Tom Clyde: 2019’s off to a chilly yet great start
On the morning of New Year’s Day, it was -20 degrees Fahrenheit at my house. That’s cold enough that our old farmhand would have briefly considered turning the ear flaps down on his Elmer Fudd hat. Stouter stuff than me. There are a million reasons to celebrate being out of the cattle business, but not having to go feed a herd of very cold, very hungry cattle when it’s that temperature is near the top of the list.
Nothing really works when it’s that cold. Even with a block heater on the engine, the big 4×4 tractor we used to feed with was reluctant to start. The hydraulic fluid was extra thick, and it had to sit there and warm up for a long time before the steering would work. My cousins, who are far more involved in the livestock end of things than I ever was, had to help their father get the cattle fed early enough in the morning that they could gulp a little breakfast and catch the school bus. There was no lounging about until the sun came up. We were out of the dairy business before I can really remember, but I can imagine looking at the thermometer reading -20 at 5:00 a.m. and knowing that you had to get 120 cows milked. I suppose the heat of the cows themselves might have made the barn bearable, but not much more than that.
My Dad always used to get antsy on a morning that cold. Instead of waiting for things to warm up slightly, he would worry about his car starting. So he’d go out just after sunrise and grind away at it until the battery was dead. I always thought he could wait a few hours to give it a fighting chance. After killing several options, eventually something would start, and he would jump the rest of them. A little patience would have solved a lot of that, but if you were looking for patience, Dad was not the place to go.
On mornings like that, the neighbor with the longest set of jumper cables is very popular. Nobody ever thinks about parking so the battery is easily reached. It seems like car batteries are better now, or at least less temperamental. A lot of the old farm machinery was 6-volt rather than 12, and it all became hard to start if got cloudy, let alone cold, outside. Even with a block heater, it was always a challenge to start the old 6-volt stuff. My sister and all her kids had several cars parked outside, and everything fired up.
There are all the little hacks you figure out, even with a new and well-insulated house. Leave the cupboard doors open on the cabinets under the sinks. That way the heat can get to the pipes, especially if they are on an outside wall. Close the garage door. Seal up any cracks around the hose bibs, because if the wind blows in, the cold will penetrate like a pipe-bursting laser. And there are nights when you just leave the tap dripping.
It’s become something of a New Year’s tradition next door at the old family house to have the furnace fail. The furnace is relatively new, and most years, it chugs along fine. But every couple of years there’s a little doohickey that gets soot built up on it, and that tells the brain of the furnace that the gas has gone off, and it all shuts down. Always after everybody has gone to bed, so they wake up freezing.
This year it was a little rubber hose that had become clogged and split. I never could tell if it was supposed to drain water out, or provide vacuum on some sensor, but it was shot. My nephew MacGuyvered up a replacement out of several multi-colored, twisty plastic straws (Mickey Mouse ears) and electrical tape that brought it back to life. I guess the good news is that it happens when they are there. The house is vacant a lot of the time, and if the furnace craps out when they aren’t there, it’s a problem. They have a system that alerts them if the temperature drops too low, but by that time, it may be too late.
On that -20 morning, the dogs were determined to get out for their walk. I bundled up and we walked along the riverbank just after sunrise. A bald eagle was shivering in a tree across the river, and the willow branches were all coated with a fine frost. The ice dams in the river had created rapids and little water falls. It was a breathtakingly beautiful morning. For breakfast, I polished off a double serving of leftover cheesecake.
The breakfast of champions, and a perfect start to a new year.
Tom Clyde practiced law in Park City for many years. He lives on a working ranch in Woodland and has been writing this column since 1986.
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