Sweet November

Thu, 11/10/2011 - 7:39am
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These days of sweet warmth come in November and they seem always to come as a surprise. I expect them; many years ago I dug up now long-neglected flower beds with a golden retriever lying in the freshly turned earth under the warm sun as I worked.

Perhaps it is a hope of November more than an expectation, but it is often realized. We remember the unusual weather, the Thanksgiving snowfalls, but we forget so easily these days that are often the best of the fall.

The beach is surprisingly wide and sandy, quickly recovered from the storm that feels so long ago. It is the time of year, especially this year after the re-growth that followed the blast of Irene, that the green doesn’t let go, fostering more dreams of endless autumn. Roses that like the cool cling to the vine while berries begin to show, red and gray.

The tides are high, the moon full, the air is more mild than crisp. I think my clock with its hourly bird calls has gone awry after being reset; then realize it is real birds I am hearing, hovering in the end of the grape vines and the branches of the volunteer maple that grew up at the edge of the yard.

I wonder, sometimes, what would happen to the land if it were left alone. Would the odd tree — this maple and its cousins up the road, the solitary pines that pop up in the sandy plain on the landward side of the dunes, the birches in Rodman’s Hollow — be enough against all these crazy vines? It used to be bayberry, then the shad grew tall, into trees, but now we’ve taken another turn. The apple on the Mansion Road, the one that used to bloom pink and white in the spring, has been swallowed by vines, seems no longer to be a mere host.

It is the first week of winter time. When it is we are supposedly saving daylight is for others to remember — which is it, winter or summer? The mornings are glorious, returned, the sunrise leaping from 7:21 to 6:23 with the passage of one night. It has come so late the afternoons were already creeping toward 5:30; now I take solace in knowing that all winter, the sun will not set more than 16 minutes earlier than it will the day this paper hits the streets.

That it will not be until the end of February that we are back to afternoons ending at the same time they did the day before we turned back the clocks, I choose to ignore. Winter has sent its chill breath down our backs, it is there, lying in wait, but in the returned mornings there is real joy. One day the land was white with frost in the first light, another, the air was pale with fog.

There is some consolation knowing night will not be banished as late as it was before the “fall back” for a whole year. There is an oddity, a lack of balance in the calendar of the sun, that always confounds me. It is, in part, due to the configuration man attempts to put on time, but it also feels Nature is out of whack, or not as perfectly tuned as I would like.

I’ve no idea, none at all, how the daylight is structured on either side of the Summer Solstice. It is so abundant it does not matter.

The weather was more certain around Memorial Day, when we went to the park by the cemetery for school exercises, songs and poems long practiced. In the fall, we stayed inside for Armistice Day. It was only the late 50s when I was first in school, and the World War that seemed long ago in history was not so many years past. Korea, mysterious then as it is today, was more known as the battlefield of the younger fathers and teachers.

The school is different, the building changed over and again, and what were the two high school rooms back then are almost intact. Gone, I think, is a wall of folding doors, floor to ceiling, that were opened for full-school assemblies.

One assembly was on what we now call Veterans Day, one of the holidays that has not suffered the indignity of being slipped into the nearest Monday but remains on the 11th of November. Before the annual reminders that the afternoons would stop getting shorter in the early part of December, my mother talked of the date of the Armistice, the hopeful or infamous 11th minute of the 11th hour of the 11th month, a date to be marked forever. The guns of the war fought to end all wars fell silent, swords were beaten into plowshares.

We learned songs: “Over There,” “Keep the Home Fires Burning,” “Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit Bag,” and those of the Navy, Army, Marines and probably the Air Force, never mind if it wasn’t even written until the eve of World War II. Lyrics are easier to remember when carried on music, and I remember them still.

There were no copy machines, just the mimeograph that produced pages covered with blurry purple ink that had a smell in which we all delighted. Paper was dear. We learned the words, as well as poems long forgotten, lacking the music to give them life.

I remember the songs, I remember copying the poems we were to recite into blue notebooks in a newly learned cursive hand, I remember the fact of the exercises, the parents dressed up as they would have back then, with the reverence given both the holiday and the building that would always be to many of them the “new” school. Pastors came to speak and we all tried to be still when the long-winded West Side preacher talked and talked and talked.

This year there will be the usual discussion of whether or not this should be a school holiday. Another thing that baffles me as much as the sun is this insistence that it is somehow better to have a holiday dedicated more to store sales than serious study. The latter seems the only way peace will ever have any chance.