Playton mayor Ogden Harper donned his pajamas and sat back with a tumbler of sherry in front of the TV looking forward to a fresh episode of "Swamp People" which he thought would be the perfect mix for a cold winter evening.
But his cell phone rang, interrupting the rare indulgence. And judging by the caller ID and the time of year, he knew trouble would ensue.
Mayor Harper had had more than his share of trouble lately, especially at public meetings. It was all due to those darned windmills.
Not that the town had any windmills. The mayor thought everybody was just plain loony on the topic. Ever since a foreign company said it was considering putting windmills in the village, people had come out of the woodwork to voice their opinions. Everything was now about windmills.
He was especially worn out from the meeting the night before. It was supposed to be a simple gathering to go over a grant for a small repair to a sewer pipe. But anti-windmillers and pro-windmillers showed up and turned the meeting into a spectacle -- splashed and summarized across the front page of the Watertown Daily Times that morning.
The anti-windmill people wanted to replace the town's entire sewer system. They claimed leaking sewer gas out of aging pipes would be carried by the breezes created by windmills and into the atmosphere, creating global warming.
The pro-windmill people said only the small section of pipe should be completed, but only if the pipe was made from a proposed factory on the outskirts of the village that would get its power from windmills.
Then the leaders of the two sides got into a shouting match. The lead anti-windmiller said he had proof the top lobbyist in the village for windmills was born in Sweden and questioned his patriotism.
The chief pro-windmiller said the leader of the anti-windmill faction was having an affair with a lobbyist for the solar industry, which he said wanted its own alternative energy site -- and lifestyle -- in the village.
Nothing was accomplished at the meeting. The community was in political gridlock. And now, this call late at night, at a time when all Mayor Harper wanted to do was to watch mindless reality TV, as a way to escape from his own reality.
The caller was Sam Hilton, village of Playton highway superintendent. With no police force due to budget cutbacks, Sam had taken on the unofficial role of village watchdog and was doing it quite well.
"You gotta come down to the river," Sam told the mayor. "It's the ice fishermen out in their shanty village."
"What are they doing now? the mayor asked.
He sat down before the response, knowing it would be bad. The thicker the ice, the more confident the anglers at the shanty village became in hosting their wild antics. Mayor Harper had dubbed this the north country "Brain Freeze Effect" and it was something to nip at the bud before it spread. Temperatures the past couple of days had hovered well below zero and he had seen sane people driven to lunacy during such long cold snaps. Being on the desolate, frozen river seemed to compound the effect.
He remembered one cold year when he was summoned out among the ice shacks after complaints were received about a particular new sport the ice fishermen had invented, obviously spurred on by a matter of them having too much time on their hands; a side effect of any ice fishing outing. They created lobster racing.
The lobsters, direct from Price Chopper, were in little heated, cardboard saunas, fueled by hot towels, until it was time to race, at which time the crustaceans were lifted out of the box and urged to run, or walk as fast or as best as they could under the circumstances. Some of the anglers had painted their lobsters to mimic colors of their favorite NASCAR teams, and the mayor did admit that it was quite a colorful spectacle.
But it was inhumane, the mayor said, and he told the anglers to take the lobsters home, which they reluctantly did. When it came to wild animals, the men usually came home with deer strapped to their trucks. Mystified wives handled the lobsters, with no questions asked. Which was appropriate, since as a general river rule, the guys never discussed anything about their ice fishing outings back home. But the wives agreed to cook the sorry-looking, shivering critters. Many wives swore that the lobsters had looks of relief when they met their steaming pots of doom.
"I'm not sure, but it's something about turkeys -- and hockey," Sam told the mayor in response to his inquiry about what was going on at the shanty village. "Old man Conner was out walking his dog on the ice when he saw the situation. He called me."
"OK, Sam," Mayor Harper said. "Meet me down at the wharf in 10 minutes. Dress warmly."
The ice-fishing village was about a half mile from the wharf. The anglers found that distance was where the thickest ice usually formed, and it was far enough from shore that their antics could not be heard. Glancing over the ice, Mayor Harper and Sam saw that the collection of ice shanties resembled a small city and its assortment of battery-powered and gas lights produced a glow that reflected eerily white off the low clouds. It almost looked quaint and it would have been, if not for the sound of the occasional curse that carried to shore or the aroma in the air of something resembling a mixture of beer, beef jerky and sweat socks .
When they arrived, the fishermen gave them no notice. They were deeply involved in some kind of sport that required lots of falling over, and at first the two onlookers thought they were all drunk. But on closer look, they saw another reason for their unstable antics: about a dozen of them had duct-taped frozen turkeys to their feet and they were playing hockey in that state of affairs.
There was lots of laughter, cursing, falling down and torn turkey wrappers as the guys clunked around on their platforms of frozen fowl. The only thing that looked normal about the situation was the hockey puck they were all chasing and falling after.
Sam had brought along a bull-horn he found in the old police headquarters. He used its siren to gain the players' attention.
"What the heck are you guys doing," the mayor asked no one in particular, mainly because he couldn't identify anyone because they all wore face coverings to protect against the wind whipping down the St. Lawrence.
"It’s just a friendly game of hockey," said the goaltender of the team to the mayor's left. The goalie strode up to Mayor Ogden and removed his hood and face mask. He walked steadily, and the mayor noticed that in this game, the goaltenders were, for some reason, immune from having to sport the frozen turkeys. He didn't have the courage, or the care, to ask why.
"Hank, this has got to be the dumbest thing I've ever seen," the mayor said, recognizing Hank Brody, who owned an automotive repair shop in the village and was known to be the unofficial mayor of the ice shanty settlement.
"We were bored out here, Og," Hank responded, calling the mayor by his nick name. "The boys needed some sport."
