Emory Report

Feb. 8, 1999

 Volume 51, No. 19

First person:

John Stone muses on icy, mercurial Southern winters

What it is, exactly, that predisposes the Southeast to ice storms, I don't know. But the weatherman couldn't warn us about the one coming. A steady freezing rain began yesterday, gilding the pine trees when the sun went down and continuing, along with a high cold wind, as darkness fell. About 11 p.m., the pine trees started cracking, snapping like giant toothpicks. Pine trees are notorious for this sort of thing: birches, as every Robert Frost fan knows, bend over with ice. But pines break over houses, thumping to the ground like meteorites.

Five years ago, in another house, as we lived through just such a storm as this, an ice-laden, top-heavy pine cracked and crashed into our back yard. Its fall split a beautiful dogwood exactly in two, splaying the halves like the cold steel of a scalpel. The dogwood's injury spared us a greater calamity, though; it had absorbed most of the heavy blow of the treetop that otherwise would have ripped through the back door and on into the kitchen.

A neighbor and I were up early next morning, surveying the damage. We hatched a daring surgical plan to save the dogwood. He left to get his tools from his house: mine are always missing, though never in action. After donning our operating garments, we drilled holes in opposing surfaces of the split tree; then, heaving up the halves, we bolted the dogwood back together. The result would have pleased the most meticulous of orthopedists. To obtain extra support for our repair, we rigged wire struts along the branches of the dogwood. Finally, we sealed the fracture line with tree balm before the dogwood could even think of going into shock. It bloomed gloriously the next spring. Years later, I went back to that house expressly to see the dogwood; its orthopedic scars were, as we say in medicine, well healed. It's still the prettiest dogwood in the neighborhood.

There go the lights! And with them the fan that runs the furnace. The darkness makes the whole house seem immediately colder. There's a rush for candles. The toilets still work, but the seats are soon as cold as those in an outhouse. At least the gas grill still works: we can heat hot dogs and soup. We lay a fire in the fireplace. And we have a portable radio for as long as the batteries last.

What we cannot know is how long the dark and cold will last. Whether the pines all around the house will continue to snap, creating the threat of an awesome wooden missile crashing in on us. Whether we would be safer, if colder, in the basement of this house. How many power lines will come down. Whether the "cherry pickers" will be out in force tomorrow to pluck the pines, V-shaped and broken over the roofs of houses. Along with the deep-throated power saws. And the neighbors commiserating over split-rail fences, with chandeliers of ice cracking and clinking around them. But will any of us, suburban and relatively well-off, be forced to join the ranks of the homeless for a while? Not likely.

During the first 15 years of my professional life, I worked pretty much full-time at a huge inner-city hospital. I spent a good deal of my time in the emergency department, where the homeless tended to congregate, especially when they were sick, but often simply to get in out of the cold. I think now of the homeless man who once greeted me loudly and warmly as I peered in, white-coated, through the door of his room. "Come in!" he said. "All is forgiven!" I was taken completely aback. At the time, I had only the presence of mind to lock his words away in memory. I realize now I might have replied "I hope so" for all of us.

I think, too, of another patient who'd been brought to that hospital by ambulance, chilled to the literal bone. He had a body temperature of 78 degrees, too low to be measured by ordinary thermometers. Such profound and life-threatening hypothermia is all too common in our cities. A passerby had found the man under a bridge, his usual home whatever the storm. He had every appearance of near-death: unresponsiveness, a markedly slow and feeble pulse, a state of suspended animation--a condition remarkably like that of hibernation. We warmed him inside (with heated oxygen); we warmed him outside (with warming blankets and hot water bottles). More slowly than Lazarus, but just as surely and amazingly, he came back to this world and lived to tell the tale, at least those parts he could remember.

Now, outside, in the ice storm, spirals of smoke stream upward from neighboring chimneys. I stand at the black windows of my house and recognize these spirals of smoke for what they are: not only the signs of warmth, but also the smoke signals of privilege. They say We here will survive, come Fahrenheit, come Centigrade. But we knew that already.

Our sons are beside themselves. Their pupils are dilated. Something so exciting as to be almost illegal is going on. There's a strong likelihood the schools will be closed tomorrow. The boys bring their sleeping bags up from the basement and stretch out in front of the fire. The dachshund circles importantly, as though preparing for attack. We decide to have s'mores: toasted marshmallows on a square of milk chocolate, squashed between saltine crackers. The miniature pops of the oak in the fireplace sound faint compared to the wild crashing outside. No one is sleepy in this elemental house.

Ice storms, like nothing else in nature I know, take us back to first things. I can imagine now our primitive ancestors' amusement at our mild temporary discomfort. In a circle in front of the fire, we watch the flickering shadows on the walls of our own strange rectangular caves. We look for the meaning we hope is still there to be found. We listen, during the first quiet time in too long a time, for the sounds of our hearts, warming up the blood.

John Stone is a professor at the medical school. Reprinted by permission of Louisiana State University Press from Where Water Begins: New Poems and Prose, by John Stone. Copyright © 1998 by John Stone published by Louisiana State University Press.

Return to Feb. 8, 1999, contents page