Miserere mei | How the weather was |Home | Current issues | Back issues | sfflier@well.com

December 21 - 25, 1998

Tuesday, December 22, 1998

Miserere mei

The time. Redeem
The unread vision in the higher dream.
---- T.S. Eliot, "Ash Wednesday"

It intruded everywhere last weekend, a horrible new Muzak. The sounds of impeachment, resounding in the roar of bombing. It poured out of thousands of car radios, as NPR accompanied holiday shoppers on their way to Macy's or the mall. It became a part of traditionally domestic scenes, as CNN's now-familiar split screen brought home developments in Washington and Baghdad to parents wrapping presents, kitchen tables piled high with a clutter of bright tissue and shiny ribbon.

And then the politicians and the B-52s recast themselves as models of moderation by mercifully ending their bloodthirsty attacks before the Christmas and Islamic holy days. (Unfortunately, the nod toward Middle Eastern ecumenicalism had to be incomplete because Chanukkah had started a week earlier.) Suddenly, the cacophony ceased. In the baffling silence that followed, the public and the press tried to sort out what had happened. They couldn't. Words like "mad" and "surreal" appeared in countless newspaper columns, as experienced political observers grappled with the confluence of confusing events. One speaker after another echoed the president's plea for Americans "to go on from here, to rise above the rancor, to overcome the pain and division, to be a repairer of the breach."

But the words fell flat. A cold wind swept through San Francisco, dusting the hills with snow and leaving shards of ice in the gutters. The city, already wracked by unprecedented homeless deaths, shivered ineffectually.

A crescent moon appeared in the evening sky, signaling the beginning of Ramadan and Muslims' quest for physical and spiritual renewal. The hours of darkness increased, in preparation for the long night of today's winter solstice and the promised return of warmth and light. All across the city, tiny lights created islands of cheer, outlining apartment windows and winding around trees in an announcement of festivities to come.

But for many Americans, even battalions of ballet dancers and bell ringers cannot fill this particular vacuum. Some are merely befuddled, wondering if the decision in the House means that Clinton's presidency has already come to an end. Others are apprehensive, fearing that a trial in the Senate will inflict deeper wounds on an already lacerated body politic. In either case, the jovial "ho ho ho" of Christmas Present seems jarringly out of place. The grab-bag end-of-the-year celebrations that have evolved to support secular shopping sprees offer no consolation. And even carefully preserved religious rituals find themselves sputtering with inadequacy. Peace on earth, good will toward men? Not here. This inn is full of hostility and deceit.

Perhaps we should rejoice that the spiritual support of candy canes and mistletoe is insufficient. A nation that could recover its equilibrium at a time like this by dosing itself with eggnog and good cheer would be a very short-sighted nation indeed. We need stronger medicine. Even though many Americans can only point to a general malaise, they rightly take the ills issuing from Washington very seriously, as symptoms of far more pervasive problems. Daily, the media document other symptoms: damage to the environment, widening economic disparities, cavalier treatment of other nations and, most of all, a mushrooming mistrust that poisons relations among people in the United States. A walk down Main Street wearily documents others: long lines, bureaucratic snafus, congested traffic. The easy way out --- the eggnog approach --- fastens blame on politicians' greed for power and personal profit.

But blame in a democracy trickles down. The same people who angrily fax Washington to stop its infighting and do something about the panhandlers clogging their city sidewalks also cringe with discomfort at the thought that they themselves have not been able to help. In time, discomfort in denial turns to paralyzing guilt. And hopelessness --- which no amount of holiday cheer can cure --- prevails.

Heaven works in mysterious ways, however. The month of Ramadan, which the revolving Islamic lunar calendar causes to coincide with Christmas and Chanukkah for the first time in 33 years, serves as a reminder that a cleansing mechanism lies at the heart of all three religions. Each one recognizes the human need for atonement and forgiveness. Each recognizes the importance of bringing everyday affairs to a temporary standstill in order to strengthen the spirit. The season varies --- Jews and Christians have chosen the spring for Yom Kippur and Lent --- but each demands that individuals rediscover what is valuable in themselves and their community by a period of fasting and reflection.

I'm not suggesting a mass return to old-time religion. Most Americans have moved too far away from such practices to ever go back again, and in any case, the salvation we are seeking is civil, not clerical. As the sociologist Robert Bellah noted many years ago, this country professes a "civil religion," with the Constitution as its most sacred text. The invocation of its precepts by the members of the House and the president was not idle. Without this guiding, binding force, the motley congregation of people who make up the United States would have destroyed one another long ago.

