Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Snowstorm (i)

Charles Ephram, Country School in Winter (1918)
Long before I knew anything about the Blizzard of 1888, I wrote a story based on a tale told by Charles Dyke in The History of Sioux County, the tale of a young teacher in the middle of a blizzard that came up suddenly during an ordinary school day.

Lately I've been reading more about that incredible blizzard, a horrible storm that killed somewhere between 250 and 500 homesteaders, most of them children. David Laskin tells the tragic story in The Children's Blizzard, and Ted Koozer's collection of poems, Blizzard Voices, uses the remembrances of people who lived through it to tell it from the inside.

It's an embarrassingly long story, but what did I know about writing forty years ago? What I knew was that I'd stumbled on a terrific story I thought I'd like to try to write. Last week, temps fell so low no one who didn't have to went out, and I was reminded of the danger we live with here on the northern Plains.

This is "Snowstorm," from my very first book of stories, Sign of a Promise

There was no sun that morning, but the day held the promise of warmth, that was itself a relief from winter. A southern breeze spread comfort over the prairie, melted what snow remained, and loosened the grip of frost. The ground around the schoolhouse began soften already the day before; and when the night failed to bring its ritual frost, by morning, the topsoil warmed into a lake of mud. The children splashed through it along the paths they daily took to school. By the time they arrived, everything was layered with the wet black earth.

Katharine Baarman knew the warm weather would make recess even more inviting to the children, but better judgment insisted she call them in early because the floor would be a mess. It would be her luck to see the county superintendent open the door today and find the place a barnyard.

So she called the children early, interrupting a slip and slide game of "pom-pom-pullaway.” The careful kids were happy. Little Nick looked almost relieved when she rang the bell. He tiptoed like a ballerina, trying in vain to avoid the splattering mud to get to the front door. Most girls, wanting no part of the dirt, were already inside. They peeked out the door from behind her and looked sternly at the boys.

A familiar voice, deep and rough, shouted from across the playground. "Way too early, Miss Baarman!"

“That John Mulder," one of the girls said. "He has already pushed some little kids in the mud—and school hasn’t even started."

"It ain't time yet!" John yelled.

Five or six boys, half his size, crowded him, his foot soldiers, Katharine thought. Even though Mulder was sixteen and other boys his age stayed on the farm and worked with their fathers, he remained in school, at least when he wasn’t needed at home.

"Baarman," he yelled, surrounded by hero-worshippers, "we ain't comin' yet, hear?"

"John Mulder, I’m not going to say it again,” she insisted. It was far too early for a fight they’d likely have anyway sometime throughout the day. "Listen to me now!--and bring those boys in with you.”

Dirk and Henry and a couple of other squirts looked at their hero, then to their teacher at the door of the schoolhouse. Their courage was draining.

"John Mulder, you come in-now!" Mary Boersma said.

Katherine turned and gave Mary a reprimand with her eyes. She didn't need help.

Three little boys zipped across the slick ground and came up the steps. But Dirk and Henry didn’t move. They pulled their rabbit-skin hats over their eyes, pushed their mittened hands into their pockets, and stood their slippery ground.

Mulder stood there in the silence he knew was a test of wills, then, reluctantly, started walking, and swore just loud enough for her to hear, "Ach, verdomd,” he said and then mumbled something about her, something she didn't want to hear when she saw his little troopers jerk their hands up to their faces.

"That John Mulder. If his papa wasn't so rich... "

"Now, Mary, John is here to learn too, just like you." Katharine turned back into the doorway while the kids were cleaning their shoes.

"But he don't care nothing--"


"... doesn't care nothing--"


"... doesn't care anything about... " Mary had almost forgotten what she was going to say “--about learning things, ma'am. You know that's true."

"You girls take your seats now, and I'll be right in." She turned back to the door to make sure the insurrection was dead, then looked out over the empty prairie to the sky, thick, this morning, in a quilt of bluish­ gray that rolled past, heaving like locomotive steam on a cold day, clouds so close their turbulence was almost frightening.


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