A continuing tale of life in the boonies

No. 031

The U.S. Vice President Henry Wilson Winter Carnival

Preparations, which had been going on for weeks, accelerated into a frenzy on the morning of the Carnival, which was due to start at 1 p.m.

"I guess I could bring my icehouse for a registration booth," said Willis Berry. This wasn't in the script, but a cold, bitter wind suggested that this was a good idea, and so we sped to Spring Street, and manouvered the wooden shed, which stood on skis, onto the trailer hauled by Willis's pick-up truck.

As our first mistake, we neglected to tie it down.

"Oh no!" cried the Chairman of the Board of Selectmen, looking in his driving mirror as we bounced along at 40 m.p.h. His ice-house had slipped off the back of the trailer, 100 yards up the road.

The second blunder of the morning was to brake to a halt, whereupon it became clear that the shed-on-skis was continuing dead on course, having lost surprisingly little speed.

"Oh, well," said Mr. Berry, philosophically, as it caught up and rammed us like a torpedo. A school kid in a beat-up car roared past, his right index finger transcribing circles in the air, near his temple.

In another part of town, a monumental struggle with Big Cake was ensuing. Joyce Nutter and Zeke Ghareeb had battled with the six-foot monster for nine hours on the previous day, and had been largely successful in smothering it, themselves, and much of a room, in icing. Unfortunately this had added some 50 pounds to the weight of Big Cake, now irrevocable cemented to a rather flimsy piece of plywood, four feet wide. But, uh-oh, the door it had to pass through was a mere three feet, causing a renewed flurry of mutterings that contained references to Big (expletive deleted) Cake, and, inexplicably, to me. An electric saw was sent for, the cake hermetically sealed against saw dust, and two strips whacked off the board. Another hard won victory.

Competitors and spectators began to gather at Farmington Country Club, and among them were a family of five from Boston, named the McArdles, who had a score to settle with the town. Some months previously, lured by the poetic description of the route on the entry form of the Nute Ridge Half Marathon, Colin McArdle had run, and nearly died, in the race. Over the course of 13 miles, he had aged so badly that I had failed to recognize him when he staggered over the finish line. "Twelve bleeding miles uphill, mate, " was all that he could croak in his southern English accent. But it was a rejuvenated McArdle that presented himself at the Carnival. And a triumphant one, as two of his offspring were presented with awards in the Little Miss Snowflake and Master Jack Frost competition. "We're not even, yet," he said.

The first race of the afternoon was a snowshoe event over hurdles, humorously called a Dash, for which there were two entries, an athletic Paul Turner, and an exceptionally tall lady called Elizabeth Nute (of the Ridge clan.) With one set of hurdles marginally taller than the other, Turner gallantly conceded the advantage to Nute, but it is doubtful if her ensuing victory can be attributed to chivalry alone. Paul's galloping style incorporated a stumble and plunge, while his opponent strode with the elegant ease of a large wading bird, and won convincingly.

Attention moved over to the hill where the toboggan races were due to commence, and I moved over to Betty Mros' Nearly Hotte Snack Bar, where bowls of turkey soup and clam chowder were going for 50 cents. Further down the counter lurked Big Cake. Betty, who has seen me stamp around Farmington with the resignation of Napoleon on St. Helena, said "Have you seen Elizabeth? Isn't she beautiful?"

"Yes," I agreed.

"Well have you spoken to her yet?" she pressed with an inquiring smile.

"Oh, yes, Betty," I answered.

"What did you say?" she quizzed, suddenly suspecting a revelation of impudence.

"Twenty-eight seconds," I said, referring to the Nute Dash, 'but I'll try again later!"

The crowd was certainly exceeding expectations. People had drifted in from the surrounding towns of New Durham and Middleton, Milton and Union, and I encountered visitors from Ithica, N.Y.

"Are you lost?" I asked them, with concern. Then I encountered a Colin McArdle who was grinning insanely. He had just captured a plaque for the cross-country skiing event, and his wife, Christine, had won the women's competition, beating Joyce Nutter, weary from her tussle with Big Cake, into second place. McArdle was beginning to feel he was getting level with Farmington, and chirpily inquired if Willis Berry's trailer was available to haul the family trophies back to Boston.

A reckless section of the throng, the one that had been hurtling down a precipitous hill on toboggans, had switched over to inner tubes, conveyances given to even less directional control. Distant cries and whoopees could be heard from where I stood, near the Clubhouse, preparing to officiate the start of the cross-country showshoe race. Paul Turner had fled the scene under the pretext of an urgent basketball engagement, and he had presumably tipped off Mike Lee, regarding the prowess of La Nute, for the high school coach had failed to arrive at the starting line, as promised.

