A Twister Was Brewing

Saturday morning. Mid-May weather. Roaring backyard brook singing baritone accompaniment to the morning cardinal’s joyous melody emanating from the naked pink weigela bush. Across the horseshoe driveway’s snow-lined western leg, a thin, silent trickle of glistening snow-melt spills down toward a puddle behind the mailbox.

Ah, the ebullient sights and sounds of spring, albeit premature.

As we now know, that splendid Saturday morn was the calm before the fury of an isolated hilltown storm that bounced in from Goshen and wreaked havoc first in Conway’s Poland, then Pumpkin Hollow, that quaint  neighborhood  where rebellious spirits lurk, dating back to the earliest days when  Rev. Samuel Ely, Abel Dinsmore, Samuel Wells, Perez Bardwell and other insurgents vociferously challenged oversight and taxation from the thieving, faraway, post-Revolutionary Statehouse.

Maybe we should have seen this catastrophe coming given the rare, balmy 70-degree February day, which was indeed forecast to conclude with a threatening overnight band of heavy rain and possible thunderstorms. Yeah, that’s right, thunderstorms … in February. Hard to imagine, though no longer impossible these days when the people in charge want us to write off  climate change as a Chinese hoax. Well, tell the folks of Conway about this rhetorical “hoax.” You know, the tornado that touched down Saturday night, paying a loud, brief and highly destructive visit in the form of — um — a winter twister dancing through our Berkshire foothills. It was the first winter storm of its type ever recorded anywhere near the Pioneer Valley and its peaceful hills. Maybe it, too, was sent from China, huh? Or was it the work of Putin, our new president’s pal who apparently worked behind the scenes to sway our election? Hmmmmm? It just keeps getting more and more bizarre daily, doesn’t it? Dare we ponder where will it all end?

Anyway, I began the inspiring Saturday past with morning reading, bright warm sun filtering through parlor sheers, woodstove tipped down low and barely necessary. The telephone broke the silence. Childhood buddy Rogie wanted to know if I’d like company on my daily morning walk with the dogs? Sure. Why not? Another human being with whom too chat is never unwelcome, even over sacred, soul-searching terrain.

He arrived pre-noon and we moved right along, navigating carefully through icy shaded areas below tall stately hardwoods bordering the upper level, before following a deer run down a natural, wooded ramp cluttered with beech trees large and small, tall and bushy, head-high smaller ones still wearing a full complement of khaki-brown leaves. Where the trail flattened out onto a thorny, snow-covered, marshy thicket, a slim melt-water channel defined the escarpment base’s contour. It may not be spring yet, but it sure felt like it, minus the soothing splashes of pastel buds coloring the backdrop.

Farther along, overlooking the swollen Green River’s western bank, baying geese passing high above, three black ducks took flight and quickly vanished around a wooded bend. They were the first ducks I’d seen there for quite some time. It made sense they were there. In the cornfield a quarter-mile westward were hundreds of Canada geese, with probably dozens of hidden ducks mixed in. It was a birdie kind of spring day, flocks of red-winged blackbirds as noisy in the marshland as the starling flock we passed in the northwestern corner of  adjacent corn-stubble.

The sights and sounds of spring were omnipresent. As we climbed the gentle double-rutted ramp to the iron gate separating the upper and lower terraces, those same three black ducks again flushed upstream, followed by a pair of flashy white common merganser drakes, again the first I’ve seen in some time on that section of flat-water where I often rouse them.

The rambling conversation between Rogie and me focused primarily on our hometown, South Deerfield, which has changed dramatically since the days when I patrolled it afoot and on bicycles, and when Billy Rotkiewicz’s Frontier Pharmacy was our  unofficial center of the universe. Even the streets and neighborhoods have changed since then, but not nearly as much as the people and government. Gone are the kinder, gentler days of Chief Jim “Twitch” Rosenthal and “Pistol Pete” Kuchieski, friendly fathers of the kids next door who knew the difference between kids’ stuff, small-town pranks and crime.

I’m glad I grew up there when I did. Those were the days when town officials ignored the torching of a decaying Mt. Sugarloaf summit house, leaving the arson largely uninvestigated and unpunished. Then, less than 10 years later, the authorities “probed” with a wink, a nod and a bemused grin the sticks of dynamite flung from a rented plane flying over town  to augment the  1973   Tricentennial Fourth of July fireworks celebration. Many townspeople knew who was responsible for the loud prank and chuckled. Can you imagine what would have become of the mischievous culprits today? Oh my! Gitmo would have been too good for them.

