Sitting close to the fire in my fireplace. For warmth. For security. The howling wind around the cabin reminds me every minute that I’m only as safe as i am right here, right now. My body is warm enough, but my hands, feet and nose are cold. I know how cold it is outside, it’s below zero and god knows what the wind chill is.
My body’s warm, yes, but my bones are cold… radiating that cold out to my skin. It leaves me feeling weak, vulnerable, when I should be feeling warm, cozy, confident.
My feet actually hurt, probably the result of a slight dusting of frostbite on the snow machine earlier this winter. The doctors around here don’t know why toes get numb… it’s Montana, for christ’s sake. Haven’t any of them had some experience with frostbite yet??
I know the room’s not that warm… 56 degrees, that’s why my nose and hands are cold. My delicate piano hands, that I’ve protected all my life. Ha. Now they have callouses from the chain saw, and the wood-chopping. Oh, I can still play some, but they damn sure aren’t the same soft, delicate and sensitive hands I left Atlanta with.
The wind whistles outside, and I throw another log on the fire. Probably time to refresh my brandy as well. Sitting back down in front of the hearth, I put my feet up on the ledge, hoping the heat will relieve the pain. So this is “back home in Montana.” So this is my life now, such as it is.
A strange, random thought, because actually it’s good, it’s so very good. I’ve never been so alive. I’ve never been so strong as back in college with the Forest Service. I can still cut a load of wood a day, fill up Iron Jack with it, bring it home, unload it and chop enough of it for a night like this. At 66, I count this has a matter of pride. Especially for a soft, big city musician.
Montana doesn’t care where I come from, doesn’t much care that I’m here, but I care. I came from here, I know Montana in ways that a lot of these new, younger folk will never know. I grew up here in the ’40’s, ’50’s and ’60’s, when the mines were still open and the men who lived here were just back from WWII. A few of them went back to the Korean war, and a few of them came back messed up. I know. My folks hired one of them to tend bar for them… Young Harry Fairchild. “Young Harry” because his dad was “Old Harry.” That was the Montana way. His mom, Nellie, had lost her left hand somehow, wore an old sock over the stub.
I knew Old Lloyd Brook, our big-bellied County Sheriff for many years. He ruled Madison Country back then with an icy stare. His two boys, Marvin and Lloyd, were both great guys who did Sheriff Lloyd and his sweet wife Selma, proud. I worked with Lloyd in two different mines in my early college years. We became good friends, and he kept me laughing with his fantastic sense of humor, especially when the going got rough.
Tuffy Bergstrom and Mutt Dixon were two guys from Montana who joined the Marines together for WWII, and both lived through it all, but would never tell about it. They came home, raised their families and I was lucky enough, as a kid, to know them both fairly well. These men did anything they could to sustain their families… hard, dirty work. I saw some of it; a small lumber mill up Ruby Creek down on the Madison; a smokey, frozen talc mine outside Melrose… a dirty, dusty, cold son of a bitch of a job in the wintertime. A major cut through a mountain at Dead Man’s Curve, on the old road to Butte. My dad made sure i saw those jobs, and understood what it took to do them.
I knew Otis Crooker, who built the Sportsman’s Lodge in Ennis. He was a big man, who slightly ducked his head, as my dad did, at 6’4”. He flew his own Piper Cub, out of a dirt landing strip he built behind the Sportsman’s. Dad and Otis got along well, and I got a good sense of who and what real Montana men were like back then.
I know why I’m here now. I know so well why my life is this way. I’m a product of this place, this culture, despite my love of music and jazz and the arts. Montana still rages inside me, as it always has, all these years. I have wondered, from time to time, if Montana doesn’t have a genetic presence in many of us. I swear, my love of this place doesn’t seem natural sometimes.
But the brandy slips easily into my welcome brain. The fire crackles, the cabin creaks occasionally in the winter wind. I walk over to the window and look downtown. The lights of the little village below are dim, showing me that it’s snowing. Of course.
Sitting back down in front of the fire, I suddenly feel like an old man. It’s wrong… I shouldn’t feel like this, I shouldn’t be this person. And to quote my 10 year-old son, and all our 10 year-old kids, “It’s not fair.”
Well, probably it’s not. It certainly doesn’t feel fair sometimes. But those “sometimes” are simply the times when we don’t count our blessings, and instead grouse about what might have been, about what we really wish it could be. Save your breath and your dreams, Stevie. The past is the past. And the present is where you’ve brought yourself, where you’re lucky to be.
Another log on the fire. Another sip of brandy. I hear the wind, howling now. Jesus, Montana can be a bad ass in the winter. So why am I here? Oh, well… for complicated reasons that turn out to be that I’m here because i was always going to be here, ultimately. Life often works out that way. And in that knowledge, I can smell the wood in the fireplace, even smell the winter air through the cracks in the chinking. The snapping, crackling of the fire is the sound of warmth and safety. I can hear the power of the wind outside, as i have no music on tonight. Usually I listen to Mozart, my all-time hero. But tonight I’m in a special time and place. Tonight I’m in the “who I am, where I am and why I am” place. And it makes so much sense… the whole world, the way we are, the reason things happen, the consequences and how we handle them… are all so clear to me now.
I would wish for you all to find yourselves in the high country cabin on a cold, wintery night sometime. To hear the wind whistle around your camp, to know how bitter it is outside, yet how warm and safe you feel inside… it’s a wonderful feeling, feeling really human, really alive; safe but not really safe; your potential demise raging right outside that window, right now… I predict that you’ll never be more aware of your mortality, your weakness and your powerful desire to survive than at that moment. It’s not overwhelming, but damn, it sure puts a perspective on you… on you being on this earth.
Because we are mortals after all, simply trying to survive, trying to justify our existence on this planet, in this dimension. And funny thing is, if we’re remembered for three generations, we’re lucky. Turns out our lives aren’t nearly as important is we perceive them to be. But tonight, that’s okay. Because this moment for me, by the fire, in Montana, is a thing I could never, and will never forget. And these moments, after all, are all that we have. For me, it is enough. I am blessed.