Matthew Hart grew up in Northfield, and like so many of us who endured the many winters that shape who we are today, his story, published here in three parts, is a colorful palette of Green Mountain State memories on a snowy white background.  You can read Part 1 here, and Part 2 below. 

Happy Holidays!

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  "Let ev'ry heart prepare Him room, and heav'n and nature sing."

 Part 2

With my bus fare ill spent on Psi U campus-wide beer, turned out in my usual finery; blue jean jacket and kelly-green Boston Celtic sneakers, I left for Vermont penniless.  In front of a co-ed fraternity house (yes there is such a thing), I stuck my thumb out at a sleek red BMW motoring south to Beantown.  Amazingly it pulled over.  The driver was a coed from French class.  At Portsmouth Circle, halfway to Boston, I reluctantly asked her to pull over.  As I got out, we exchanged “Merry Christmas” in French.  I almost got back in but instead, I headed due north which is always exciting.  No wonder compass needles quiver. 

Hitchhiking is a tricky affair.  Hitherto, my trip home from college was a five-hour voyage.  This one turned out to be a wee bit longer.  As I headed up the spine of New Hampshire a weak winter sun faded.  In New England December days pull the shades early.  I enjoyed a brief thaw when a Holsom truck picked me up with warm bread fogging the windows.  At the end of his delivery route the truck driver turned around, wished me a happy holiday, leaving me standing valiantly at the side of a frost-heaved back road.

I took a sleeve of salted peanuts out of my pocket, popped a handful, and washed them down with some peppermint schnapps.  Not even close to getting a ride, I remained positive for a few hours and few more sips before a gray silent night approached, not a headlight in sight on a lonely stretch outside Bethlehem, New Hampshire.  I was going nowhere as the world rushed toward Xmas at warp speed.  The BMW and her red tights had swung into Cambridge by then. 

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Stranded, the world turned down its volume.  A blue jay deep in the thicket sang three times and ceased to be heard.  I looked down the road.  Nil.  Back the other way.  Naught.  Nothing stirred.  Freezing up solid, things slackened, I was gonna slip into a nice long winter’s nap.  Fear started down deep as schnapps climbed my throat.  Losing my balance, I crow-hopped into the middle of the road to escape the encroaching shadowy woods. 

In the dying day a speeding automobile came on fast.  The whoosh triggered my reflexes and I spun at the last moment and jutted out my thumb.  This car was my last chance.  It swept by like a raging bull past an unlucky matador, clipped by a bumper rather than a gorged by a horn I whirl, fell first to my knees then tipped over hitting my hard head on the chilly tarmac. 

Roused by big fat snowflakes heaven sent not one alike I awake.  My ears popped.  My nose cleared.  The great voiceless forest threw evergreen fragrance into the dimly lit the gathering night.  A lone star popped out in the early evening sky.  I lay there looking at it wondering aloud why there were not more.  Remotely I sense the bad trees threat retreating, sappy trunks forming a sanctuary for the escaping shadows.  The collar of my jeans jacket is frozen to my cheek.  I lick it free.  Cold toes hurt anew.  I'm covered in Jack Frost.  The lane is glistening. 

End of the day sounds blend, compose first a sunset dirge then a carol heard on high, trumpets blare great glad tidings.  Dropping in like an angel's melody there comes a newborn sound, a coo.  Uneasily I wobble to where the rogue car had pulled over as its tire tracks are cold cast into the frozen shoulder.  The driver checked to see if I was breathing and drove on.  Hit and run-on Christmas Eve.  Naughty, not nice. 

There on the side of the lost highway I find an improbable baby stroller with a yellow and blue comforter hung up in its wheels.  Carefully I investigate as it appears to be inhabited.  Its occupant’s cheeks flush with intermittent squawks.  Thrust into fatherhood, I am the lucky recipient of someone else’s conception. 

I swoop him up (I think it is a him) and clutch the little tyke to my breast.  The solo star shines down upon us from the sheltering sky.  Its light moves easily within me, I warm up perceptibly.  He likes the motion of my cradled arms for no crying he makes.  His whimpers stop as I stroke his sweet head clumsily but not without pride.  I fell in love for the second time near the end of one of the shortest days of the year.  It is my life's solstice.

Tossing my schnapps bottle into the ditch I put the tyke back in the stroller, tucked in his bands of cloth and off we went.  This is no place for a kid on Christmas Eve.  A night thrush starts a flurry of songs.  Furry animals bear, bobcat and possum came to the forest edge, cows stood at the pasture fence; all bent their heads as we passed.  “A la posada vamos amigos”.