"I don't think I want to know about the turkeys," Mayor Harper said.
"But you'd better tell us," Sam said, in the most authoritative DPW voice he could muster.
The other players took advantage of the unexpected lull to retreat unsteadily to various containers of booze stealthily scattered in the snow banks around the makeshift ice rink.
"Well, we tried taping chickens to our feet, but they were too small," Hank said. "Smitty twisted an ankle."
"I mean the general idea," Mayor Harper said. "Why tape anything to your feet? And why can't you just play normal hockey? I don't want the SPCA getting wind of this."
"A few of the guys noticed their wives had turkeys in the freezer and one thing led to another," Hank said. "Things can get pretty intense when you're sitting around a fish hole waiting for a bite."
"You've been out here too long," the mayor said, suddenly more cognizant of the brain freeze phenomena. "We gotta shut this game down. Who knows where it could lead."
"But we were just learning the tricks," Hank said. "Did you know those Butterballs slide the best once the wrappers wear off? And a TV news crew from Kingston promised to be here tomorrow. This could be the next big thing, and right here in Playton!"
"It's dangerous and inhumane," the mayor said.
"But the turkeys are dead," Hank said.
"The general public won't see it that way," the mayor said. "They'll just see turkeys."
"We'll give you ten minutes to finish the game," Sam said. "Then, the turkeys have to go."
"Go where?" Hank said.
"We'll take them to the food pantry or something. Maybe they'll take them ... with a little coaxing," Mayor Harper said.
"No need to take them anywhere," Hank said. "The boys were looking forward to eating them. Part of the fun of this whole operation was the cooking part."
Hank pointed around the perimeter of the shanty village, where several turkey deep fryers stood at the ready. "We were going to have a feast," he said. "And now, you're invited!"
The sounds of a late-night deep fried turkey dinner sounded too good to pass up for Mayor Harper and Sam. Hank gave the command to fire up the deep fryers, which the sportsmen did as soon as they removed their turkeys from their feet.
There were about 12 of the turkey fryers, strategically placed around the perimeter of the shanty village, as if the hot oil cookers were a Medieval defense against wandering hoards of hostile river nomads.
Now, as a meteorological fact, winds that come down the St. Lawrence can be unpredictable, and everyone on the ice that night realized this. But with the promise of turkey dinners, booze, good fellowship, large fires and thick ice, a freakish wind storm was the last thing on their minds. The shanty residents had their guards down when the gale blew through the shanty village, knocking over the cookers filled with hot oil one at a time.
Low, sad hisses exhaled from the ice as the grease sank into it.
"Drat," Hank said. "There goes our dinners. Sorry guys. But we still have beer and doughnuts."
That too, sounded good to the mayor and the others, until the fire erupted.
It happened when one of the hockey player’s jaw dropped when he came out of his shack near a fryer and saw the upturned turkey fryers. The cigar he was smoking also dropped, causing a chain reaction, catching the spilled grease from each cooker on fire. The resulting flames made a perfect ring of fire around the ice shanty village and its inhabitants.
"The ice is on fire!" someone yelled.
The fire burned for about a half hour and eventually created a gap of about 10 yards clear around the shanty village, which was now a shanty island. The wind continued its assault, catching the ice shanties like a sail and slowly twirling the island around in a circle. The spinning village sped up and seemed to take on a life of its own. It kept ramming against the surrounding ice until finally, it made its way out into the clear, ice-free shipping channel of the St. Lawrence.
As village residents awoke the next morning, they were surprised to see that the shanty village was gone. Friends and relatives who had received cell phone calls from the panicked shanty residents also strolled down to the riverside, glancing downriver for any sign of their loved ones or the rescue crews that were sent after them.
A U.S. Coast Guard helicopter finally found the shanty village. It was in Canadian waters. But it arrived too late. The chopper crew watched helplessly as the ice shanty village was boarded by a Canadian Border Patrol team that stormed off a cutter. The shivering residents of the shanty village were arrested for violating numerous Canadian codes, including not reporting a foreign vessel in Canadian waters. Under a new hard-line immigration policy, each angler was given a year of hard labor in a Newfoundland sardine factory.
But Mayor Harper and Sam were granted clemency and told they could go home as part of a goodwill gesture. Sam accepted, but the mayor, as a matter of principle - declined. He didn't like to see the others punished while he escaped such penance. Sam later said the mayor's mind wasn't the same after the ice fishing episode and he obviously suffered from the brain freeze malady he earnestly fought so hard against as mayor.
As a compromise, Mayor Harper was allowed to move to Wolfe Island as a special guest of the Canadian government. He took up residence in a nearby shack on a windmill farm on the island. He became the official tour guide of the windmill farm and especially loved clear, mind-numbing winter days for the tours.
The former mayor can still be found in the shadows of the windmills, in his little shack. Sometimes he spends hours staring up at the giant blades. He especially likes glancing up at them on cold, clear winter days; the sun toasting his face. He watches the blades go around and around, thinking of the futility of it all: one chasing another, going nowhere.
Sometimes he thinks about strapping himself to one of the blades and wondering about the view from above, and I, from there, his native village across the river looks any warmer, or any more inviting.
By Chris Brock
This is Chris Brock's fourth fiction piece for TI Life. Chris is the features writer and a copy editor at the Watertown Daily Times, where he has won several writing awards. Writing humorous short stories is a hobby. He grew up on the St. Lawrence River community of Waddington, N.Y. Besides being honored at the North Country Writer’s Festival, Chris' works have been published in Grit magazine. His collection of short stories, "Those Carp People and Other Tales of Life Along the St. Lawrence" is available on amazon.com.
We thank Janet Sullins for supplying the photographs of the ice hut and the fire pit. All photographs were adapted to pen and ink illustrations by "fotosketch" (http://www.fotosketcher.com/).