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  • Writer's pictureGiacomino Nicolazzo

A Warm Chinook...

Updated: Oct 11, 2023


Edition 3. April 2019

The year was 1983. She was in her early-twenties and traveling with a tiny theater company doing vaudeville-type shows in community centers and bars…anywhere they could earn $25 each plus enough gas money to get to them to the next small town in an old ramshackle yellow bus.

They were on Interstate 94, north of Bozeman Montana and heading to Boise Idaho. It was early February and a heavy snow had been falling for most of the day. It had slowed them down and they feared they’d be late for their next gig, and they all desperately needed the money it would bring.

The radio in the bus crackled warnings about black ice and poor visibility, so they decided to stop for the night. The driver said he had friends in Bozeman that he thought they could impose on…friends who were doing a production of Fiddler on the Roof at Montana State University. So, they stopped for the night. She thought to herself...

“It will be nice to get out of this bus, see a show, hit a few bars and maybe...just maybe get to sleep on a sofa.”

After the show, she was just one of well-wishers and stagehands that milled around behind the curtain. She pulled her coat around her shoulders and started to dance…humming the melody to “If I Were a Rich Man.”

It was enough to make everyone laugh.

Just then, a heavy metal door backstage swung open and a blast of frigid air came in. The door clanged shut. She could see two men stomping snow from their boots. One was big man…bearlike, in an Irish wool sweater and gaiters. The other was as tall and skinny as a chimney sweep and wearing a peacoat.

“…but I’m just saying,” the skinny one was complaining, “I just think it would be nice to see some serious theater once in a while. Chekhov, Ibsen, anything but this musical comedy shtick.”

She heard what the skinny one said and just could not hold her tongue...

“Excuse me?” she huffed, her hackles raised. “I am a professional shticktress! Anyone who doesn’t think comedy is an art form certainly hasn’t read much Shakespeare, have they?”

She went on to deliver a tart, pedantic lecture on the French neo-classics, the cultural impact of Punch and Judy as an I Love Lucy prototype, and the importance of Fiddler on the Roof as both an artistic and oral history. Her shrill diatribe left a puff of frozen breath in the air. She felt her snootiness showing like a stray bra strap.

The chimneysweep in the peacoat rolled his eyes and walked away. But the bear stood there for a moment…an easy smile in his brown eyes. Then he put his arms around her and whispered in her ear...

“Little person...I think I love you.”

She took in a deep, startled breath…inhaling winter, Irish wool, coffee, and the smell of fresh-baked bread all at once. Then she pushed him away with a jittery half-joke...

“Watch it, big person! I have pepper spray.”

“OK,” he said with a broad baritone laugh. “We will call a truce. Will you come for a walk with me though? It’ll be nice.”

She shook her head reluctantly...

“I don’t know. As nice as walking around in the freezing dark with a total stranger sounds…I think I’ll pass!"

Then she looked down and could not help but notice his feet and the well-worn gaiters he was wearing…

“Planning on doing some cross-country skiing are you?”

“Riding my bike actually,” he answered. Then, shrugging his shoulders, he added sarcastically...

“OK...I’m between vehicles.”

He turned and pushed open the heavy door...holding it expectantly. She smiled hesitantly but decided to give it a chance...

“Oh, what the hell!"

She moved the pepper spray from her purse to her coat pocket. Then she decided to follow her heart out through the door to walk under the clear, cold stars with this perfect stranger.

Knowing that one particular question always opened doors of its own, she asked...

“So, what are you reading?”

She was in the habit of asking this question of the nuns at the bus stop, a barber who paid her to scrub his floor once a week, elderly ladies and children at the park. To this day, she asks it of people who sit beside her on airplanes, baristas at Starbucks, exchange students standing in line with her. Over the years, “What are you reading?” has introduced her to many of her favorite books and favorite people.

The bear had a quick answer..:

“Chesapeake. Have you read it?”

“No, but I love James Michener,” she said. “When I was 12, I fell in love with Hawaii and vowed that if I ever had a daughter, I’d name her Jerusha after the heroine.”

“Big book for a 12-year-old,” he joked.

“We didn’t have a TV,” she answered dryly. “And I guess I was a bit of a dork.”

He laughed that broad baritone laugh again and said...

“Literature…the last refuge of the tragically uncool.”

“Same could be said of bicycling in your ski gaiters,” she said quickly, then looked down again at his feet.