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“Excuse me as I commandeer more beer nuts.  OK, where was I?”  Baby needed his unavailable mother, so I changed my first diaper ever (it was him) about hundred yards down the road.  There was a little pouch with Wipes & Diapes on the back of the stroller.  At first blush there is something pathetic about going in your pants.  However, he was so charming about it, pointed gently when I caught the first whiff.  We took a pit stop to change his tire.  He smiled sweetly and I did my fatherly duty.  No child of mine was going to be soiled for long.  How still and sweet he lay.  We strolled along the center line at a leisurely pace on what turned into a nice winter’s eve. 

We were together on this.  I no longer cared if I was off my travel schedule.  I would gladly miss the Christmas party at home.  Bev would have to plant a big wet squishy kiss on someone else.  The closest town, Bethlehem, was not a few miles off.  There we headed.  The star followed our path.  As I recall there was pervading buoyancy. The night sky turned a greater shade of crimson- blue.  Dress pattern cut treetops notched the dusky horizon on both sides of the road.  Snow melted in my footsteps. 

Up the road in Mechanic Falls a pool cue broke a Miller Genuine Draft neon sign into a million sparks that bounce along the barroom floor until they extinguish with a crackle in puddles of spilt brew.  After Biker sank the eight ball on the break the roadhouse broke into a free-for-all.  No cover charge at this door -- fight your way in, fight your way out.  The townies did not like losing -- especially their money. 

Biker lived to ride and rode to live; billiards was a sideline.  He was happy to drink your ale, take your paycheck or your girl if she was game.  She would find there is nothing like a Harley taking off in second gear down the road to happiness.  This Friday night’s newest captive, tired of her small-town boyfriend, wrapped her arms around the leather jacketed biker as she clung to the iron horse as they roared away from the roadhouse. 

Biker came up over the crest of the highway just as we stroller skated down the other side laughing like best friends on a runaway toboggan.  He was standing on the pegs as he brought the flathead hog back to earth, reined her in like Comet skidding across a roof.  Our ride had arrived. 

A few spits of snow popped on hot tail pipes.  Biker had one of those chained wallets and a navy watch cap pulled down over his formidable eyebrows.  One black boot hit the pavement and then the other.  The bike’s headlight cut a path to our silhouettes, man and child looking for lodging. 

From his rumbling machine Biker took in the scene, I and my charge smiled back serendipitously.  He was alone; the townie chick dressed in six shades of pink had pooped out at the town limits.  By digging her chipped nails, maroon, into his hard arms at the last stop sign she broke his patience not to mention his interest.  She had been screeching the last quarter mile anyway, so he dipped the bike, and she slid off into the slush, cursing back woods revenge, making cargo space for us vagabonds.

It was a standoff.  Biker was used to them, invited them, and maybe even liked them.  His power came from wading into conflicts unconcerned about the outcome.  Fist fights on prison yards did not prepare him for what we presented.  We were a starling sight for jaundiced, blood shot eyes.  Biker rubbed them after pushing his goggles up.  With a quick roar he pulled up beside us.  I adorned with green sneakers, my buddy in swaddling clothes, hailed him.  Our meek souls put the biker’s violence in another place.  We entered into an agreement.  He nodded an affirmation.  We either were convincing, or the ghosts of his hallucinations compelled him to aid us.  He knew he did not need another aberration haunting his unearthly hangovers that could not be diminished by a beer over breakfast. 

Like my schnapps bottle Biker threw his flask into snowbank and gave the thumb over shoulder signal.  We hopped on.  The vacant leather motorcycle seat became our throne.  We both gasped with exhilaration and exhortation as we took off with powerful acceleration.  The papoose child wedged between Biker’s wide back and my skinny self-grinning with glee as my shabby locks shaped by the wind coned out like Santa’s hat.  Three bugs in a rocket sled.  We roared away from the stroller that sat empty and silent, a vacant vestibule for a higher place. 

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A century ago, Bethlehem, New Hampshire germinated into a summer playground for a forsaken people.  Elders who wanted fresh air children to be among their own built a railhead and dozens of rambling wooden hotels far from the simmering masses at Jones’ Beach, segregated from the riches of Newport and Bar Harbor. 

A few decades of joy filled this town of their own.  The summer seasons were broken by honest winters when the native innkeepers kept the hotels’ mantels dusted and the furniture mothballed.  In spring caretakers moved the kosher pots and pans from leak to leak when the snow melted through the roof.  By Memorial Day, flower beds were replanted, and new coats of paint dried before the first train arrived. 

Men with long beards and black hats smiled at children with woven braids and ear locks playing on green lawns or nodded to each other when passing on the quiet elm-lined streets.  It was good being away from Brooklyn.  Northern New England breezes swept away the memories of stifling row houses or worse.  Dawn’s rose with serenity and set with humility. 

