Jeff Stehr's Homepage

A Christmas Carol

Right before Christmas break, I knew that I needed to go to my site to perform a complicated calibration. Typically, this kind of calibration takes about 8 hours of mind-numbing boredom, with most of that being set-up time. Needless to say, you want to have good weather if you're going to be doing this kind of thing at a site in the middle of a (now levelled) corn field. Needless to say #2, I have the kind of site that would make North Dakotans feel at home. Naturally, no day that was remotely suitable for such an activity ocurred that fated week, so I was forced to do it the Thursday before I left. That was fine, except that I was leaving Friday afternoon, and a four-horsemen-of-the-apocalypse style cold front was due in Thursday evening.

True to form, it took forever to get my stuff together, so I arrived at the site at about 5:00PM. It had been raining all day long--one of those soak-you-through-to-the-underwear type rains that dissolves your will to live--so I brought along a roll of plastic sheeting and a few paper binders (the kind that will crimp together an inch-thick stack of papers) with which to make a bivouac. (As plastic an paper clips make for a singularly imbecilic bivouac, I explain later what I mean by this.) I arrived on site, with a car full of junk, and splashed my way down the muddy excuse for a road that leads to my site (a road in the sense that one's front yard might be considered a "road"). Now, I knew full well that it was sloppy and I might get stuck, but I also know that there's a mound out in the middle of the field which is ordinarily drier than the rest of the field. It was, but since the rest of the field was about as dry as a peat bog, "drier" meant "non-liquid". However, having arrived at said mound, I wasn't about to go any further, so I just put 'er there and decided to worry about it later.

Next, I hauled a 200-pound oxygen cylinder out to the instrument shelters. I managed this by putting on my waterproof hiking boots, (a.k.a. "shitkickers") attaching a strap to the head of the cylinder, and dragging the beast through mud, slime, and standing water (it gets lighter in the water, though the threat of falling on your keester and soaking your skivvies in ice-cold muddy water is daunting) to my site.

Now, lest you get the idea that we have a trailer complete with fridge, lounge chair, AC, and a stocked bar, I should explain exactly what I mean by my "site". Basically, there are two instrument shelters out there, which are 4 feet high, 8 feet long, and 3 feet deep. Needless to say, unless you're incredibly short and huchbacked, this does not make for an adequate person shelter. I had campaigned for buying one of those cute miniature-barn tool sheds, but alas, my campaign was defeated on the grounds that a tall tool shed would mess up the micro-meteorology of the site by altering the way wind flows across the field. That it was exactly my intention to alter the way wind flowed across the field--in particular, the way in which wind flowed across *me*--was lost on the powers that be. (The micro-met is already messed up by the rows of trees 200 yards away, but I digress.) They do have AC, but this does not strike one as a spectacular convenience when one is confronted with 40 degrees and rain.

Next, I set up my little bivouac by taking the doors off of both shelters (which are doors in the sense that "a sheet of plywood bolted to the front" would be a door) and using one as a floor and the other as a roof. I cantilevered the "roof" out over the front of the shelter that had all the instruments in it (the other is mostly storage space right now) and put a cinder block on the roof of the shelter to weight it down. So, I had kind of a little hillbilly porch--but without the rusted out appliances. The floor was a door sitting on 2 palettes (or skids--those wooden things they use in warehouses so forklifts can move stuff around) which was necessary, because the entire site was steeped in a good 4 inches of water. I cut off a couple pieces of plastic sheeting, binder-clipped them to the edge of the roof, and weighted down the floor/plastic intersection with a bunch of bricks I had lying around the site. This made for a pretty nice little shelter, which successfully kept the rain out, and kept *some* of the heat in. Inside the shelter, it was 55 degrees--warm enough to work. I figured that I was okay as long as the wind didn't start to blow. (Blatant foreshadowing here, folks.)

