I was in the second grade that long-ago February morning in the Alberta foothills when Old Man Winter had such a fierce grip. To walk the quarter-mile uphill from our farmhouse to the main road where we’d catch the school bus, Mom had wrapped me in multiple layers
Only a small slit across my eyes was uncovered so I could see where I was going. I likely resembled an Egyptian mummy.
I was snug, wearing my new winter coat with a bright red hat and scarf that Granny had knitted. She also had made my two pairs of matching woolen mittens that I wore one inside the other. My older brother, Arthur, who was in grade eight, was bundled up, too.
Brrr… it was cold
The air was so clear and crisp that our footsteps echoed as if someone was following us. Ice hung on our eyelashes like little icicles. When our warm breath hit the cold air it created little white clouds around our heads. Although the tepid sunshine didn’t temper the frigid temperature, at least it hadn’t snowed overnight and the wind wasn’t blowing.
Arthur always passed me on our long walk to the top gate at the main road because he had longer legs. I was accustomed to that.
Once we arrived at the mailbox, we stood near the mailbox for what seemed like ages listening for the sound of the bus coming around Dead Man’s Curve several miles away. When we didn’t hear it, I began to whine.
“I’m cold,” I whimpered.
“Keep moving, Kid,” Arthur advised, admitting that it was unusual for the bus to run 30 minutes late since there were no blizzard conditions.
Keeping warm was a chore
We put our metal lunchboxes and Arthur’s homework down at the end of the icy driveway and began stamping our feet.
Minutes later, I was still cold.
“I don’t think the bus is coming. Can we go home?” I begged.
“It’s only 8:30 and you know we can’t go home until 9 a.m.,” Arthur replied.
My parents had a rule. We had to wait until then to be absolutely certain that the bus wasn’t coming. Only then could we turn around and retrace our steps home.
Going to school and getting an education was serious business at the Taylor house.
“But I’m so cold. I can’t feel my feet anymore. Mommy and Daddy wouldn’t want me to be this cold, would they?”
Our family had the dubious distinction of living further from the main gravel road than anyone else on our bus route. Our family’s farmstead was located in a valley, surrounded by heavily wooded hills. Mom and Daddy couldn’t see us and had no way of knowing our school bus hadn’t picked us up.
Since we didn’t have a phone, no one could call and let them know either.
Minutes trickled by like cold molasses
“Please?” I pleaded pitifully, sniffling a little bit.
I was getting to Arthur, who was a very protective big brother. Perhaps he was beginning to feel the cold, too.
After shoving his mitts in the pockets of his wool coat, Arthur grinned.
“Look what I’ve got!” he said.
Arthur flashed a box of wooden matches at me. He’d used them to burn the trash on the weekend and had forgotten to return them to the match tin keeper in the kitchen.
I was doubtful. A match wasn’t going to last long, although even a little warmth would be very welcome. But I underestimated Arthur.
Where there’s smoke, there’s fire
My heart leaped with joy when he said, “Let’s start a fire!” He turned around and strode toward the willow trees to pick up some dry sticks.
I followed, hobbling along as fast as I could muster hauling all my layers of clothing.
If Arthur could drag out some bigger dead limbs that he could break across his knee, I could carry the kindling. I did that for Mom all the time.
Next, Arthur needed paper to get the fire started. With another triumphant grin, he grabbed his English textbook, extracted his homework and scrunched up the sheets. It was comical watching him try to light a match with his mitts on, but he did it.
Warmth, sweet warmth
In no time, he had a wonderful blaze going and the smoke rose straight up in the sky.
The time was 8:45 a.m.
What a wonderful day! The fire was so welcome. First, I warmed my hands and then I turned around and backed up to the blaze. Arthur did the same.
The sun seemed to shine brighter and I was positive that I had never loved my big brother more.
“Are you warmer?” Arthur asked.
“Yes, thank you,” I said. “But now I’m hungry.”
“Let’s toast our sandwiches,” Arthur suggested. “These little branches are long enough to work for that. Do you want me to toast yours or can you do it?”
Of course, I wanted to toast my own sandwich.
So that’s what we did. Arthur and I unfolded the wax paper from our sandwiches, which were frozen solid, and kept jabbing at them with the sticks until we finally hooked them on the makeshift prongs.
Roasting our snack
Never has peanut butter and homemade bread tasted as good as it did that morning. We were in high spirits, enjoying an impromptu winter picnic.
By this time, it was well past 9 a.m., so we could turn around and go home without getting into trouble. However, we were having such a good time that we hovered over the fire a while longer.
Then we heard an alarming noise. Oh dear. We looked at each other wide-eyed as a school bus we didn’t recognize came hurtling down the big hill. It braked to a stop at the mailbox in front of us.
The door opened and Peter, the driver, looked us over. “What are you two doing?” he asked.
He didn’t really expect an explanation.
Our reputation preceded us
“See, I told you,” he said to the other bus driver who was along for the ride. “When my bus wouldn’t start this morning, I knew I needed to get over here and pick up the Taylor kids. I thought they’d stay right here until they were frozen stiff.
“What I didn’t expect is they’d built a bonfire!”
While Arthur hastily kicked snow over the flames to put out our fire, I grabbed our lunch kits and his English textbook.
That day as word of our adventure spread from classroom to classroom, Arthur and I were the talk of the teachers’ room. Never before in the history of Red Deer Lake School had any students kept warm by building a fire when their bus was over an hour late.
Arthur and I likely still hold that record.
My brother, my hero
At noon, my teacher gave me half of her sandwich since I had already toasted mine. I’m guessing someone in Arthur’s class shared their lunch with him, too.
Later that day when his teacher called on Arthur to hand in his English homework, he explained that he had sacrificed it to start a fire to keep his little sister warm. She congratulated him on his ingenuity and let him off the hook.
That was probably one of the few days that Arthur left his English class with a smile on his face.
When we finally burst into the kitchen after school that afternoon, the aroma of an early supper met us, and we were in fine moods.
An explanation was necessary
“We saw smoke signals coming from the top gate this morning when we were doing chores, but you didn’t come home at 9 o’clock,” Mom said. “What was going on?”
As we shed our mittens and overshoes, I couldn’t wait to fill Mom and Daddy in on Arthur’s heroism. I was babbling excitedly when I turned around to unbutton my coat.
“Wait a minute,” Mom said, interrupting me. “What’s that on the back of your new coat? Hand it over.”
I reluctantly offered it to her.
“Well for goodness sakes!” she said, her voice raised in a tone we dreaded hearing.
“You got too close to the fire and you’ve singed the back of your coat.
“You’ve ruined the beautiful coat that Granny gave you for Christmas. Arthur, how could you let this happen? You’re supposed to watch her.”
Oh no! What have I done?
A magician with a needle and thread, Mom looked it over carefully, but even her highly developed skills were not a match for this damage. There was no extra material to patch and repair it.
“You’ll have to wear it,” she told me with resignation and regret. “We can’t buy you another.”
I felt bad and Arthur felt even worse. In our effort to stay warm, we’d disappointed Mom, something we never wanted to do. We both apologized profusely and meekly agreed that we wouldn’t build any more fires.
Guilty but not embarrassed
But a little singe on the back of my winter coat didn’t bother me a bit. I wore that coat every winter day until I outgrew it two years later.
Whenever someone happened to inquire about the discoloration on my coat, I would secretly swell with pride.
I had a fabulous story to tell them.
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