This night to remember the hotels were broken and dark, their porches tilted downhill.  Yellowed, expired insurance policies curled behind front desks that would not, and had not, registered a relieved and tired traveler for a long time coming.  “What a shame.”  To this day my trailer door stands open should a lost soul need respite. 

The front desk bell was rusted, since when Biker rang it with his paw, it kinda thudded out an unsure clang.  He had those gloves with the fingers missing.  We used the splinters from the doorjamb (Biker kicked in the side door) to start a fire.  I thought it was appropriate, so I registered in the welcome book.  The name above my scribble, the Goldman’s from Far Rockaway, was dated 1967, the summer of love.  Without a host we checked in. 

I heard Biker first in the kitchen, lots of crashes, an expletive, then a mumbled pardon me, then on the stairs going to the floor above.  I broke another dining room chair for the fire.  Its old paint ignited easily.  The flames jumped when a pile of linen landed on the wooden floor near me.  Bed clothes for the king of kings.  Not only had the first guests in a decade checked-in, but someone incredibly special slept beneath its eaves, a secret that would not go unnoticed. 

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Truth be told, miraculous things happened.  Cobwebs cleared like mist exposed to dawn.  Spiders made themselves scarce, folded their hands.  Fresh food appeared in refrigerators with no Freon.  I got an oyster stew going and it stirred itself simmering right at sipping temperature.  Lights flicked on powered by corroded breaker boxes.  The water in the sink first rusty, cleared.  The baby sat in his warm bath and played.  I wrapped him in clean towels while I made his bed by the sizzling fire.  Newly chopped wood was found stacked near the hearth.  We ate stew by the fire.  “It felt -- you know -- Christmassy”’ 

Biker and I pulled up two recently caned rocking chairs and watched the baby fall asleep, warmed by the glow from his halo.  Drafts retreated under doors.  It was a good night.  The world was worthy for once – hushed and at peace.  The baby slept.  Biker nodded off warm-heartedly. 

I could not catch a wink, so I went out onto the hotel verandah.  The boards that had popped their frames on the way in were nailed down tight and for all the world looked as if they had been varnished within the last hour.  The tinkling from a wind chime was a melodic marvel. 

Everything was perfect in its own way.  I felt like I could do anything – climb the Eiffel tower at midnight or end world hunger -- win the Kentucky Derby on my hands and knees; might as well save the rain forest and balance the budget -- make myself a better person.  It was a moment for all time with big league poignancy.  Never had I been so fortunate and thankfully was quick enough to appreciate it.  When things go right, they really go right.  I went back inside but never overlook that one single magnificent moment on the porch in Bethlehem. 

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At first, I thought a goal had been scored at the Forum.  There were a lot of lights rotating on the walls as if a goal lamp had been switched on.  I waited for the crowd to roar.  Heard radio chatter instead and the lights were blue not red.  I checked Baby.  He was awake and looked at me alertly.  His eyes were older than his age.  Biker only had to blink once before he fell out the chair and crawled on his belly like a reptile to the window, the scent of ‘been here before’ all over him. 

Cops.  Lots of cops, state troopers, game wardens, volunteer firemen, local militia, the Sheriff of Nottingham (maybe not yet) were crowded around their vehicles pointing at the hotel.  Every light in the place was on.  It must have been quite a sight; like an ocean liner at night.  Everyone in town knew the place had been closed for years and that Central Maine Power is not a charitable organization.  I would have liked to have heard the dispatcher’s disbelief when the nosy neighbor called in that the Maplewood Hotel was bright and shining and open for business. 

I imagine the blazing hotel was kinda hard to miss on just another Bethlehem silent night broken only by a nippy cat’s meowing at back doors, naked tree limbs throwing odd, patterned shadows on snowbanks carved by a falling wind.  The sheriff’s car had been guarding the gas station, its interior dark yet for dash lights dimmed.  When the call came in, its idling engine blasted fury into the chill, tires clawing at black ice. 

The sheriff appeared at the front door of the hotel and for some reason, knocked before entering.  Biker had a sincere lack of interest in making this an accidental encounter with the law, but the sheriff and his deputies paid him no mind.  A velvet glove slipped over the iron fist of law enforcement.  The sheriff, trying to determine which tort had been broken, was overwhelmed by what had been done right and wondered if he should write a citation for good civic behavior. 

He had to call his army away from the child’s bed where they gathered and knelt in reverence.  They were needed outside for crowd control since half of Bethlehem had queued up to peek. 

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To be continued in Part 3 to be published on Christmas Day.