Satisfied, I began setting up the calibration, which takes a while, especially when you're doing it for the first time, as I was. So I got some of the stuff set up, and was getting ready for phase 2 of the installation when the wind started to blow. The plastic sheeting started rippling a little, so I duct-taped some of the seams closed, and kept working. A few vacuum connections later, a gust whipped up and blew the hell out of my bivouac. I jumped into action, re-designed the shelter, by changing the orientation of the clips on the roof so the plastic was less likely to catch the wind and blow free. The temperature, meanwhile, had fallen, and the rain had switched over to sleet. Sleet, of course, is my favorite kind of precipitation.

I went back to work, figuring that I might have limited time, but that I was going to get things done come hell or high water (both, it turned out, came into play). It continued getting colder, so I dug the heat gun out of my car, turned it on, and pointed the business end toward the roof of my shelter. This warmed the shelter back up to 55 degrees, though the wind continued to build. I was mighty glad to have wind pants, hiking boots, and blankets as well as a good winter parka along for the ride. I got things going a little bit, and actually managed to warm up the ultraviolet lamp for my calibration when another gust, this one considerably more macho than the first, blew my bivouac open once again. This time, accompanied by considerable cursing (one advantage of working at a very windy field site is that you can curse all you want when it's blowing) I rearranged the bricks on the bottom of the plastic, and put up 2 palettes as a wind-break. I figured I was set. I had a wind break, and I had the most wind-resistant bivouac known to man. Surely, nothing could break this down. I also noticed that it had begun to snow.

While snow is better than sleet any day, it certainly means the air is colder, so I got things together as quickly as I could. Both flow controllers I had with me failed, so I had to improvise on one, and adapt a flow meter to be a flow controller. Not very scientific, but hey, any port in a storm. Finally, I got the whole works together, and just as I started calibrating my instrument, another gust came ripping through and blew my boivouac completely to hell. Only this time, it wasn't a gust--it was the *sustained WINDS* that were blowing that hard. I exploded into a furious barrage of cursing, the likes of which has not been seen since Dennis Rodman's last tantrum, and spit furiously at the wind. The whole thing was hopeless, and would have to be abandonned for another day--a day weeks later, *after* Christmas break.

Needless to say, I was angry, so I just grabbed the plastic sheeting, bundled it up, and threw the wad into my car. I took apart the tubing in sections as large as I could manage and threw those back in the car. I grabbed the 200 pound cylinder and flipped it into the muck. (Which was exceedingly satisfying, owing to the size of the splash it made.) Everything that took me hours to set up I put back in the car in a 15 minute flurry. The wind was howling, still stronger and colder, out of the northwest. I would discover later that it had reached 35 mph that night at the airport. I shut down everything I could, left the two simple instruments running, and closed up the instrument shelter. I would realize only in January that the data logging program was busy exhibiting a small occasional quirk: sometimes it only logs data for one 20-second cycle, and has to be re-started. So I would discover after Christmas break that I had no data for 3 weeks.

After throwing everything in the car and directing a few more choice words at mother nature and anything else handy, I jumped in the car, changed shoes, started it up and put it in gear. SSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSPPPPPPPPPIIIIIIIINNNNNNNNNNNN!!!! FWWEEEEEEEEEEEEE! Mud goes everywhere, car goes about 2 feet. I'm digging a trench. I try rocking it back and forth, but it won't rock. Instead, I'm just excavating deeper. I go forward, but the ground is no harder there. I get out to push, but that does nothing, as I have a clutch, and there's no way I can get more than one foot to do the pushing. Hmmm. Stuck. Ideas?

Sure! Why not rip the boards off one of those palettes and use them between me and the mud. Maybe I can get up enough speed to plow my way back through the slime and get onto the road. So I rip the boards off, and stick them in the trenches (by now a good 4 inches deep). I jump in the car, pull out the clutch, and FWING, FWEEE--I now have a ground based wooden-missile launcher. Both boards go shooting out in front of the car--seems the traction between wheel and board is considerably better than between board and mud.

So, if you're keeping score, I'm now stuck in the mud about 100 yards deep in a field, it's 10:30 at night, the wind is howling out of the northwest, and what had been rain is now pellets of icy snow. In other words, it's the bottom of the 9th, and the home team has just sent the catcher in to pitch.

