September 25, 2023

Talk of the Town

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eleazerbanner - CopyJournal—February 12—Sunday Abe Lincoln’s Birthday

It is snowing lightly now. The snow flakes are like little glittering crystals of glass, fluttering down quietly as they pass through the light from the kitchen window. I need to put down here the events of last night; as only you, dear journal, will know all the facts. And you, like the falling flakes of snow, will be quiet of these things that I will pen below…

Every month Margie and I trek over to Richardson Hollow to spend the night with friends Peter and Gilda Martin. We always have a nice supper prepared by Gilda, a superb cook, and then we spend the evening playing cards. Yesterday afternoon, we drove the old truck, affectionately named “Molly”, over Patch Mountain Road. The road was well packed, and the truck managed to wallow through a couple of drifts near the Verrill Farm. We stopped at the Suomela house to leave Brinker. He likes to visit too, but not with the Martins as they have an old Shepard who doesn’t like company.

We arrived about mid afternoon, and Margie and Gilda immediately were involved in the meal preparations and catching up on all the local happenings. Peter had to show me his new Winchester. It is a .30-.30 carbine with fancy checkering on the grip, and a deer etching on the blued receiver. After many shots at imaginary bucks, we put the Winchester in the rack, and ventured down the hill to the sauna.

This sauna was more or less a community asset, being that everyone in the neighborhood used it at some point or other. It is actually on the land of Sylva Polkinen, and had been built by Sylva’s grandfather. As a child I had often wondered who lived in these windowless cottages that dotted the countryside. They most generally were near a small brook, like this one, and I imagined small trolls of some sort hiding until dark to venture out.

The building, approximately eight feet by sixteen, set just a few steps from the small brook. It has a foundation of piled stones, although they are snuggly beneath a couple of feet of snow at this time of year. We opened the outside door by pulling a rope hanging down from high on the left side of the door casing. This rope lifted the wooden latch inside, and exposed a small room (about five by eight) that is used for changing and storing firewood. This room feels damp, moist and quite warm. There is a short bench along one wall to sit on, and wooden pegs up on the other side to hold towels and clothes. The thermometer on the wall, barely visible from the yellow light of a lantern, shows 75 degrees. Peter told me he had already started the fire after dinner, so we just had to stoke it a little for my bath later and for some other Saturday night bathers.

A latchless door with a spring opened to the right side of the sauna room, and opened outward, as did the first door. The doors opened out to provide some safety should the building catch fire, which was not an uncommon occurrence. The three tiered cedar benches wrap around two sides of this room to the left of the door. The room is a box sheathed in cedar, and has a lantern providing the only light. Set into the right hand corner is the heater for the sauna. Sometimes the heater is an old pot bellied stove, small cook stove, or like this, a custom built contrivance. This heater is built with a stone base, sides and chimney—uncommon to most saunas, but of quality and for safety. A cast iron plate, possibly from an old cook stove top, has been carefully set down into the top of the masonry and stone. On top of this plate are carefully piled river stones; larger stones with various smaller sizes intermingled. These stones have been carried from some distant river or stream. They are worn round by tumbling in the swift waters, and range in size from chicken egg to a small cabbage. These stones are piled in such a way that water poured on the heated stones will turn to steam and vapor before it reaches the iron plate. If the water continually hits on the plate, it can crack or explode causing sparks and metal to fly about. A cast iron door, about half a yard square, has been carefully set into the side front of the stone heater.

Peter opened the door on the heater and exposed a thick, glowing bed of yellow, orange coals. He carefully set in a dozen good sticks of red oak, and using an iron poker spaced them around inside. I sat on the low bench, wiping the sweat from my brow. I could easily make out the temperature reading on the large round dial thermometer nailed to the back of the door—145 degrees! We hadn’t stayed inside very long, just long enough to set the bed of coals. I found myself in a kind of problem, as I stepped outside to the crisp night air. My glasses had frosted over, and the moisture on my mustache had crystallized making me appear to be “Old Man Winter”.

We walked up the hill past a couple of houses that cast light from their windows onto the snowy roadway. Stomping our boots off on the porch, we announce our presence to the women. They have the feast all spread on the table; certainly good timing on our part. Gilda had again outdone herself with this supper banquet. The roast beef was delicious, the potatoes with gravy were divine, and the string beans—well, if I liked beans, would surely have been wonderful. Margie’s pumpkin pie finished off this delightful meal.

We all took part cleaning up the table and washing all the dishes. Then we set the table for our match. Usually Peter and I would team against the ladies, and tonight was no different. Peter and I were bantered about the thrashing we took last month when we played whist. For tonight’s games we conspired and lobbied successfully for hearts; surely we could change our bad luck to good fortune.

The night went all too quickly, and if it weren’t for my running the hearts and having the queen of spades in the last hand, Peter and I would have been beaten as bad as last month. Margie and Gilda must have a signal system to help, surely we aren’t that bad—or maybe we are.

Gilda was serving tea and oatmeal cookies, but I passed and decided to head for the sauna. It is a treat that I have always enjoyed, and I had especially looked forward to since my visit earlier this afternoon. I almost always went alone, as the Martins liked Friday night baths and Margie rather liked the tub at home. I put on my wool coat and hat, slid on my boots, and stepped out into the night air. It was cold, not like the frigid night Brinker tried to do me in, but rather seasonal and in the mid twenties. I lit my corncob and strolled down the hill; savoring the quiet and the memories flowing from my pipe smoke.