Perhaps it's time for a new ritual. Let us acknowledge that we Americans are flagrantly fallible, that we are capable of getting ourselves in the most god-awful messes. Let us hold firmly to our loved ones during the next few weeks, taking the time to remind ourselves whom and what we truly hold sacred. Then, on the first Sunday of the new year, let us come together, in every town and every city, in local ceremonies of national forgiveness and rededication. Let us greet each other courteously, like gentle men and women, once more calling forth familiar words to pray that we, the people of the United States, may form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.

--- Copyright Betsey Culp 1998

Wednesday, December 23, 1998

How the weather was

It began snowing the night before, and by the time Mike Mewshaw, Tom Trainum and I set out to crash John F. Kennedy's inaugural ball more than six inches had fallen and the city was practically immobilized. By dawn, soldiers were using flamethrowers to clear the snow from Pennsylvania Avenue for the swearing-in ceremonies.

To official Washington, snow was the near-equivalent of an enemy invasion, and the realization that the most powerful city in the world could be counted on to undergo virtual paralysis for a considerable number of days each winter was an irony which wasn't lost on us by the time we were of high school age. Inescapably, the all-pervasive business of government and the virulent Cold War atmosphere of those years of the 1950s --- a subject of daily dinnertime discussion for many of us --- made for a natural association in our minds with the severity of Washington's winters. Yet within the maw of those long, biting seasons, in those moments when snowfall engulfed us and everything came to a halt, something else emerged: a serene, pristine landscape layered clean of the cumbrous gears and levers of power, a world all our own brought to a standstill.

To us, Kennedy's election hinted at an era of great changes. As 17-year-olds we were too young to vote, but we all hoped he would win. His relative youth we could identify with, the religious issue engaged our Irish Catholicism, and the somnolence of the Eisenhower years, by comparison, was a tangible reminder of the chained stirrings of our adolescence.

The night of the ball Mewshaw decided we should celebrate and we painstakingly skidded the five miles of freeway to the D.C. Armory in Trainum's car. Mewshaw had somehow gotten ahold of a cowboy hat, boots and a ratty suede jacket, and told us that the getup would turn out to be our "ticket to greatness."

"You check that rag for hoof-and-mouth disease?" Trainum asked.

"You laugh," Mewshaw persisted, "but we're boppin' tonight. And in a little while I'm gonna be King Creole." It was the typical sort of refrain from the young-novelist-in-waiting.

We spent 15 minutes skirting the edge of the armory through thigh-deep drifts to the rear of the building. A lone security guard stood at the back entrance, a metaphorical sentry to those days of pre-assassination innocence. The guard watched us emerge from the darkness and smiled slightly. From his expression he had apparently pegged us correctly: three kids who had wandered out from the suburbs.

"You boys a ways from home, ain't you?"

"Come all the way from Texas," Mewshaw countered quickly. He had been working on a drawl on the way over in the car. "Rode up on the Greyhound, see my man LBJ."

"Uh-huh," the guard said.

"Yep, Cut And Shoot, Texas," Mewshaw said. "I imagine you prob'ly heard of it." He had used the name of the hometown of Roy Harris, a fighter who had been flattened by Floyd Patterson a few months earlier. "Purty place. Not as cold as here, though, nossir. Man freeze his katooties off in this town."

Trainum, who rarely said anything, maintained his usual heavy-lidded and bemused demeanor; he saved the spoken word for only the most appropriate moments. I contributed a "that's right," a couple of times, and then kept silent, nodding assent at Mewshaw's continuing spiel. A few feet beyond the guard the lights inside the armory blazed warmly, and we could hear music and make out clumps of gowned women and men in evening wear.

The guard, a heavyset middle-aged black man, chuckled at Mewshaw's energetic patter, but appeared to be otherwise implacable.

"Long ride," Mewshaw went on beseechingly. "Eighteen hours on the Hound, ain't had a bath, don't know what I'll do if I cain't see Lyndon." Mewshaw kept up his pitched testimony, and for pure, unremitting precocity it would have been hard to top. Whether out of grudging amusement --- or whether he actually began to think the story he was hearing might be true --- I can't say, but the guard eventually seemed to waver.

We talked briefly about politics. The guard's eyes lit up when he spoke about Kennedy. Mewshaw inquired about the guard's family, and remonstrated with him about the Senators ballclub leaving town for Minnesota. I told a couple of jokes. Trainum laughed heartily a few times like an authentic hayseed. It was obvious the guard was enjoying himself, and it looked as if we just might pull it off.