Now, I *vaguely* remembered having had a conversation with one of the neighbor people that summer. Seems that I had been walking off distances to the trees on each edge of the field (which is how I knew that it was in fact 200 yards to that row of trees on the western edge of the field) and a neighbor who was in her garden called me over to say "hi", and introduce herself. I remembered her being terribly nice, and that she offered as many tomatoes as I wanted out of her garden. I also remembered that she said her house was "around those trees over there, and on back". I looked, and noticed that the house next to where hers would be had just put out their lights for the night. Not a good sign. I also noticed that I had 200 yards of mud and water to slog through to get there.

Regretting that I had brought my snowboarder-style hat (with the dredlocks hanging off the back) with me, instead of a more conservative one, I nonetheless started across the field. Their house came into view, and let me tell you, it was a mansion. The lights, fortunately, were still on, including one very inviting porch light. No cars to be seen, however. Undaunted, I walked up to the door and knocked (since this is the Eastern Shore of Maryland, there's no need for doorbells and such modern hooey). A couple minutes later, a tall old man peered out and asked, "can I help you"? I began my story, explained that my car was stuck, and asked if he had a tractor or knew someone who could help me out.

He would later tell me that when he first opened the door, he was wondering who in the world would be knocking on the door at this time of night WAAAAAAAY out here, and that when he saw "this big young man" on the front porch, he was a little worried. Mind you, if this happened in College Park, you *might* get someone to tell you to sleep on the front porch, but you might also hear the cocking of a shotgun behind the door. Anyway, he said he could tell "right away" as soon as I started talking that I was sincere, and that I really needed some help, so he let me in. Something about my voice and my face, he said. Well, let me tell you, it doesn't take a whole lot to *sound* sincere, because under those conditions, you ARE sincere, buddy.

He brightened right up, and said, "come in, come in" with urgency, as he could see it was pretty darn cold out. "Here, use our phone...we don't have any tractors other than just little ones for the yard, but you can call a tow truck." I walked into their house, and his wife appeared, who I now recognized (barely). We leafed through the phone book, and called a tow truck place.

Tow truck op:"Yer stuck in a field?"

Me: "Yup"

TT op: "How far?"

Me: "I dunno..."

TT op: "Well, is it more than a hunnert feet?"

Me: "It's more like a hundred yards"

TT op: "Well I can't help ya until morning, 'cause I only have a hunnert foot cable on mah truck, and if I get out there at night like this, when I can't see what I'm doin', then I'll get stuck too, and we'll all be in a mess".

Me: "Okay. Well, maybe I'll call you tomorrow."

Well, that one didn't work, so I figure I'll try another. The man picks out one that says "24 hour towing". Meanwhile, his wife offers, "well, you can stay here if you like", and he confirms, "yeah, that'd be no problem...we have lots of extra rooms, and you don't want to spend the night out there" (outside). I say that I'll call this place, and see what they can do. No answer. Apparently, "24 hour towing" on the Eastern Shore means "Yeah, if we feel like it, then it's 24 hours, but in weather like this, screw it, I'm goin' to bed".

So I ask if I could stay and if they would mind. "NOOOOO. No, not at all. First, Floyd'll drive you over to your car, so you can get your things, and anything valuable out of your car, and then you can come back here and I'll fix you up some soup." They act as though some hoods were really going to be out on a night like this scouting for abandonned cars in the middle of corn fields. This is the remote Eastern Shore. I bet you could leave a box of Rolex watches in your car for a year out there, and they would never get stolen.

Floyd. His name is Floyd, and her name is Jeanette. And mind you, they aren't acting like they're being imposed upon, they're acting like one of their GRANDCHILDREN has just come to visit. They're *thrilled* to have me. So Floyd drives me over to the entrance of my site, (where the dirt road starts) I run up to my car, and grab my stuff. I lock it for some reason, though I'm fully aware that only the dumbest crimminal in the world would try to steal it. ("Well, dern, we goes ta all the trouble o' hot wirin' it, an' the damn thing is STUCK. Wuddya know 'bout that there?")