At this point, up stepped Wild Bill Vachon, snowshoes strapped on and raring for the off. It is difficult to earn the courtesy title of "Wild" in Farmington, as a continuous stream of hair-raising feats and notorious achievements are necessary, before one begins to stand out from the common herd. Nonetheless, a general consensus of opinion held that Bill had won his spurs. A bulky, bearded figure, he took his place at the starting gate alongside the willowy Elizabeth Nute. This was my chance to gladden the heart of Betty Mros and to create an indelible impression. I packed all the sincere, intelligent, hard-working non-smoking decency that a loud-hailer would permit into the word "Go!"

Wild Bill shot into the head, his snow-shoes throwing out great clouds of snow into the air behind him, as he steered towards the purple flags that led up a pine-clad hill. Elizabeth Nute, like a determined flamingo, followed on, while a black Labrador tagged behind. Soon all three were out of sight, as they descended the other side of the knoll, and when they re-emerged into public view, they were small cartoon silhouettes. Wild Bill was plodding ahead of Elizabeth, but the dog, having scurried to the fore, was scuffing at the snow with its front paws. It was digging a hole. Wild Bill Vachon fell in, Elizabeth Nute took over the lead, and by the time he had uprighted himself, she was in a strong lead, and held Bill off, to win comfortably.

"Well done," said the loser, with an absence of resentment, although observing that Elizabeth Nute was now holding the dog on a leash.

Attention shifted to the canoe races, taking place on another part of the country club. A crew, consisting of two passengers seated in the boat, and one pusher, had to shoot down a steep gradient, execute an alarming turn to avoid a tree, and descend, rocket-like, the remainder of the slope, to scoot across a frozen plain, between two green flags. Teams were timed on a stopwatch, and the fastest was the winner. At the summit of the hill I met a group of beaming McArdles who were currently lying in second place, and in line for the runners-up trophy.

"Great carnival, this," Colin enthused.

Meanwhile, Wild Bill rounded up his team, which consisted of Porky Hussey and Valerie Haycock, and he steered them towards an empty canoe that had just been hauled from the finish line.

"I ain't goin'," yelled Porky with great resolution, after eying up the situation.

"You gotta go Porky!" retorted Valerie, her face clouding over ominously. She rushed at him, and being of a somewhat large build, imprisoned Porky and swept him into the boat, in spite of much protest. With Bill pushing, they took off at a fearful speed, and only just managed to alter course before the tree. The momentum, however, was too great, and caused pusher and canoe to part company. Porky and Valerie, amid a crescendo of screams, streaked across the finish line in easily the fastest time of the afternoon, but Wild Bill was unable to throw himself between the flags until he had emerged from a snow bank. The McArdle family remained in line for a plaque

Davidson Rubber Co. was pronounced the winners of the snow sculpture contest, and although this was the only entry, it was breathtaking in its conception and execution. On Saturday it had been a unicorn, but during the night, persons unknown had bashed off the horn. Even so, it was a fine horse. (And now, a day further on, it is a remarkable headless beast.)

The 174 candles on Big Cake were ceremoniously lighted; then it was sliced up and gorged. In accordance with the teachings of an ancient rhyme, a piece of cake was placed on Henry Wilson's rock, out of respect for his having provided Farmington with the fame it now enjoys. Celebrations were completed by igniting a bonfire that crackled and blazed as evening drew on. Willis lashed his ice-house firmly onto the trailer. The crowd, like a lowing herd, wound slowly o'er the lea towards a line of pick-up trucks and cars. A noteworthy day was over.

I gave my doorkey to the McArdles and arranged to meet them before they drove gleefully back to Boston. Then I set to work with Wild Bill, loading toboggans, flags, canoes, inner tubes, hurdles and other Winter Carnival bric-a-brac aboard the trucks that remained.

"We raided the cupboards and the fridge, but all we found to eat was half's packet of raisins," said Colin McArdle testily, when I eventually rejoined them, at home.

"Life is a struggle," I conceded, dismally noticing that the McArdle children had hurled a significant portion of the precious food supply onto the floor. Perhaps they were continuing the theme of revenge.

"Let's send out for pizzas," Chris joined in cheerily, indicating in the direction of Vinnie's on Main St.

"Difficult!" I recounted that on the previous evening, after waiting half an hour on an order that promised to be 10 minutes, I had given hasty advice on what to do with it, if ever it arrived, and charged off towards a bean supper.

"I'll take the kids for a walk and bring something back," said Chris as young Hannah pushed over a hi-fi speaker.

"O.K., but don't mention my name," I said fervently.

Christine had been gone only a short while when the telephone rang. "Oh no!" I cried as earnestly as Willis Berry, earlier in the day. Obviously, she had placed the order in Vinnie's and had given my number, before continuing on her promenade with the children. I had a brainwave.

"Hello?" I announced into the mouthpiece, in a high-pitched London twang.

"Chris?" queried a voice at the other end of the line.

"Who's this then?" I asked in a dubious falsetto.

"Betty Mros. Is that you, John Nolan? Why are you talking in a funny voice?" she demanded in a severe tone.

Wild was one thing. Weird, quite another, and I knew she was now regretting drawing my attention to the virtues Elizabeth Nute.

Oh, well.

Feb. 25, 1986

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