Winter Preparations Gone Awry


Winter came overnight this year. One day my next-door neighbor was mowing her lawn; the next we were shoveling snow. If Boise has had another winter that has come so abruptly and with such vengeance, I don’t remember it.
There was a time when the winter’s first snow filled me with a sense of wonder, but not anymore. It would be exaggerating to say that I hate winter, but with apologies to skiers, snowboarders and others who love it, I like each one less than the one before. Granted, it has its own beauty. But my knees are too creaky to ski anymore, I feel the cold more every year and by the time you throw in colds, flu, slick roads and frozen pipes it would be fine with me if spring started the day after New Year’s.
That said, there’s something about getting ready for winter that I like. Don’t ask me why, but the preparations for winter bring feeling of contentment unlike any other. A feeling of all being right with the world, or at least with the home front.
Most people hate raking leaves in preparation for winter. Not me. There are two reasons for that. One is that it brings back memories of my kids playing in them when they were small. I’d rake them into a pile in the back yard; they’d jump in them, throw them in the air, make forts with them … This was in simpler times, of course, before digital devices undermined the youthful joy of playing outdoors.
The other reason is that my father taught me not to stress over raking leaves. He did this by stressing so much himself that the folly of it was self evident. Every year he meticulously vanquished every leaf. The wind and the neighbors’ leaves, of course, undid that in a hurry. Every time new leaves blew into the yard, he fumed and fulminated. By the time the neighbors’ sycamore leaves finally fell in December, he was muttering dark threats involving chainsaws. It taught me to rake till I get tired of it, stop until it’s fun again and mow up whatever’s left in the spring.
I like blowing out the sprinkler lines, too. True, you can hire someone to do it, but it’s easy and more fun to do it yourself. All you need is an air compressor. Mine cost $250 and has paid for itself in annual blowout fees several times over. The same applies to the pump we had installed when the house was built. It’s run 26 summers without a hitch and in that time has pumped a small lake of water.
Every year when frost is forecast, I shut off the power to the pump, fire up the compressor and blow out each sprinkler line. It takes about an hour. Don’t ask me why, but it’s strangely satisfying to watch the water spray and spurt from the sprinklers and know that no matter how cold the winter gets they’ll be ready to do their job again in the spring.
The pump has to be drained, of course, which can be problematic. It involves removing a plug at the bottom and one at the top. There’s just enough room between the pump and the well housing to remove the bottom plug, which is likely as not to fall into the ivy growing around the pump. Dropping anything into that ivy is like dropping it into quicksand, necessitating a visit to the hardware store. The clerks have come to expect me about every other spring.
“I need a half-inch plug, please.”
“Ah-ha! You dropped it in the ivy again, didn’t you?”
This year it went smoothly. With the pump drained, I cleaned the plugs with a wire brush, sprayed them with lubricant and put them back in, finger tight. Skip the lubricant or put them in too tight and you pay dearly. Dearly as in Goliath-sized pipe wrench, hammer, blow torch, penetrating lubricants, everything but a jackhammer. A lesson learned the hard way.
The easiest fall job is closing the foundation vents. A few flips of some levers and the pipes in the crawlspace are as ready for winter as they’ll get.
The hardest job is cutting back all the dead flowers, ornamental grasses and other vegetation – enough to fill both trash cans several times over. The sunflowers alone are as tall as Shaquille O’Neal. But what could be a grueling day of work is made immeasurably easier by none other than … my late father. He’d have worked from dawn until after dark, cramming every last leaf, stalk and twig into bags and trash cans lined up like soldiers along the curb. Taking my cue from him, I work till I’m sick of it, sit down with a cold beer and let the rest wait for another day.
This year the work was finished by early November, a good thing considering the weather that was soon to follow. The house and yard were ready for winter. All was right with the world.
Well, almost right. While putting away the tools, I noticed that the Boston Ivy was attacking the siding and trim on the front of the house again.
A word of advice to new homeowners thinking of planting Boston Ivy to give their house a more traditional look: DON’T. You might as well plant a nest of termites. It burrows under the siding, strips paint and has been known to destroy brick walls and chimneys.
A good tool for removing it is a chisel. I was getting mine out of my toolbox when it happened – one of those household mishaps of the type that the late wit James Thurber described as happening only to the authors of short humor pieces.
The tool box was under a workbench. Two bicycles were parked between the workbench and my almost new car – purchased three days earlier. Reaching for the chisel, I accidentally knocked over one of the bikes and watched in horror as it fell and one of its brake handles made a deep dent in the previously unblemished hood. Then, squeezing out from behind the bikes to move the one that had fallen, I knocked over the other bike – which fell and made a large chip in the previously unblemished hood.
All was not right with the world anymore. I lay in bed for a long time that night, gritting my teeth and dreaming of places where winter doesn’t happen.

Tim Woodward’s column appears every other Sunday in The Idaho Statesman and is posted on the following Mondays. Contact him at

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