One year during the century before this one — the year 1960 — I spent a frigid winter living in humble circumstances in a shack at the edge of the Ozark woods.
I was unmarried and jobless than — both by choice. My purpose was to see if, during that period of self-imposed solitude, I might somehow find my way to progress as a writer.
My lodging was a single small room, its dimensions three steps by four steps.
The furnishings consisted of an ancient iron-framed bed, a wash basin, two straight chairs, a rocker and a linoleum-topped table on which to put my typewriter.
Just outside the door was a water well with a hand pump.
For heat there was a drafty old stove meant for burning coal. But my only available fuel was wood, which meant the fire often burned low, or even went out completely, well before morning. Having no chain saw, I made my stove wood with a hand saw and ax.
I’d gone to the woods in the sweetness of a golden October, just as the Canada geese were coming south, filling the nights with their song of passage.
For company I had a tinny little radio that told me as much about the world as I cared to know. It also played good country music, and the hot song that season was one titled “North to Alaska.” As December blew in, I felt like I was there.
That winter was uncommonly harsh, with spells as bitter as the one we’ve suffered in the city these recent days. There were a good many mornings when the thermometer hanging on the outside cabin wall registered minus 7 degrees.
My diet ran heavily to wild game — fried rabbit and squirrel — and biscuits that I baked in a stovetop oven. I had no refrigerator, or any need for one. Any leftovers I just hung in a sack from a nail out by the thermometer.
For nighttime comfort I had a 15-year-old Boy Scout sleeping bag, meant for campouts when temperatures were in the 40s. But I also had the gift of two little stray hounds who came to me for shelter and paid their keep by sleeping on my feet at night and probably sparing me frostbite.
So that was my winter. In early May, when the tree frogs had begun singing and the geese were heading back north, I returned to civil society, having lived the whole seven months on less than $100 and having written a good many hundred words without having sold a one.
Much of this I’ve told before — some more than once. But I feel no embarrassment repeating myself. Being tedious isn’t punishable as plagiarism.
All that was over 50 years ago and life has greatly changed, very much for the better.
I’m solitary no longer. I live in a real house with my wife, my priceless companion.
We have two daughters who give us endless joy. Our furnace is fueled by something more dependable than wood.
And my diet has gotten more diverse. The rabbits on our lawn and the squirrels in our trees can live without worrying they’ll end up in a pot.
The two little hounds that warmed my feet are a long time gone. Their successor, the beagle Buddy, is so well fed he no longer can make it onto the bed. And cats, of which we have some, don’t supply much heat. What they give is an abundance of affection.
It’s one thing to have lived such a winter by choice. But what I cannot help thinking, as I look out in comfort through my window at the frozen world, is how many others there must be — adults and children, aged or infirm, or just unlucky — for whom such a spell of brutal weather brings a kind of pain the more fortunate will never know.
The beauty of the season or the distress it brings depends on where it finds you.