And then Floyd drives me back. I come in to the royal welcome. "I got some soup warming up for you--I'm not sure if it's crab or chicken you like crackers?...we got some oyster crackers...let's see...and how about something to drink? Milk okay? Or soda?" So I tell them what I was doing out there and how it was that I got that far into the field, why I didn't listen to the voice in the back of your head that's screaming "TURN BACK, YOU DAMN FOOL" as you drive in through slogging mud, and who I am in general. After about 15 minutes of this, they start getting their conversational motors running, and I can barely get a word in edgewise. After most of the soup is gone, and I'm done with my orange, she disappears for a little bit and Floyd and I are left to chat. We continue for a couple minutes, and then hear clanking noises emerging from the bathroom. "What are you doing, Jeanette", he asks. "I'm cleaning up for him, so he'll have a clean place to stay". Sure enough, she has straightened out the bedroom, put fresh sheets on the bed, laid out fresh towels, and even dug up a new toothbrush for me.

I should, at this point, say something about the house. Turns out that Floyd used to be a senior manager at Baltimore Gas and Electric, and did quite well for himself, because the house is a mansion. Furthermore, because Jeanette is a professional housewife, it is immaculate. It has beautiful wooden floors, and is heated by a fantastic wood stove. It also has windowalls on the back side, 2 stories, and many more bedrooms than they really needed for themselves. Good for when the grandkids drop by, I guess. I would have been happy with a shack--instead, I got the Taj Mahal.

Eventually, we talked ourselves out around midnight, and I went to bed. Mighty comfy, I have to say, and the water from the taps didn't taste like the College Park river sludge I've become accustomed to.

Next morning, I got up around 8, and noticed that everything outside was looking pretty frozen. I wandered out into the living room and the warmth of the fireplace, and noticed exactly why the entire west side of the house was full of windows and windowwalls--they have an incredible view of a tiny sprig of the Wye River. You could see some ice on the water, and about 80 birds of various types sitting out there. They had a nice little dock, and even a pole for an osprey nest in the middle of the river. Jeanette said good morning, as she was bustling around in the kitchen, and mentioned that Floyd was out looking at my car.

Overnight, it had gotten down to 15 degrees, and the wind had increased to 35 mph until at least 1 or 2 AM, that being the nature of a cold front. It had also frozen the entire field solid to a depth of several inches. It was rock-hard, probably solid enough to drive a tank over, much less my little car. Floyd got back and suggested that we move quickly before the sun heated things up again. We got over there, and he had dug out things a little bit, and put down some kitty litter in the ruts. The ruts weren't *quite* frozen SOLID, but were close enough. So, I started it up, and once I cracked the frozen seal between my tires and the hole they were in, my car jumped right out. I shot back down the drive quickly so I didn't have to even *think* about getting stuck, and waited for Floyd back at the paved road. He came up to the car and said that we should go back to the house for some breakfast.

We returned to the house, and were met by Jeanette, mixing bowl in hand. "How would you like some pancakes, Jeff", she asked. "We're going to have pancakes for breakfast, and we'd like you to join us." So I had pancakes, and fruit, and juice. And the most beautiful view of a little river, and a fire, and dozens of Canada geese, and conversation with two wonderful people who treated me like I was their own grandchild instead of the unknown intruder that I was.

We talked until about 10 AM or so, when I decided that I really needed to get back to College Park, so I could get ready to leave. (My plane left at 6:00...or so I thought...turns out it was delayed--cancelled, actually--and I would have to take another flight.)

In January, when I got back, I brought them some blueberry-apple cobbler. We talked for a couple hours, and they insisted that I stay for dinner. It was, of course, delicious, and they appreciated the cobbler as well. Once again, they acted as though they were the ones being treated to company, rather than me being treated to a warm place to stay.

So, when people asked me what I wanted for Christmas, I told them "I already got it".

See a few pictures of the site.

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