Grateful. That is the word for 2018, at least for me. It is New Year’s Day, Wayne, Maine. I grew up right here, then strayed away. Now, I live out of state, in Maryland. But I come back this time of year, with family, to ski and see old friends. I am reminded of Robert Frost, winter poetry. It lives here.

Two days ago, we were skiing Sugarloaf, minus 16 at camp, minus 40 at the top. I cheerfully reminded myself that there is “no such thing as cold, only underdressed people.” Not among them, we celebrated cheery self-reliance, enjoying a toasty fire at home at day’s end. That was 2017.

This is 2018. Today, thinking again of Frost, I shot by the full moon to visit some old friends, murmuring Frost’s epic lines. “The woods are lovely, dark and deep, but I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep …” There was something missing. I was distracted, headed to see old friends. I had a gift for them, which is what we do — never come empty-handed.

Suddenly, my left front tire caught a narrow road’s flat, deceptive edge. It had me. I was over and hard, way to one side, deep in a snow bank. Just me tonight, the tipped truck, and that big, silent moon. Kicking myself for absence of caution, I crawled out the passenger’s side, began walking to a different friend’s home. Let’s call this friend Chris, for that is his name.

“Sure, let’s just get the chain, truck, see what we can do.” Chris did not hesitate, not pause for a moment, not ask a question, throw a jab or comment, or try to hold me accountable. Instead, he held the road accountable. “The four-foot ditches get you every time, pulled lots of folks out, even the mailman.” And we were off.

The job was not easy. Self-reliance sometimes takes two. This cold night it might be three, but for an old friend’s tenacity, cheerful commitment to the impossible, getting my perpendicular truck right side up. He pulled with chain from the back, no good. He pulled with truck from front. No good.

So we threw more sand under the tires. My truck remained on its side, but the old friend never slowed, flinched. Never gave up. He never complained about negative temperatures, never put away his smile. He pulled from front again, no luck. He threw more sand then pulled hard. My truck would not come out. It only slid deeper into the icy gully, axel grabbing ice and dirt, tires unable to gain traction.

No matter, this old friend kept at it, until in time, he had pulled my truck down the entire road, gully deep, at an absurd obtuse angle. Finally, he hit the big road, forcing my wheeled snowman onto tar.

The gift for one friend went straight to a second, who has always been reliable, resilient, indifferent to weather, and quick to the call. This night, I was the friend in need, and he the friend indeed. I was reminded of another Frost poem on friendship, first and last lines: “When a friend calls … go up to the stone wall for a friendly visit.”

Frost’s “A Time to Talk” might have been entitled “Always time for a friend,” because that is what friendship in Maine is — reliable when chips and temperatures are down. I thanked him. When I finally got to that first friends’ home — my four-wheel drive in low — I explained there was no gift, just a good story.

Kindness of one friend shared with another was gift enough. I saddled my snowy truck, put it back in four-wheel low, and dug again for the missing line from Frost. Yes, that was it — “And miles to go before I sleep.” I had some yet to go, but with friends not so very many.

In the depth of winter, when moon shadows paint the snow cold blue, and temperatures fall well below zero, there is a word for all this. In early 2018, that word is thanks, grateful. Maine friends last.

Happy New Year.

Robert Charles, a former assistant secretary of state under Colin Powell, grew up in Wayne and is often home again. He wrote this on his latest visit.


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