YESTERDAY, AS INNOCENTLY as ever, I posted a short message about Kathy feeding the birds and critters of our congregation here at the Church O’ The Pines. I may have mentioned in passing that the temperature at the time was 117 degrees below zero. For some reason, this caused a number of respondents to question my veracity. And Honesty. And truthfulness. And stuff like that. Which hurt. Not much, but a little. So, to allay any further such doubts I am posting here just a portion of an essay from my memoir, ‘Deep Woods, Wild Waters,’ which–since it is printed in a book, published by the University of Minnesota Press!!!–must clearly be true. Besides, a cursory reading by any person of wit and perception will surely prove it so. The essay is entitled ‘The Legend Of Coffee Cup Charlie,’ and the relevant part has a wilderness group I am guiding asking me about Minnesota winters. (By the way, this cold Minnesota night is a perfect time to curl up in a warm chair with a soft blanket and read it.) The tale begins approximately….. here:
Then someone, in an effort perhaps to change the subject, asked me, as campers from Kansas City or Georgia or California often do, “What’s it like up here in the winter? Must be different.”
“Cold,” I answered.
It was apparent from the response that a more forthcoming reply might have been hoped for. Something more in the spirit of the evening.
And so I said, “Well, I could tell you the story of Coffee Cup Charlie…”
There were murmurs of approval. Heads nodded. “Yeah, tell us about Coffee Cup Charlie.”
And so, suitably encouraged, I began to set up the tale. “It happened long ago,” I said. “Back in the—well, the long ago days. Right here in Minnesota.” I told how I had heard the story many times since childhood, always with a slightly different inflection or twist or angle to it. But with the essentials the same. Essentially.
I explained that the story had come down from my Great, Great Grandfather Caleb, who told my Great Grandfather Frank, who told my Grandfather Henry, who told my dad, Jim. And none of those fellows was likely to lie, unless it was convenient of course, or the truth didn’t quite measure up to the occasion; and even then, they were likely to embellish a lie with half a dose of the truth, just to make it more palatable.
“Therefore,” I said solemnly, “we can probably accept the story as gospel, because it has been told for so long and by so many, that surely any stretchers would have been discovered by now.” And so I began…
“The story was first told to me in an ice fishing shack on a night when the mercury hit thirty below zero. Folks were trying to stay warm by telling stories—comparing them, passing them around, holding them up to the light and squinting at them, breathing them in like cigar smoke to test the aroma. (Of course, I was just a kid, and I wasn’t telling any stories at that age, or smoking any cigars. I was just listening–REALLY listening–soaking things up.)
“Several stories were trotted out and put through their paces to start with. None of them reached a full gallop, and a number of them limped noticeably.
“At some point my dad cleared his throat… ‘Ah, fellows, being as it’s fifty below zero outside, don’t you think that someone ought to tell the story of Coffee Cup Charlie? ‘
“My grandad nodded somberly. He was already warmed up from telling the story of the ‘Great Northern Pike That Ate The Boat,’ so after a moment’s thought he launched right in…
‘Well, it was back in the early days of Minnesota, when the temperatures got down to eighty below zero regularly,’ he said. I shivered involuntarily.
‘In those days, Great, Great Grandfather Caleb had a friend named Coffee Cup Charlie. Charlie was an interesting character, even at a time when this country was full of characters. He lived way back in the woods and didn’t come out often. Not that he was unfriendly, really, just shy, especially with womenfolk.
‘Well, one winter after a blizzard there came a fierce cold snap, just the week before the Annual Church Social. Charlie wanted to go to that social in the worst way, and particularly he wanted to go with the Widow Johnson, whom he’d been thinking about asking for several years now. So one morning right in the middle of that cold snap Charlie worked up his courage and set off to ask her.
‘It was the coldest day yet—still and bright like it gets when the mercury drops down and just can’t claw its way back up again. Probably a hundred and ten below. The trees were popping and cracking, the ice was booming, the sky so bright it hurt to look at it. But Charlie bundled up and strapped on his snowshoes and took off, the snow squeaking with every step. And as long as he kept moving he was fine.
‘Well, he got to the Widow’s house and she invited him in and said, ‘Would you like a cup of hot coffee, Charlie?’ Now there was nothing in the world Charlie liked more than a good cup of coffee, especially being as cold as he was and too nervous to ask her to the social yet. So Charlie said, ‘Yes ma’am, if you please.’ And she served him a cup.
‘Now that warmed Charlie’s innards a bit, but it didn’t stoke him up enough to where he could pop his question, so when the Widow asked, ‘Would you like another cup?’ he said, ‘Yes ma’am, it’s right good coffee.’ And when she offered him a third and he still hadn’t figured how to ask her he said, ‘Yes indeed ma’am, I don’t know when I’ve had such a pleasuresome time and such tasteful coffee!’
‘Well, this went on for quite some time, the Widow brewing up a second pot and then a third, all the time wondering when Charlie was going to tell her why he’d come a’ calling. But he just couldn’t figure out how to get the words out. He did, however, figure out that drinking sixteen cups of coffee in one sitting puts certain demands upon human plumbing, demands that must be answered.
‘At some point when he couldn’t stand it any longer, Charlie finally excused himself to go outside to the necessary place, the outhouse. But he didn’t quite make it. He stopped short, behind a little clump of spruce trees, and stood there to take care of business. The sun shone bright and it was a beautiful scene, but by this time at least a hundred and fifty below zero.
‘And that’s exactly where they found him, hours later. He was stone dead, standing by that little clump of spruces. Standing all calm and peaceful like, almost as if in meditation or prayer.
‘They said it was obvious how he died—he stood too long motionless in that one spot. It was so blamed cold that, standing still all that time, his shadow had frozen fast to the ground. And since his shadow couldn’t move, neither could he. And he just stood there and froze.
‘It took a pick-axe, a chisel and a crow bar to pry Charlie’s shadow off the ice and snow so they could move him. Then they just wrapped him up in it until spring, when the ground thawed out enough that they could bury him. They say the Widow Johnson never brewed another cup of coffee after that—bothered her so much she became a tea drinker.’
‘And that,’ said Grandad, “is the story of Coffee Cup Charlie.’
“Well at this point in the ice shack, my dad cleared his throat again. Grandad stroked his chin. I shivered. And I vowed that when I grew up, no matter how cold I might ever get, or how nervous around females, I would never drink coffee in the winter. At least no more than eight or ten cups at a time. It’s been a good rule of thumb.”
I looked at the faces around the campfire, took one more deep breath, and said, “And that, my friends, is how cold it gets here in the wintertime.”
Around our little campfire, feet shuffled once more. Eyes appeared to be somewhat glazed over. Someone got up and stumbled towards their tent. Someone else followed. A pine knot popped in the fire, a shower of sparks rose in the dark—a darkness illuminated by stories, as camps have been for millennia. Some of them, occasionally, even true.