Guest Columnist

Missing voices in a winter of extremes

Kurt Ullrich lives in rural Jackson County.
Kurt Ullrich lives in rural Jackson County.

Looking out a side window I was surprised to see footprints through the deep snow marching down un-shoveled steps to my basement door. It was one of those many-degrees-below-zero mornings and a large deer was curled up against the door, soaking up whatever heat might be escaping. Very wise, and likely able to withstand the cold. One cannot fathom how homeless folks survive in this weather.

We are living in a land of extremes. On this day it is 50 degrees warmer in Iceland than it is here in the Midwest. We’re breaking all sorts of records set in 1936 and if the summer just over the horizon is anything like that of 1936 we can expect a long, hot furnace ahead. Am I really writing about the weather? Next thing you know I’ll slip in a few words about what ails me.

But I will not speak of these things. You can convince me to do a lot things but talking aloud about my health is not one of them. More than a year ago I was having lunch with a bunch of very nice people, all about my age, and they seemed fixated on telling stories about their health. A man next to me told me all about his heart attack, and I mean ALL about his heart attack. Just as my eyes were beginning to focus again someone new joined us and the heart attack story began afresh. Spare me.

Speaking aloud makes me think of voices. Over the years more than one person has told me I sound like Clint Eastwood, slow, gravelly, and a little threatening. I’m OK with that, keeps those of nebulous value at a distance. I miss other voices. I have no recordings of my mother’s voice, a gentle alto who sang beautifully in church but never joined the choir. She was deliberate in her speech and she was brilliant, so that is one I long to hear, long to hang on to, long to cry over.

These days almost everyone’s voice is available …. cellular phone technology guarantees it. But don’t look for mine; I don’t carry a phone. “When you arrive in the parking lot call the office and we’ll let you in.” Yeah, right. How about I simply knock on the door. Out where I live there is no cellular phone coverage and, besides, who would I call? The only person I’d really care to chat with passed from this earth Christmas Eve and as far as I know, like rural America, there still isn’t any telephone service to heaven, so I’ll wait until that day.

The last ice age ended about 12,000 years ago, give or take a few cold weeks. It was part of what scientists call the Pleistocene Epoch, a period of a couple of million years where glaciers covered much of North America, moving, shifting, creating the landscape we see out of our icy windows today. The past few weeks likely have felt much like those days.

Out on the two-lane the cattle of my neighbors are standing side by side, borrowing whatever heat they can from each other, steamy breath crystallizing about 8 inches from their mouths. Here in the house my two cats are curled up in the living room in front of a stove that’s been working overtime for days, while outside the lone deer that found my basement door is in the yard, pawing through the snow, looking for remnants of last summer’s grass.

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Kurt Ullrich lives in rural Jackson County. His book “The Iowa State Fair” is available from the University of Iowa Press.

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