"Wa'll, we ought to be headin' in now," Mewshaw said, patting the guard on the shoulder. "Been rully nice talkin' to you." Trainum and I started forward, and as I took my first step I nearly fell, my heart was pounding so crazily.

"Uh, you boys, I don't know," the guard said. He was smiling but suddenly looked confused and a little frightened. "They tol' me not to let anybody through. Be my job if I did."

It was evident he wasn't going to let us pass. "You understand," he said almost apologetically. He had been grateful for the company and conversation on this miserable, freezing night, but couldn't oblige us any further.

Mewshaw persisted a bit more, to no avail. We dawdled a while longer as the guard's nervous agitation became more pronounced, sharing a half-pint I had brought along. "Ummm, this J.T.S. Brown," Mewshaw intoned eventually, breaking the gathering tension. "Shit put a tingle in your tummy and a hurtin' on your haid." We laughed and the guard, clearly relieved, waved us off and said, "I'll tell somebody tell LBJ you was here."

We crept through the blanketed streets at 15 m.p.h., re-evaluating our chosen tactics. "I'm telling you we were this friggin' close," Mewshaw moaned. The roads were all but deserted, and in that respect, at least, the night and its spoils belonged to us alone. Years later it would be revealed that a vanquished Richard Nixon had driven D.C.'s snowy streets alone for hours that night, contemplating his thwarted future.

"Hell," Mewshaw said as we headed back onto the freeway, "you damn well know he wanted to let us in. They'd of loved me in there."

"Yeah," said Trainum, "for the two seconds it took before somebody told you your horse was saddled up outside and just begging to be rode."

* * *

That Christmas Eve, as with the two previous ones, we had spent at Union Station. Years before, I had begun reading Thomas Wolfe and Mewshaw had discovered William Styron. The symbolism of train whistles in the night which filled their work had enveloped us: the idea of lumbering south on the overnight run, an elegant midnight feast in the dining car, waking in a Pullman berth at first light and seeing vast stretches of bristling, wintry land spilling away to the horizon --- the whole romantic panoply of journeying toward a southland Christmas.

The Mason-Dixon Washington we grew up in was the gateway to both North and South, but clearly Southern in pace and temperament. It was a beacon for hundreds of thousands of poor whites and blacks, domestics and hill-country secretaries and former sharecroppers who had begun the engorging trek up to Washington during WWII. For them, obviously, trains represented the freedom which carried them to jobs and housing; for us, those grand engines hauled us into the realm of imagination.

Christmas Eve at Union Station was a blend of bazaar and banquet, an arabesque stream of hurrying, whiskey-faced travelers yearning for old roots. Congressmen, maids, bureaucrats, truck drivers --- loaded-down with gifts, waiting on massive, high-backed oak benches or running across glazed and echoing marble floors for trains whose destinations were announced in those deep-bass medleys which wafted from the coffered, barrel-vault ceiling and resounded off elaborate, shadowed 19th-century cornices and balustrades.

People laughed in broad gusts, broke into song, shared their bottles openly. Redcaps and silver-haired Pullman porters moved amid the swirl, calling out to each other with holiday affection. Children meticulously dressed in the colors of the season, immune to sleep, sparked with flushed animation, totally immersed in this biggest of adventures.

Four or five of us went each year. From the waiting room we could see the great locomotives snorting their thick rumbles of steam, their departures always imminent, the promise of their secrets open to anyone with the price of a ticket. We dreamed of that ride, embellishing its textures with the fancies of youth, though the closest any of us got to it was one year when a pretty, inebriated woman grabbed Nugent and danced him partway across the floor and toward the gate, her head thrown back and her laughter full-throated. She left him there, of course, his back to us as he watched her disappear through a white-light threshold of vapor and falling snow, to wait along with the rest of us.

* * *

The rituals of a snowfall were all-important: Waking to that distinct gauzy-grey light and that unmistakable lean chill poised at the edge of the covers; lying there listening to the announcer's voice over the kitchen radio move down the list of closed schools. Two days off for a moderate storm, and sometimes a third; the going rate of exchange for a major metropolitan area which for decades had never had more than two snowplows.

