Monday, March 10, 2008

Notes From My Knapsack 3-16-08
Jeff Gill

Is Your Street a Fjord?

From the seat of a basket-laden old bike, the streets of my paper route looked like fjords this time of year.

The high walls of plowed snow started calving off bergs in the late afternoon onto the shiny blacktop of the street, almost looking like dark still water. March snows work against the higher sun angle, meaning that the roads would clear, but freeze quickly in a glare of ice as soon as the sun’s direct light dropped even before dark fell.

Growing up further north and off of Lake Michigan, the snow of Christmas tended to form a base which ebbed and grew, but never vanished until past St. Patrick’s Day. Shoveling took extra oomph to toss over the ever higher embankments.

What I loved about that time of year was flying my Ford Trimotor with Bernt Balchen towards the South Pole, where I’d meet Paul Siple, the Eagle Scout who won a contest to go with Admiral Byrd on an expedition.

Yes, just try to imagine that happening today – it would be an on-line competition and the winner would get a live uplink for their classroom, but to go with them? Ha.

No, I didn’t go myself, but in the 60’s and 70’s I got interested in all the Shackelton, Scott, Amundsen tales of polar adventure, right down to the story of the submarine Nautilus running right under the North Pole.

Where my imagination ran more amok than usual was in making my bike a plane, and the necessary landscape of street and sidewalks a geography of adventure, with each driveway the bumpy landing zone marked out for my craft, where there were no runways, and vivid since many driveways weren’t shoveled, either. That would be when the dads got back from their shift at the steel mill, after the sun went down.

Sometimes I was Noel Wien, flying a Misso Standard or even a Curtis Jenny through the Alaskan bush, looking for a starving camp of prospectors. Most often I was flying along with Balchen or Bennett over the poles in a Trimotor, the plane which I’d actually seen up close at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn.

Books like “The Sledge Patrol” by David Howatch, set in Greeland’s fjords, or “Snow Treasure” by Marie McSwigan about the Norwegian kids who helped smuggle gold past the Nazis on their sleds to a waiting ship in a real, honest-to-Norway fjord: these were the context for my paper-delivering reveries. “Snow Treasure” didn’t have a plane in it, and there’s only a brief sighting overhead in “The Sledge Patrol,” but I had no trouble extending an aviation component to my internal versions.

I learned later that the events in “Snow Treasure” probably didn’t happen, but on the other hand I learned that Paul Siple, Eagle in the Antarctic, went on to get a Ph.D. and invented “wind chill” and the original scale for measuring it.

The point wasn’t the history as much as the immersion I could feel, gliding on my path between grey-blue walls of snow and ice, bumping to a skidding stop, and making a delivery. The Gary Post-Tribune wasn’t sulfa drugs or emergency rations, but it was my job to get it through the snow, and I took pride in keeping on my bike when other route carriers gave up and slogged on foot through the snow. (Purely pompous paperboy note: those other ones also went door to door direct, and I stayed on sidewalks. Which always helped at Christmas tip time, since many folks didn’t like you walking right past the front windows and squishing onto their porches. You saved time, but like I said, it paid off at Christmas, along with getting the screen door latched after delivery.)

Then you turned in the runway, got moving, gear up, and into the air – onto the street – and circled to find your point of entry through the mountain ranges to the next bush camp or science base or hidden military installation, and then swooping past the glacier’s face to a narrow landing zone, marked (in my mind’s eye) with smoke grenades laid by grateful troops down below.

Spring was almost a disappointment after a few months of that.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; tell your story about stories to him at

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