Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Winter Moments

Blank paper on a winter day. If I lived in North Dakota this could be a meditation on whiteness. But, alas, there is no snow here and it isn’t even winter yet so says my calendar, until the solstice. Even then our imagination has some heavy lifting to conjure fake icicles and Styrofoam snowdrifts with a major exertion of memory. The fondest moments are the ones that never happened.

I could talk about my Grandpa who came across the Great Plain in a covered wagon with a blizzard in his face….. except that’s a fabrication, pure as the driven snow. More likely he inched his way across the Russian Steppes one haystack ahead of a horde of drunken Cossacks. I’d like to think he hid in a cellar in a heap of potatoes with shoots that reached into steerage on a ship in New York harbor.

Maybe he saw gulls in the sooty sky which reminded him of pages from the Torah. Or more likely he sold schmattas out of a pushcart or washed pots and pans in the backroom of a Delancey St. deli. Grandpa never went uptown to those imaginary pans of Tin Pan Alley. He was no Israel Beilin (Irving Berlin) dreaming of a White Christmas.

I shall leave Grandpa behind among the sleet and the slush. My flights of fancy have met white-out conditions.

If only there were hills in Forest Hills I might have become a great skier but that will have to wait until my next incarnation. My childhood unfolded on flat land void of ponds for ice skating or even mounds for snowball fights. But we did have that meager dip in topography we named the Toilet Bowl just right for Flexible Flier sleds to navigate among clumps of bushes. If I steered into the brush I would hardly feel it under my three sweaters and galoshes. Yet there were high fevers and double pneumonia as my mother cursed the dreaded draft.

On Dec. 7th, 1941 I was close to nine years old hanging around my father’s drugstore. There was a small radio up front alongside the cigarettes I was helping to stack. I half-heard a radio program interrupted with alarm in the announcer’s voice. It was cold outside with a gusty wind but no snow. Now a crowd gathered. Sentences halted, faces froze into increments of dread. My father had a look I’d never seen before.

When FDR spoke the next day he sounded like God. I came into the grown-up world that Sunday as if I had left part of me behind forever and traveled across some dangerous threshold.

Soon my world would become black and white, life and death. Blood on the snow. Maps on the front page showing dark and light divisions with arrows. It was a winter of new words. War bonds, blackouts, air-raid wardens and a different kind of draft. Saboteurs, Blitz and refugees. U-boats and convoys. Praise the Lord for the white cliffs of Dover… then pass the ammunition. 

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