But let’s not digress. Finished walking, solving the ills of the world and reminiscing about the good old days of “Sowdeerfeel,” we wound up back in the front parlor where the phone call had earlier been answered. There, after I brought in a couple armfuls of cordwood to refill the stove-side cradle, our conversation turned to the going price and work required to heat with wood. The discussion soon meandered to a counter-culture vendor from whom I’ve bought many cords, and hired when in need of tree service. When my friend wanted to know more about this interesting East Colrain character and his cordwood operation, I got tired of describing it and suggested an up-close-and-personal introduction.

“You got time to take a little ride?” I asked.

“Yeah, let’s go.”

And off we went, up the hill north, climbing steep Smead Hill Road to Van Nuys Road before winding down to Shelburne Line, West Leyden and Green River roads — a ride of six or seven miles before banging a U-ie on North Green River Road before Guilford, Vt., and heading back to the old Denison Sawmill.

Curiously, out in the boondocks at the fork of North Green River and New County roads, a solitary cock pheasant was picking at roadside gravel. Where in the world did this long-tailed rooster come from? Then, sure enough, the ringneck was still there on the return trip, clinging to the edge of a three-foot, roadside snowbank to let us pass. Maybe someone in that Stewartville neighborhood raises pheasants. Seems to me I saw a similar winter cock bird feeding there six or seven years ago on the way home from friends’ home up the road.

Traveling back up West Leyden Road, climbing west toward Colrain Mountain, Rogie detected activity at my old pal the wood vender’s place.

“Pull in,” he said. “I want to talk to that guy and take a look at his operation.”

I turned right, up a muddy driveway and past a massive pile of unsplit 16-inch wood chunks. Sure enough, there he was, Blue Sky himself — quite the fella — ready to knock off a pleasant February afternoon of wood processing on the cool north face of his ridge.

“We don’t get much sun up here,” he told Rogie, “so it’s necessary to stack it and cover the top if you want to season wood.”

“Wow!” said my friend, “I didn’t think anyone in the business did it the old-fashioned way anymore. It’s a lot of work. How do you make money?”

Blue Sky admitted he didn’t think much about that, claiming he’d been at it a long time and had a loyal customer-pool willing to pay a little more for dry, quality cordwood. His most profitable venture these days is milling lumber, especially black locust, which doesn’t absorb water and thus makes great fence posts among other things. Locust has replaced extinct American chestnut for many common uses. Not only that, but it’s a superior fuel that burns so hot that he recommends mixing it with other hardwoods to extend stove life.

On our way home, maybe a mile up the hill, approaching the old Elwell Farm, a deer trotted out in front of my truck and crossed the road as I took my foot off the gas pedal.

“Be careful,” Rogie cautioned, “there could be another one.”

And, sure enough, seconds later, a second deer soon followed, crossing the road before both high-tailed it into the woods maybe 50 yards from the old Elwell homestead. A pretty sight, maybe yearling twins. Perhaps their mom had already crossed, or maybe she didn’t survive the winter. Who knows? It seemed like a mature doe should have been accompanying two small deer.

We retraced our steps back to my Greenfield Meadows home, arriving around 2:30. Rogie fired up his truck and headed home to South Deerfield. I went back to reading in the same chair where my morning had begun, awaiting the return of my wife from a brief visit in her hometown of Hampden.

That night, we caught first wind of the Conway catastrophe, then followed it closer the next morning. At 5 p.m. Sunday, home for supper, the phone rang. The Caller-ID read Blue Sky.

“Hey, Buddy,” he said in that deep voice of his. “A friend of mine just called and said they had a microburst or tornado in Conway. Do you know anything about it?”

“Yeah,” I answered, “it happened up in my neck of the woods. I guess it did quite a number on Punkin’ Hollow, leveled the dairy barn at the old Page Farm, where the antique dealers John and Jan Maggs now live. You can’t miss it … big barn, just below Conway Pool, opposite the old town common.”

He tried to picture it but was coming up empty. Not his place.

I have an idea Blue Sky was experiencing a flashback of sorts to days past. He must have been thinking about throwing his chain saw and clean-up equipment into the truck, hitching up his noisy chipper and heading to Conway, just like he would have back in his Colrain Tree Service adventures.

Hey, a man’s gotta make a living, you know … even a 67-year-old who’s already furrowed his field and ought to be resting his feet on the living-room ottoman.

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