News From Terre Haute, Indiana

January 11, 2010

Sidelines: Feeling cold? Here’s a story that just might warm your feet

By Mike Lunsford

Despite a glowing space heater that hums near my chilly feet, I still hug my arms and rub my legs as I sit to write this story. The sub-zero temperatures this weekend have brutally reminded us all of our human frailty, of our dependence on stoves and furnaces, electricity and natural gas, on blankets and fleece and wool and warm water. I think it is not odd at all that I am preoccupied right now with a steaming cup of tea, with flannel bed sheets and crackling sycamore logs in our fireplace.

I have waited for a night just like tonight to write this tale, perhaps in the hope that it will warm my toes against the persistent draft that sneaks like a thief under a nearby door. The wind comes knifing across the fields around our place to rob our house of its warmth, to cool our floors and rattle our windows, and I resent the intrusion.

It warms me a little to remember a trip that my wife and I took this past summer. We headed to northern Indiana in the smothering heat of August, up old Indiana 31 to Shipshewana and Goshen and Nappanee and points nearby. We went to shop and to sleep late and to eat too much, a mini-vacation before we headed back to the daily grind of a school schedule. The temperatures that week ran in the low 90s, and while we expended the sweat and energy that seems to be the price to pay for moving around in a Hoosier summer, I think we’d agree that had it been even warmer, we’d gladly trade those dog days for the natural refrigeration we’re afflicted with now. It was so warm that even our car’s air conditioner could hardly keep ahead of the day’s oppressive mugginess, particularly when the sun shone through our windshield like a greenhouse pane above a bed of slightly moist petunias.

My wife and I are wanderers; we enjoy gadding about small-town shops and junk stores, looking for nothing in particular. We like to eat in Mom and Pop diners, take in sites of local interest, and search for bargains in antique markets and auctions, even five-and-dimes. We were in a shopper’s paradise in the few days we spent on the trip, but I now think it was the warmth of the days there that make me want to go back most of all.

It didn’t take much driving to escape the cloistered feel of strip malls and cookie-cutter subdivisions north of Indianapolis. Within a half-hour, we found ourselves looking at the endlessly flat fields and unwatered yards and wild black-eyed susans that grew in the uncut weeds amidst fence row corner posts. We got a more generous sampling of Indiana small towns after we left the outskirts of Noblesville and before we arrived in Kokomo, and even though we could have slurped on mega-sized soft drinks purchased at convenience stores and mini-marts all along the way, we passed through only small burgs and hamlets after that, turning east on Indiana Highway 6 long before we ever made it to South Bend.

Not far from Argos, I saw a crop duster dive-bombing a soybean field, the airplane’s yellow underbelly coming so close to the highway that I could clearly see the pilot in ball cap, dark sunglasses and tan shirt. Within a few miles, we saw massive wheeled irrigation lines as they crept their way through dark green cornfields and mashed down their own crisscrossed rows, flattening the very stalks they were mercifully delivering from thirst.

My wife didn’t see the brown and crunchy yards on either side of the ribbon-thin highway as we drove on toward Nappanee. Uncharacteristically, she had waited several hours to fall asleep in her passenger seat, for she is usually groggy and napping within 15 minutes of getting into any automobile that she is not driving. It’s as though she trusts my sense of direction — I own no GPS — and steady hand on the wheel because she feels no need to keep an eye on my driving. I think she deserves the rest, but kid her that she is not unlike a fussy baby who settles down the minute it hears and feels the lullaby of the road rolling away underneath.

Had she been awake, we would have shared the first glimpses of the massive Percheron draft horses as they grazed in closely cropped fields, and a pair of towering white round barns, and the sight of a scrawny Amish boy in straw hat and too-short britches pulling a much heavier sister in a wagon behind his bicycle.

She awoke by the time we hit even tinier Highway 15 and headed north again, then toward New Paris and what is real Amish territory. There we came to a place where it seemed everyone sold homemade furniture and where names like Zook and Yoder and Borkholder were painted on nearly every mailbox. But huge factories also dotted the otherwise calm landscape, reminders that the state in which I live is as much or more industrial than agricultural. Heavily loaded semi trucks stood in anachronistic contrast to the signs we saw that advertised even more of those bulldozer-sized work animals, as well as one for buggy repairs, and yet another for a local farrier.

As we headed into Goshen, then onto the east and north again toward Shipshewana — a place well-known for its huge flea market and weekly auctions — we again saw the incongruity of the modern and the antique mingled along the roads. A grotesquely colorful sign advertised “Crazy Joe’s Fireworks,” yet within a mile of the place we passed neat white farmhouses whose only concession to the modern age were carefully lettered placards that read “Honey For Sale.” We recalled that along the way, we also saw a harness shop, a chick hatchery, the “Sprig ’O Mint” golf course, and a field of blueberry bushes well past harvest.

That north wind is whistling a frigid tune now. In the back of my mind, I am etching mental reminders to leave my water taps dripping and my cabinet doors ajar. I have already thrown an extra blanket on our bed, dropped a little warm water off for the cats to use as an evening nightcap before retiring to their straw in the barn, and am hopeful that my truck’s battery survives the long, cold, bony fingers of that brutal overnight breeze.

But I can also recall being under the heat lamp of those days we spent near Shipshewana last summer. We didn’t know it then, but the warmth of those days may have been the best bargain we found.

Mike Lunsford can be reached at hickory913@aol.com, or by regular mail c/o the Tribune-Star, P.O. Box 149, Terre Haute, IN 47808. He’ll be reading from and signing his new book, “Sidelines: The Best of the Basketball Stories…” at 6:30 p.m. (CST) Thursday at the Paris Public Library. Mike’s Web page is at www.mikelunsford.com.