The lights shining into the roadway were fewer now, but the fading moon held enough light to navigate the way. I arrived at the sauna and could see that some of the neighbors had been in recently. I hailed the doorway, and received no reply. There is an informal reservation system used in the neighborhood. It is by word of mouth discussion and habit that sort out the times of use. The arriving person would try to arrive after the earlier party had left; as a naked dip in the brook or roll in the snow were common finales to the sauna experience. I wouldn’t want to be racing out the door, naked as a chicken’s egg, and run smack into someone coming down the path for their turn at the sauna. They may be as embarrassed as I would be surprised!

I pulled the rope latch and entered the ante room. I shed my coat and hat, and stepped into the sauna room and stoked the fire with some quick, hot burning pine splints. I returned to the eighty-eight degrees of the other room and shed my whole attire, carefully hanging my clothes on the wooden pegs and sliding my boots under the bench. My towel and I stepped into the dry heat of the sauna, the thermometer read 165. I sat on the lowest bench and acclimated to the temperature. I checked the two pails, and they were full of water. A tin dipper hung from the lip of one of the pails. I now was sweating quite easily, and skipped the middle row and sat now on the top bench. My head was just below the ceiling boards, and I wondered how Bernard Hutchins manages with his six foot six frame. The pine had ignited and flamed the temperature to 192—I don’t think the thermometer is weather service calibrated, but it’s only relative anyway.

The time was now to start the steam process. I stepped down and carefully edged my way toward the hot stones nestled above the crackling fire. The boards on the floor were spaced slightly and were still a little slippery and wet. I carefully picked up the hot dipper with my towel, and skimmed a dipper full of hot water from the pail nearest the heat. I spread the water across the superheated stones with a sweeping motion. By just pouring the water down on the stones, the steam would rise more quickly than you could move your hand, leaving your wrist and hand with severe burns! Experience is my teacher.

Three dipper volumes of water make all the steam I can comfortably endure. I sit still on the top bench feeling the steam swirl past my face and body. I breathe slowly so as not to overheat my lungs. The sweat I had earlier is now running down my body, and dripping from the lathes of the bench. Every pore on my body has opened up and my skin is being cleansed by the vapors. I glance over at the thermometer, it is pegged out at 220, now I know it has to be wrong or my body would be boiling over! I have been sitting only a short time when I know I’ve reached my limit.

I move down to the lowest bench, and walk quickly out the doors. I stand naked and tingling in this cold, quiet snowscape. Experience has also taught me that a roll in the snow is invigorating, but it must be done right off or the thrill is a chill. I lie down on my back in a blanket of fresh snow. I melt slowly down under my weight and hot body. When I start to feel the coolness creeping into my feet, I gather myself up and stride back to the sauna. The briskness of this whole atmosphere quickens my thoughts and movements. I reach up for the rope and snap it down to open the board door, but to my stark surprise the rope pulls out!

I yank repeatedly on the carved handle on the door, yet it still resists every effort. I push, twist, lift, and pound, and the door stays locked. Now I’m getting cold. What should I do? I can’t wait I’ll freeze. I can run up he hill to Peter’s, but I’m naked and all. That can be only my last resort, which I must decide quite quickly. My mind flashes to the stories that will be told of Eleazer’s Folly in Richardson Hollow. Vanity—ahhhhh! I have a flash of inspiration, and a smile comes to my face. I step into the deep snow beside the sauna and break a thin stem from a striped maple. With this I will slide up the latch board from through the crack along the edge of the door. I cannot see as a shadow is cast by the building, so I feel for the edge of the door. I prod the stick, small end first, into the cleft. It only goes so far and stops bluntly, even as I slide it up and down the crack. No use, the good Finnish craftsmanship has foiled me.

That’s it! I’ve got to go before I become an ice cube. I run as swiftly as a man my size can run. No clothes, coat, hat, or glasses—just a streak. My numbing feet follow the path to the plowed portion of roadway and I start up the hill. I can only think of the gossip’s fodder I will now become. A bright ray of light from the first farm house, draws my attention to the white bark on a large paper birch tree standing beside the road. I break my wobbly stride, and snatch a strip of loose bark from the trunk of the birch. I hesitate, should I continue on, or try the door again before I freeze my feet and other things. A choice is made and down again I go. I felt the edge of the door and slid the pliable bark through the crack. I bends around and goes right on through the jam and stays stiff enough for me to lift the latch—viola!!

I immediately ran into the sauna to thaw any frosted parts; it still took a few minutes. Then I calmly dressed in the anteroom. I smiled to myself and gave a sigh of relief at my good fortune. The water pails were refilled from the brook, and the lanterns snuffed out. I repaired the door opening mechanism and walked out into the night a changed man, and fully clothed this time. I lit my pipe and sauntered up the snowy way. I thought of the lady in Paris who spent the day with her head stuck in the porch railing, until a passerby spied her. She is embarrassingly famous—I don’t want to be famous, I certainly don’t want to be the “talk of the town”.

Warmly Submitted,
Eleazer Peabody

Read all of Eleazer Peabody’s Tales from Maine.