Passing away those long winter days

Published 12:09 pm Saturday, December 29, 2012

by Archie Howell

A long dark ribbon stretches across the sky, disappearing behind the trees at Mr. Scott’s house toward Franklin and to the west behind the hill at my brother’s house.

The ribbon swirls, undulates, breaks and reforms at the whim of thousands of blackbirds, flying now in unison, now in disharmony, always squawking and cackling their communal traveling conversations. I watch with familiar awe; it’s migrating time.

Sometimes a large singular flock swoops down to feed on what morsels remain in the large peanut field across the road. Sometimes my brother retrieves a shotgun from its storage in a closet, and sneaks across the road to have a shot or two.

I don’t know how much “sneaking up on” you can do with a flock of several thousand blackbirds, but the shots usually produce a fair number of dead or injured birds. All are dead by the time he gets to the house.

The birds are plucked and dressed in the usual manner, and are used in a pot of black bird pie (the same recipe as chicken pot pie, just using a different bird). It may be my imagination, but the color seems a little darker and a little thinner than the chicken recipe.

Days are cooler, shorter. Crops are harvested, peanut and corn fields are turned into pastures for livestock foraging. Morning ice on mud holes adds a little excitement to the morning wait for the school bus. It’s deep and strong enough to support our weight for sliding, and won’t break when we fall. I wear my cap with the earflaps folded down.

Some of our church youth group friends come over and we pull sugar on the back porch. My mother cooks some water, sugar and lemon juice (I think) in a pot until it forms a ball when dropped in cold water. At that point, it’s allowed to cool enough to not burn our fingers. The mixture is carried to the back porch; in cold air, and with buttered fingers, two or more people “pull” the sugar, folding it between pulls, until it turns to a silky sheen. Still warm, it’s laid in ribbons on a flat pan, cut into sections and allowed to harden.

The super sweet concoction is not one of my favorites, but the process is fun. It’s a social thing.

Snow begins one evening and doesn’t stop until several inches blanket our world. My siblings and I are allowed to play as much as we like in this rare treat. It’s even deep enough to scoop off a large pan full of the clean powdery stuff and make snow cream.

My mother mixes the clean snow with sugar, vanilla and milk in some secret proportions and we all enjoy the clean sweet novelty. It’s a lot easier than turning the crank on our ice cream freezer in summer.

The snow stays for a few days. Then another rarity in our neighborhood — it snows again. It continues to snow until about a foot and a half accumulates on the roads, houses and fields.

Roads close; not a single vehicle passes our house, not even a farm tractor.

We make snowmen and take turns pulling one another on our sled, and throwing the obligatory snowball at each other.

Eventually, snow plows open the highway, and my father ventures to Franklin. The hill beside the Baptist church is closed and sleds are permitted so long as the ice lasts.

We set out and take advantage of the situation. We also learn that some shallower hills at the country club are open to sledding, although I don’t think it’s exactly approved. We try those hills after dark; we are not alone.

Snow lingers along roads, in yards and sheltered spots for a month or more. I mourn its passing and content myself with remembering through family photos.

I’ve added heavier clothing to my suitcase this trip; I know it will be cold. I’m headed north to Baltimore and a blizzard is forecast.

Traffic crawls and visibility is reduced in moderate snowfall en route to the hotel in Baltimore. By morning, streets are impassable; more than two feet of snow has accumulated.

In a back area, no tracks break a pristine surface. I slip into my cold weather gear, make my way several feet into that unbroken surface, stop, think, grin a little, turn and fall backwards into softness. I extend my arms and legs, wave them up and down, and make a snow angel.

Happy with my effort, I lie still, content, my mind drifting to other days in deep snow. I laugh, full of life and memory. I am home.

Archie Howell is a Southampton County native and a 1955 graduate of Franklin High School. He can be reached at