Seven below

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Somewhere within the thin blue line that separates winter night from winter day, the past from the present and the real from the imaginary, there lies a world on the edge. This is the land where art begins. I was in that line not too long ago, standing in a dark lonely corner behind a curtain that divided me from a brightly lit full house stage as I listened to a young man singing a song — a song that was carrying me far away.

The time was the early 1990s. The place was Little Goose Ranch. I was running the ranch and Trudy was working early mornings as a nurse at Sheridan Memorial Hospital. Tris, our oldest boy, had loaded up on the big yellow school bus that, along with the seasons, the moon and the sun, had added another regular cycle to our lives. These days belonged to Sam and me.

Sam was — and always has been — his own person, with an old man’s way of looking out at a big world from the safety of little boy blue eyes. Each morning that winter at breakfast we’d discuss our work strategy for the day ahead. I’d then get him bundled up, packed out the door and away we’d go to feed the cows. This feeding chore consisted of me loading a good jag of small square bales on the flatbed Ford while Sam listened to NPR news in the cab. When I’d climb back in the truck, we’d head out to the feeding ground about a mile down the road from the barnyard.

This was where Sam’s big job would begin: he’d sit up on his knees and “drive” the idling truck in first gear while I’d cut bales and push them off the back to the cows below. This was clearly a father-son team effort.

One first light morning as I was boiling coffee, I sensed a change in the air. Looking out at the porch thermometer, I heard it silently shouting that it was seven below zero.

“Hmmph,” I thought. “Cold front. Must have been what that wind was about last night.”

I got Sam up, made him his breakfast, warmed up the truck and got him stuffed like a sausage into his winter outfit. Together we left the house. The sharp air we were breathing had an electric feel to it as we crunched through the new snow toward the idling truck. Driving to the haystack, Sam became fascinated by the emerging purple light that was waking up the snow around us. He started asking me the questions that would end up running deep enough through me to eventually come out as a song.

“It was seven below through my window glass today

When I went to go load the pickup full of hay

My little boy said that the snow was blue

And he asked me if I knew

How the mountains got so close today”

Somehow, 25 years fell out of my life as I waited backstage and heard those words again. My boys and I were playing our annual WYO concert, and each of us was singing a song that had been written by another one of us. I could feel that morning flooding into my life as I listened from behind the curtain; it was plain to see that the singer had captured the rest of the house, as well. They were believing him — believing me — as he unfolded his story.

“I started feeding the cows and let him drive the truck real slow

But he bottomed it out where the wind had blown the snow

I said we’d go for a tractor ride when I got back if he stayed inside

I ran and I worried all the way

When I got back here’s what he had to say”

I again felt that panic hit my belly the way it did so long ago when I realized that Sam was too little to walk back to the ranch with me that morning. I had told him to stay in the truck but, as I suspected, when I walked off about 20 steps and turned around, he was following me. I had to scare him into staying put.

“If you follow me, you’re gonna die. Do you want to die?”

As stubborn as he was, those strong words changed his mind. I packed him and his little cheek tear back into the truck and told him I’d be back for him as soon as I could but that I’d be gone for awhile. Awhile turned out to be a long enough time for a scared little boy to discover magic in a hay field.

“Dad you shoulda seen the bird in front of me

It was bigger than you

And the moon went down on a buffalo

I saw little wolves laughing at me and disappearing like smoke

While I was waiting for you in seven below”

The message he was singing was about perspective; there exists more than one reality for any given person, place and time. Most experience it. Few ever know it.

“There was a buffalo herd running over to the west

On the ridges there were all the tracks that they had left

And down in the brush was a whitetail fawn

That the coyotes had been feeding on

When I saw an eagle leave his tree

I saw his side of what he’d said to me”

I peeked around the curtain as he repeated the chorus. I was mouthing the words along with him. This time it was my cheek that was packing the tear.

“Dad you shoulda seen the bird in front of me

It was bigger than you

And the moon went down on a buffalo

I saw little wolves laughing at me and disappearing like smoke

While I was waiting for you in seven below”

Flanked on either side by his band of two brothers, the song’s long journey came to a close. The audience let it loudly be known that they had been moving right along beside him. The singer stood quietly, smiling a young boy’s smile. The listener had trouble coming back. He walked around the curtain and stepped out onto the stage next to the boy. The listener was the dad. The singer was Sam.

 

Dave Munsick

Guest columnist

By |January 26th, 2017|

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