Cleared my throat. Pushed off. And Lived Life.

Jimmy went first. No surprise to me. It was his idea to begin with and he was oldest and kind of a crazy kid anyway. Do-anything crazy. Ketchup-on-chocolate cake crazy. His little sister Jeannie was crazier than he was and always wanted to prove it; no surprise she went next. But I was surprised when Big Sis went. She’d never been big on Speed and Danger and Risk and even though she told me right afterwards that it was fun and she’d liked it, I didn’t believe her. She was shaking too hard and her face was really white and she looked like she might barf.

My turn. Hm.

sludgoville. Blizzard of ’66. Three days in March. Roads blocked. Drifts high as houses. Snowed in at my Uncle’s farm with Uncle Ted and Aunt Agatha and Big Sis and my two nutty cousins. I’m almost six.

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The worst of the storm had passed, leaving behind a deep-blue sky and a lemon-yellow sun that was proving worthless against the crystal-clear but cuttingly-frigid arctic air that always rushed in for a few days following a good, honest NoDak blizzard. But none of us kids cared how cold it was outside. After three days trapped in that farmhouse, we had to get out and do something and Ted and Agatha agreed. So they bundled us into snow-suits and mittens and scarves and boots and we got out. And saw it.

Enormous, cartoonish, twisting and turning and rolling over and out and back in on itself, the giant snowdrift leaned against the front of the barn, stretching up almost to the hayloft and wrapping itself around and over the roof, then down the entire north side, all the way to the west end where it scooped out and dropped off steeply then rose sharply again over the attached chicken coop before dumping out into a nice, soft, delta of powdery white next to the horse corral.

“Where are the sleds?”

Jimmy’s Idea.

And now it was My Turn. And I was scared.

But the Big Kids had already done it and two of them were Girls for cryin’ out loud and if I didn’t do it Jimmy would never let me forget it so I climbed up the rickety wooden stairs to the dusty and sneezy hayloft of Ted’s barn, little aluminum snowsaucer in thick-mitted tow, trudged over to the opened hayloft door, hopped out onto the front of the drift, and scuttled along the north end of the roof, up to the west peak to the little flat spot Jimmy had made at the very tip-top as a launch pad. I laid the saucer down and got on slowly and carefully and gingerly to avoid any premature-launch disasters. I aimed down toward the roof of the coop that now seemed hundreds of feet below and away, and suddenly noticed my heart was hitting really hard and really fast and my mouth was really dry and my stomach was kind of flipping. I dug my mitts deep into the snow on either side of me to hold my position. I couldn’t do it.

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I looked down at the farmhouse and noticed that Ted had come out to watch.

Ted was my Favorite Uncle. Ever. One of sludgoville’s most successful farmers, he loved lutefisk and straight vodka and Dairy Queen and parted his hair down the middle and had gold-capped teeth. He smoked Chesterfields and chewed RedMan and skipped Mass when the Vikes were on and told bad Norwegian jokes that us kids thought were absolutely hilarious but always made Agatha clear her throat. I loved visiting him at the Farm because he’d let me stay up on school nights to watch Carson and have Lucky Charms for supper and sips of his Schlitz and eat as much bacon as I wanted and swear.

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He taught me to play Poker and how to buy a good horse and tell a bad pig from a distance. Taught me about diesels. Two-strokes. Hydraulics. What Torque meant. How to ride a wheelie on his little blue Honda Trail 70 all the way down to the mailboxes at the main road. How to do donuts in his El Camino in the field out by the machine shop. How to drive a tractor. And a swather. And a combine. And a grain-truck. And Agatha’s Sedan deVille. Once. Way before I had a license.

Ted also had a Story to tell. The usual suspects. Survivor of a tough, abusive childhood. Major poverty. The early loss of his Dad. Then his sister. Rock-Bottom Broke. Twice. The loss of his first son. The near-loss of the Farm. The near-loss of Agatha. Beating Cancer in ’61 when nobody beat Cancer. Then losing his right arm in ’64; Farming can be a Brutal Game.

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Thing is, Ted never thought he had a Story to tell. Or at least one that made any difference. Ted just kept going. Forward. Onward. Upward. Always the happiest guy in the room. Thankful and Gracious and Charitable and Kind. Never worried. Never scared. Truly Courageous.

Right before he passed, he told me he’d always seen each of his days as the Latest, Greatest, and Last chance to Live Life. To feel Love. And Pain. And Happiness. And Misery. And Friendship. And Loneliness. That no one ever promised him a smooth ride. Or a safe one. That sometimes the bumps and the scrapes were what made it worthwhile. That he’d never been really scared because in the end he figured it was too short of a trip to waste time with Fear.

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Back in ’66. Launch Pad. I looked down at Ted. Saw that golden smile. Those dark, calm eyes. That empty sleeve. Thought I could smell the hot cocoa and freshly-baked snickerdoodles Agatha had waiting for us in by the fire. Looked out West and saw the sundogs framing the setting sun. Gonna be colder tomorrow. Dark soon.

Cleared my throat. Pushed off.

And Lived Life.

Safe Travels…

sludgo

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