Their conversation was organically comfortable, ranging from books and theater to politics and their personal histories.

“Having embraced the life of an artsy-party girl” she said, “I was the black sheep of my conservative Midwestern family. But I now thoroughly enjoy my freedom and a steady diet of wild oats.”

He’d spent a dysfunctional childhood on the East Coast. A troubled path of drug and alcohol abuse had brought him to one of those legendary moments of clarity at which he made a hard right turn to an almost monkish existence in a tiny mountain cabin...

“I’ve built an ascetic life that is solitary but substantive...baking bread at a local restaurant, splitting wood for my heating stove, and staying out of trouble. That probably sounds pretty dull to you.”

“Agonizingly dull,” she answered. “But don’t worry.”

She then patted his arm...

“Maybe someday you’ll remember how to have fun.”

He shrugged...

“Maybe someday you’ll forget.”

They talked about the things people tend to avoid when they’re trying to make a good impression…hopes subverted by mistakes, relationships sabotaged by shortcomings. Her bus was leaving in the morning, and they would never see each other again, so there was no need to posture.

Fingers and chins numbed by the cold, they found refuge in a restaurant called the Four B’s. They sat across from each other in a red vinyl booth...

“Between the two of us,” he said, “maybe we have enough money for a short stack of buckwheat pancakes. Are you ready?”

A few morning papers were delivered to the front door, and with coffee cups between their hands, together they worked their way through the crossword puzzle.

Before they knew it, the sun was coming up. They emerged from the Four B’s to discover a warm chinook had blown in. Already the eaves of a few buildings were weeping, icicles thinning on trees and telephone wires.

This is what Montana does in midwinter. It clears off and gets bitter cold, and then suddenly it’s as warm and exhilarating as Easter morning. But don’t believe it for a minute, you tell yourself as the streets turn into trout streams...

The sheer pleasure of the feeling makes a fool of you every time.

“You forget about your scarf and mittens on the hook behind the door,” he said. “You know it’s still winter, but that’s just what you know. The warm chinook...well, that is what you believe in!”

The bear took her by the hand and held it inside his coat pocket as they walked in silence back to the parking lot to meet her bus. Before he kissed her, he asked her a question...

“Are you ready?”

There was that question again! Ready for what she had no idea, but in some strange way ready is how she felt. She was suddenly stricken with readiness as a matter of fact…downright humbled by it...

“I hope you have a wonderful life,” she told him. “I really do.”

He replied quietly, before nodding stiffly and walking away...

“You too.”

She boarded and found a place to sit. The bus lumbered through the slush and labored over the mountains, finally arriving hours later in a fading Highline town where they were booked to play a quaintly shabby old opera house.

As soon as she stepped off the bus, the guy at the box office immediately pegged her as a party girl who’d been up all night and invited her to go to the bar next door...

“You look like you could use the hair of the dog before the show!”

She shook her head and said no, of course. She thought to herself...

“I can’t honestly remember why that ever sounded like fun to me!”

Later that evening, as she did her shtick out on the foot-lit stage, she heard something that brought a smile to her face and made her heart quicken. The bear’s distinctive baritone laughter was coming from somewhere out in the darkened audience.

After the show, there he was...waiting for her by the door.

“I won’t bother asking how you got here,” she said.

“And I won’t bother asking you where you want to go,” he responded.

But he did have one question for her...

“Are you ready?”

She slid her arm into his and through the back stage door they walked. And now, the rest is, as we say...history!

“I can’t endorse the idea of love at first sight,” she says now, “But I do admit that maybe there are moments when God or fate...or some cosmic sense of humor rolls its eyes at two stammering human hearts and says...

“Oh, for crying out loud. Just do it!"

She married the bear a few months a meadow above his tiny cabin in the Bridger Mountains.

And I want you to know something. They weren’t exempted from any of the hard work a long marriage demands, but for better or worse, in sickness and in health, that moment of unguarded, chinook-blown folly has somehow lasted 30 years.

They laugh.

They read.

She does the dishes…he bakes the bread.

Every morning, they work through the daily crossword puzzle together, holding cups of coffee between their hands. Their daughter, Jerusha, and son, Malachi Blackstone, whom he named after his great-grandfather and an island in the Chesapeake Bay, tells them how agonizingly dull they are as old people!

They just listen and they smile!

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