The water tank heater sat submerged and frozen in place as Gramps and I crunched our way towards it in the snow. It was a circular wooden tank, grey with age and made of moss-bearded, vertical staves held in place with a rusty iron ring. It sat in the fence line, part in the barnyard and part out. The fence traced across the farmyard to a gothic red barn which sat in stony silence on the hillside. In the inky dark before sunrise a dozen angus cattle snuffled, visible shadow-like against the snow packed ground in the low moonlight.

Gramps carried a gunnysack of corn cobs and a bucket of coal. I carried a newspaper and a metal oil can sloshing with kerosene. Gramps dumped the cobs in the tank furnace, splashed some kerosene on the cobs, then covered them with coal. Taking the newspaper he rolled it into a tube, struck a match and lit one end. As the paper flared I could see his cold and weathered face. His hat with ear flaps sat low and snug over an unshaven face, his nose dripping from the cold. Gramp’s well worn overcoat was zipped tightly over his striped coveralls with pantlegs tucked inside zippered rubber overshoes. He dropped the burning paper onto the fuel mix and closed the lid.

We made our way from the tank to the barn where we dropped hay from the upper level hay mound, down the chute to ground level. The cattle, now faintly lit in the bluish morning twilight were eagerly snuffling through the parted leaves of baled hay. Making sure to gather up the twine lest the cattle eat it and sicken, we left the stillness of a barn stacked with a summer season of hay bales and made for the house.

As we crunched past the water tank, now visible under the yawning orange sky, the sooty smokestack of the tank heater belched acrid coal smoke while the light of red embers escaped through pinholes etched by the fire of 30 winters toil. Soon there would be water for the cattle to sip.

Walking a few paces behind my grandfather I looked at him in admiration. Doing chores in the frigid morning darkness seven days a week takes dedication. Did I have such stamina, I wondered? After 45 winters I’m still not sure.

Larry J. Westrum