By Richard E. Peck
After eight years of part-time residency on Kauaʻi – two to three months each year on-island, nine-to-10 months in New Mexico – I’ve come to enjoy explaining “aloha” to my Mainland amigos, and haole habits to kamaʻaina.
Where you live guides what you know.
Loafing beside Wailua Bay, I received a cell-phone call from my sister. My weather was typically perfect. Hers was typically Wisconsin, “waist-deep snow,” she said. “Temperature 4 below zero, 30 mph winds, wind chill factor unbearable, and my husband does nothing but stand and stare through the kitchen window. If the storm gets any worse, I may have to forgive him for moving us here and bring him inside.”
My Kauaʻi neighbors don’t know: in the frozen tundra of the upper Midwest, there are two seasons; winter and road repair. Summer is any July day when skiing is awkward.
One winter my bachelor uncle lived with us and told stories. They all ended: “When the temperature reaches 40 below zero, your spit will freeze before it hits the ground.”
I experimented. At zero degrees, my spit didn’t freeze. Nor at 10 below. And minus-40 came along so seldom that I despaired of ever testing my uncle’s claim.
Then it happened, a night with the temperature plummeting past – 28 at bedtime. While dad hung blankets over the windows, I prayed for colder weather. And when I woke, the house was warm, a good sign. Winter mornings, we usually danced on the frigid linoleum till we struggled into our socks. But this morning’s warmth meant that dad had been up during the night to stoke the fire.
The thermometer read 41 below zero and I started badgering my mother. I worried that by the time I got her permission (I knew she’d give in if I pestered long enough) the temperature might soar to a tepid minus-38 or minus-39. It took an hour of pleading till she bundled me up to go outside.
Dressing for Wisconsin winters starts with a smear of Vicks VapoRub on the chest, more on a scarf around your neck (a Wisconsin lei), and a third dab just below the nose. Inhaling the fumes (my uncle swore) could prevent inhaling cold germs. All I knew was, in winter, all Wisconsin school-rooms smell like Vicks.
After the Vicks comes a shirt, a sweater, two pairs of corduroy pants, waterproof snow pants, and a jacket, mittens and cap, and hood, and finally a second scarf wrapped around the face and tied at the back.
Mom opened the door a crack and I tottered out. As soon as my boots crunched on the snow I pulled down the scarf and spat.
Small children should not see the ugly face of truth. It makes them cynical. I spat four wet holes in the snowdrift, and then went inside spiritless, older than my years. That winter morning I learned that my trusted uncle was a liar.
When he got home from work that night I confronted him. “Ain’t so,” I said. “Spit does not freeze before it hits the ground!”
My uncle looked at me sadly and said, “You’re too short.”
We never had a minus-40 degree day after I got taller, and then we moved. But this February, I’m organizing a trip to Wisconsin: one flight to the Mainland, another to Chicago, and a dogsled north to the deep drifts.
If you’re over 5-feet tall and can work up a good spit, come along, and we’ll test the claim.
I need to know if my uncle was ʻoe (a liar), or told the ʻoiaʻiʻo (truth).
- Richard E. Peck is a part-time Kauaʻi resident and a retired president of three universities. He has written numerous books, plays, columns and TV shows, and his work can be seen at www.richardepeck.com.