Maine’s nail-popping winter nights

By Kent Ward,
Posted Jan. 28, 2011, at 5:02 p.m.

Whenever we experience a cold snap such as the one that has haunted Maine recently and people on the street ask one another, “Cold enough for ya?” I am reminded of the tall tales the old-timers used to spin about how cold it typically got during the long-ago Januarys of their youth here in The County.

A favorite is the one about how residents would often awake in the morning to find that intense cold had caused nails securing boards to the outside walls of buildings to pop completely free of the wood, the sharp projectiles littering the driveway to such an extent that the homeowner who hoped to avoid getting a flat tire on the family vehicle would be obliged to shovel the area free of the hazard.

To any north-country kid who had been jolted awake by the post-midnight rifle-shot sound of a nail popping its bonds on the outside of the house — and who, come daylight, had discovered nail heads projecting a quarter-inch or so from the clapboard siding — the story seemed believable.

It was such great humbuggery that after we realized we had been scammed we adopted the tall tale for our own, to be sprung on gullible flatlanders when cold spells of the future would again dominate the news of the day. When I first laid it on colleagues at the Bangor Daily News, they mostly responded with the half-hearted scoff of the skeptic who wants to believe that the story is bogus but is not quite sure he should dismiss it out of hand.

The thing that seemed to put skeptics on full-baloney alert more so than the mental picture of a dooryard covered in nails was my insistence that when the temperature dips about six clapboards below zero here in big sky country, nails really can pop partially out of the outside woodwork. Something to do with the laws of physics and the propensity for extreme cold to contract building materials, causing a sudden release of pressure, perhaps in concert with the cold’s confrontation with any moisture that might be in the wood, I suppose, although you probably should not go betting the farm on the accuracy of that supposition.

Not long after I had held forth on the subject with my newspaper chums, Greater Bangor endured a period of spectacularly frigid weather. As luck would have it, several nails in the home of one of the skeptics resoundingly burst free one memorable long cold night, making the man an overnight believer in the phenomenon. He would come to appropriate the dooryard-full-of-nails fiction for his own purposes, embellishing it when necessary, but experiencing no more success in selling it to disbelievers than I had, although having every bit as much fun in the attempt.

On Wednesday, having hoped to get in the daily walk despite nail-popping subzero temperatures driven more savage by strong winds, I remembered why it was that I had never aspired to become a polar explorer. Even though I was operating beneath multiple layers of clothing top to bottom, with head properly buried in wool ski mask and hood, the best thing that could be said about the experience was that if the elements didn’t get me, the town snowplow probably would, come the first whiteout. After walking perhaps a tenth of a mile, I gave it up as a bad job in favor of safer and less-miserable conditions another day would bring.

Back home, I settled in to resume reading “To The Ends of the Earth,” an engrossing story published in 1983 by Arbor House about a British team that spent three years accomplishing the first pole-to-pole circumnavigation of the globe.

Not long after I picked up the story from the point where I had left it, one of the chaps who had injured himself in a fall was having a hard time slogging onward. Later when the expedition leader asked if he had hated the day’s march on the polar ice cap he replied, “Yeah, I didn’t like it. But I wouldn’t say I hated every step of the journey. I mean, the first step was okay, and the last step was absolutely beautiful. The rest of it was hell.”

Had you met me at my front door to ask about my aborted walk, those would have been my sentiments precisely.

BDN columnist Kent Ward lives in Limestone. Readers may reach him at olddawg@bangordailynews.com.

http://bangordailynews.com/2011/01/28/opinion/maine%e2%80%99s-nail-popping-winter-nights/ printed on July 25, 2014