March 26, 2008

Warming up on a frigid Easter


My friend Ted's great to have around at family holiday gatherings, so long as the family gathers at somebody else's house.

For instance, his wife's side of the clan had a joyous reunion for Easter at her father and mother's house on Cumberland Head last Saturday. Sisters and brothers from around the globe converged on Plattsburgh to see if everybody remembered each other's names.

You know how those family get-togethers are -- everybody is unofficially assigned a duty. Some are cooks, some are carvers, some clean up, etc. What Ted's job was going to be wasn't exactly clear.

It's generally best to keep him clear of the kitchen, where there are so many sharp or hot things. The living room isn't great, as his yakking tends to interrupt the flow of the NCAA basketball tournament on TV.

The consensus was that the best interests of the entire family might best be served by keeping him outside, as much as possible. To that end, he was assigned the Easter egg hunt.

The egg hunt pretty much corresponded to his best interests, as well, in that he was free to smoke out in the yard. Back when Ted took up smoking, four or five decades ago, indoor smoking was one of life's great pleasures. They had items called "ash trays" back then that populated every room of every house. Now they are considered collectors' items.

The remaining smokers no longer light up with impunity in living rooms owned by non-smokers. Instead, they politely excuse themselves from the assemblage and retire to the porch, where they are free to enjoy their puffing in weather conditions that would have sent them fleeing for cover 20 years ago.

Ted will go outside for a smoke and make like he really craves the fresh air. Depending on the weather, he eventually returns to indoor society, dripping wet or shivering uncontrollably, and tells you he'd just had the time of his life out there, communing with the bracing North Country winter. He hasn't had anybody to talk with out there, of course, but it's just as well, as it's kind of hard to get your thoughts across when your teeth are chattering so hard.

(I'll tell you another secret about my friend Ted: When he and his wife are about to leave a gathering, he'll rush to get his coat and go outside to start the car, ostensibly to warm it up for the comfort of his chilly beloved, but the actual reason is so he can light a cigarette on the run and extract two and sometimes three puffs before she's at his side ready to go home. He'll then discard the cigarette, which has scarcely been of any service, and eagerly await the next opportunity to almost have a smoke. Whereas a cigarette is designed to afford perhaps 20 drags, Ted manages around two, meaning he smokes roughly 90 percent less than the average smoker. Or, looking at it another way, he spends 1,000 percent more than he should.)

So, you see, this Easter egg hunt played right into his hands. He could go outside and smoke to his heart's content while, first, hiding the eggs, and, then, monitoring the kiddies while they collected them. If he did an especially good job of hiding the eggs, he could spend hours out there communing with the North Country winter without anybody nagging him.

However, there's always that problem of no ash trays out in the yard. Anybody who even keeps ash trays around anymore surely doesn't leave them in the yard. If he just flipped the truncated cigarettes around what will one day soon be the lawn, it will be no secret to his father-in-law who put them there. His father-in-law has no inhibitions about mentioning such indiscretions to Ted, and in fact seems to relish the encounters.

But Ted, an old newsman, is nothing if not observant and resourceful.

He spotted an old tree that seemed to have some sort of deformity around the bottom: It was a hold that had somehow formed over the years and would serve as exactly the receptacle he'd hoped for. Pretty soon, he was loading that hole with well-exhausted cigarette butts.

Unfortunately for Ted and everyone else, the hole wasn't strictly speaking empty when he began depositing the butts. Apparently, somebody had noticed it before and had left some paper refuse in there, which, in league with the cigarette butts, ignited.

It must have smouldered for some time, as Ted never noticed it and, in fact, oversaw the conclusion of the Easter egg hunt and left for home, where he could squeeze in a few drags before the rest of the family returned.

Meanwhile, back at the tree, flames were pouring out all over the place. The family was expecting Moses to emerge with the Ten Commandments.

Being that this was the North Country, the outside water had been turned off and the hose, which could have delivered water to the fire if turned back on, was frozen into the ground. Passers-by must have been stunned by the curiosity of seeing a tree on fire in the front yard and the family standing around trying to coax icicles out of the hose.

Eventually, the entire household emptied out into the cold to form a bucket brigade, possibly the first on Cumberland Head since the War of 1812. Ironically, the only member of the family with any firefighting experience was Ted, and he was home lighting another cigarette.

Quick and dogged work on the part of the family paid off, and the house was saved, if not the tree.

But this episode offers another confirmation of what I've been telling Ted for years: Smoking isn't good for him. And it's not too good for the rest of his family, either.