It always amazed me how in the early afternoon the Star would somehow get delivered, despite the road conditions. Its predictable front-page photo became a motif for those earnestly anticipated winter occasions: a lone, darkly etched figure crouched low against the storm, crossing the breadth of a desolate Pennsylvania Avenue, the White House faintly visible in the distance. Our fathers, the career bureaucrats who normally would have occupied that photo's terrain, wandered idly and uncomfortably about the house, no doubt wondering how the nation could possibly function without them.

Nothing moved on those days. Nothing except vehicles with chains or ponderous snowtires --- and us. Sledders. Hundreds of us, an adolescent inclement-weather army spilling out from the suburban Maryland towns which hugged the District line, congregating at night on the hills behind the county hospital.

Cases of beer would have been packed in the snow during the late afternoon by budding young entrepreneurs who would realize a tidy profit selling to those who hadn't brought their own. Early arrivers would start the first of three or four ongoing fires, using the old oil drums the generation before us had carted up there. For the next six hours or so a continuous stream of people would arrive from all over; sleds looped and pounded the phosphorescent hills, tinny transistor radios squeaked out new releases by Lloyd Price and Buddy Holly, ready-to-rumble Cool slurred out of beer tingly thick with ice, the gropings of high school romance found illumination by firelight.

The names echo back awkwardly with the spiny wistfulness of chimes: Finnegan, Vergot, crazy Buddy Quinn; Jim Fineran and the Clements brothers, before Butch's brain tumor took him; Pat Noon, half-breed town jock extraordinaire, funny, exuberant, but a bozo when drinking, self-proclaimed "King of Hospital Hill" --- "175 pounds of solid mouth," Mewshaw rather disingenuously called him; older guys like Frank Newman, before he enlisted, and Bobby Balestri before he took off across country after his father's death and we lost contact with him; girls like Sue Schuh, "tuffest of the tuff," and of course the regulars, Recee Scanlon and the girls from the neighborhood, warily keeping tabs on the girls from a neighboring town, a strange, tough bunch who fascinated us with their rangy diffidence, their cigarettes and hard eyes gleaming in the night, their glowering boyfriends ever poised on the edge of fisticuffs.

The A-student wiseass insolence of Mewshaw and our clique marked us as distinct from the crowd, despite the shared activities like sports which afforded us a buffer. We were reading all the time --- Steinbeck, Dos Passos, Farrell, Kerouac --- and critiquing each other's short stories and poems. The friars who taught us Caesar and Cicero in class and who had enabled us to appreciate a good sentence, would have been shocked to hear us espouse Hemingway's dictum that the best you could hope for in this life was to remember what you did, what you said, and how the weather was. All we needed, we agreed, was to begin the journey to find the larger place, the spot where the right sustenance was to be found, a stretch of ground elsewhere where everything would cohere and there would be no need for the camouflage which cloaked who you really were.

* * *

It was likely a consequence of such musings that on a blizzard-wracked night that February I wandered off Hospital Hill and made an unannounced visit to a girl I'd met during the fall at a school dance. She lived over in Northwest Washington and I traveled the 20 miles back and forth across the District by lying on my sled and grabbing on to the back bumpers of storm-slowed cars. It was the way a lot of us got around when it snowed, although no one I knew had ever gone more than a couple of miles, and that on familiar local roads.

I remember the ease with which I moved through the city's mute, lush-white contours, and for three or four hours it seemed as if the city were mine alone. Traveling through intersections, I murmured the street names to myself, transforming them into entities of my own making as I slowly glided by. I thought of Robert Frost straining to read against the wind and cold during Kennedy's swearing-in: The land was ours before we were the land's.

I never saw the girl again. And what the man recalls of the boy of midcentury is his standing under a streetlight with her as he was about to head back, plotting his course as he stared out over the muffled roads. I remember the mixture of affection, awe and expectation in her eyes, the translucence and trust in her upturned face, wet with thick flakes. The scent of her schoolgirl perfume has stayed with me, as has the feel and smell of her coat, the wool glazed with falling snow. I can still picture that snow, illumined by streetlight, and the way the light bathed her features. And even now the sweet chill of her cheek and the moist warmth of her lips comes back, the imprint of her body persistent, pressed with all the clumsiness of youth against me, her sighs continuous with the exhalations of passing years.

Whatever has become of her, I wonder if she suspects that on that snowbound night in 1961 she saw me as clearly as anyone ever has. In the solitary hush of that stormy winter when the blood quickened and the spirit made its first wagers, I wonder if she surmised that she was witness to my full intent to commence my quest, and if she knew what I couldn't yet imagine, that all roads lead you home.

--- Copyright John Hutchison 1998

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