

The doors of the Amtrak Superliners whoosh open and the dark forms stream out, and to them 54 degrees is heaven. They shed heavy coats dappled with salt residue and hurl them to the curb, kicking giant boots after them. Other items are discarded more reluctantly – nobody is sure what their hair looks like anymore so hats stay firmly in place, flaps down.

They gather in little groups and share stories of heroic episodes with snowblowers. They count the schooldays the kids have missed due to cold and snow, and try to calculate the makeup days and when summer vacation will actually start. (August.)

They chronicle the erosion of their will to fight. December snow is cleared enthusiastically – snowblower first, then the fine trim with a shovel, a good spreading of salt and finally around with the roof rake to prevent ice dams. Snow in early March gets driven over. The roof rake got left out sometime around MLK day and is now entombed under 18 inches of ice and the dams are well formed anyway so it’s better to just stay inside.

Like veterans who have shared combat, they won’t talk about the worst of it. They just exchange knowing glances and look timidly up at the sun as though they expect it to wink out at any moment and plunge the temps back under zero.

Re-acclimating to a state where water can exist in liquid form outdoors is a lengthy process. They come around slowly – a kid tosses a Frisbee, another looks on until his mother coaxes him out from under her coat to retrieve it. Small steps, a little more pale flesh exposed every few minutes until they are in shirtsleeves.

A day or two here and then on to San Diego for a week, maybe from there a cruise to Cabo, and in time they are restored.

The Midwest is vital to the nation for the amber waves of grain, the Great Lakes, the hearty people who know how to get things done. But holding the territory against an onslaught so vicious as this winter comes at a staggering cost. We need spring soon, or the Heartland may be lost.

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Mouse Call

I’m being pushed around by a mouse, and he’s pushing my buttons. It’s supposed to work the other way, isn’t it?

It all started last week. While operating the layout, I heard the unmistakable sound of a visitor somewhere in the drywall over Herbst Junction.

Scritch scratch. Nibble nibble. Pitter patter.

Mus Musculus. The common house mouse.

Drat.

On Saturday I tore out several square feet of wallboard and pulled out even more insulation, and with it gallons of maple seeds and other souvenirs the little so-and-so had brought in.

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“… I tore out several square feet of wallboard and pulled out even more insulation, and with it gallons of maple seeds …”

After several hours of awkward bending I had sealed up all the spaces I could reach without ripping out the top foot of the entire wall, though I know that will have to be done eventually.

The layout fared OK. One worker from Red Earth Co-Op got sucked into the Shop-Vac, but he always looked kind of surly to me so I don’t think he’ll be missed.

Once I had everything cleaned up I set out some traps to check my work, hoping they’d sit undisturbed. Overnight one of them was tripped, licked clean of peanut butter, and left empty.

The game of Me and Mouse was afoot.

It pays to know your enemy, so I was glad he called:

“I’m beginning to feel unwelcome,” said the mouse. “Last month you clean the garage and move the bird seed into a Rubbermaid bin, and now you try to kick me out of the house. What gives?”

He sounded manly for a mouse.

“What gives?” I said. “I can’t have mice in my house. It’s untidy. It makes my wife edgy. It’s got me re-evaluating my worth as a man and my ability to provide a suitable home for my family. I am now of the class of people who have mice. You’ve touched off a real existential crisis, not to mention making me waste the better part of a Saturday.”

I could hear him nibbling, his whiskers brushing against the receiver.

“If my presence makes you uncomfortable, that’s your problem,” he said. “I’m just looking for a warm place to lay my head. But I don’t think it’s my untidiness that bothers you.”

“Oh no? What bothers me?”

“You’re jealous,” he said. “I take care of myself doing logical, no-nonsense things all day. No boss, no status reports, no ‘re-evaluating my worth.’ Just the real work of finding food and shelter. My life makes perfect sense. You’re jealous.”

In the information war, this mouse had me beat. I barely knew how he got in the house, he understood what makes me tick.

“You might be on to something,” I admitted. “But at least I’m not a parasite. The boss and status reports allow me to provide that warmth you’re after. And I worked hard finishing that basement. I was pretty proud of how it turned out.”

He inhaled deeply, let it out slow.

“It’s a crumbling world,” he sighed. “The work of your hands is not immune.”

A philosophical mouse with an apocalyptic worldview. What other kind would I get?

“So you pride yourself on contributing to the decay?” I asked.

“I’m a mouse. It’s why we’re here.”

I pictured him shrugging, if mice shrug.

“And that’s why you’re not getting in my house,” I said.

It was an empty threat. I have hours of work to do to properly rodent-proof the basement. But I can’t get to it this week.

Status reports are due.

“We’ll see.” he chuckled. “Do me a favor – next time use chunky peanut butter. I prefer chunky.”