Friday, October 1, 2010

The Color Winter

I was panting heavily, over-heated underneath the winter blanket.  I must have awakened quite suddenly because Maggie had left her cushion on the floor at the end of the bed and had walked over to my side to see what was wrong.  I was still clutching my pillow as my breathing became more shallow.  I've had nightmares before, certainly, but this one left me shaking.  The only difference this time was that nobody was doing something sinister like chasing me with a machete through a dark alley or informing me through the glass of a locked door that the brewpub was closed for the evening.  The diabolical forces that woke me up in such abject terror belonged  to a cold front, a burst of arctic air trapped inside an Alberta Clipper that directed its bone-rattling, icy-steel breath directly in my face, sideways, driving me back against a mound of snow.  It was a grotesque, momentary reminder, a sick, twisted dream gone horribly wrong, causing me to wake up my dog, as well as cause me a couple of hours of early-morning restless turmoil.

I used to like Fall.  Growing up, it was my favorite time of year.  Midway through each September, well after  already knowing that the Indians would, again, be eliminated from playoff contention, it would start.  Tiny specks of red leaves would peek through green clusters of oak trees that dotted 14th Street.  In the late-afternoon, the sound of marching-band practice could be heard across the freeway over at Fawcett Stadium.  And my mother would take all of our shorts, swim-trunks, and short-sleeved t-shirts and pack them in a box that previously held jeans, corduroy slacks, and sweat-shirts, lining them up on the bed so that we could put them in the empty space in our dresser in the bedroom.

I liked the brown, burning smell in the air.  As we'd play touch-football on the street, we'd push each other into piles of leaves, or dive into them, pretending we were Tony Dorsett or Eric Dickerson, plunging into the end zone for a touchdown.  The neighbors who spent hours laboriously raking, sweeping, and forming these leaves into piles would run out on to their porches, yelling, swearing, and pleading with us to stop.  We usually did, only to move on to another pile.  In the evening, playing "Kick the Can", we'd bundle up in our thick jackets, occasionally run a gloved-hand across the front of our face to blot a runny nose, and breathe in the crisp, cool air, absorbing the sights of the porches dotted with pumpkins while inhaling the glory of the vibrant, multi-colored trees and crisp night.

This annual, bucolic seasonal love-fest came to an abrupt halt one day back in the mid-90's.  I was making my way down I-71 en route to WYHT-FM, the radio station in Mansfield that employed me.  I had been making the one-hour drive each day for several years, and on this day the Autumn explosion was on full display.  We had been experiencing warmer-than-normal temperatures, but even as I peeled off my jacket in the car, I was secretly ready for a Great Lakes Oktoberfest, Donna's famous pumpkin-square cakes, and some playoff baseball on television.  About halfway down on the drive, while admiring the blanket of colors that covered the rolling hills outside of Ashland, the wind started to pick up a bit and it began to rain.  That wind and rain didn't stop for 48 hours.  At the conclusion of that storm, virtually every leaf fell to the earth.  And as the final soggy, burgundy-coated foliage dropped heavily to the ground, another system arrived, just in time to dump a coating of a snow-sleet mix, draping the ground in a white linen, burying those piles of leaves underneath the swaying, empty, lifeless branches above.  That white linen would hang around for the next 5 months, effectively and forever destroying my love-affair with the Autumn Equinox, and fomenting within me a cavalcade of disdain and hatred for a season that brings nothing but emptiness and misery.

Oh, I tried to plead with the powers-that-be.  Like Salieri, staring up at the crucifix in Amadeus, I made my pact with the Divine.  "Take this Winter away from me, O Lord, " I cried out, "and I will be your instrument."  I hadn't a clue what exactly I would do to keep up my end of the bargain, but I'm sure it would have been magnanimous and unequaled.  But I never got the chance.  Sure, we had a somewhat brief reprieve while living in the South, but eventually that distant cousin of Darth Vader would eventually show his hand in some way.

Why they call it the "four seasons" escapes me.  Here, there are no "four seasons".  There's a somewhat-chilly Spring that quickly flows into a hazy, humid Summer.  There are some generously warm September weeks that give way to a lightning-quick Fall, which is a teasing prelude to 5 months of a cruel, lumbering, never-ending daily display of overcast skies, mind-numbing chill, and a repetitious, monotonous forecast where highly-coiffured weather-prognosticators robotically mumble the words, "cold, windy, and a chance of flurries with 1-2 inches of possible accumulation" with morbid efficiency.

Winter sucks.  Winter is like the New York Yankees celebrating after yet another World Series victory.  Winter is like getting a flat tire on the way to a job interview.  Winter is like developing diarrhea symptoms in the middle of watching a movie at the theater. Or in the middle of a long line at the BMV.  Come to think it, winter is like going to the BMV.  There's nothing remotely attractive or enlightening about Winter.  Winter kicks you in the groin, laughs about it, and then kicks you again.  Repeatedly.  With steel-toed boots.  For 5 months.  I routinely dismiss those who reel off vacuous platitudes like "It's so pretty!  How can you not like everything covered in white, especially at Christmas?"  Easy.  I pull out my cargo shorts and Indians t-shirt, lay them on the bed, stare at them, and ask myself, "Would I rather be in these, wiping perspiration off my brow after mowing the lawn, or standing out there slipping on ice as I attempt to remove the 8 inches of heavy, wet snow on top of it?"  Case closed.

So I had a nightmare.  It was actually a rewind of a day shortly after we moved back to Ohio.  We were unloading boxes, but we had no available space to break up the boxes and get them out of the way.  So Donna had me carry them out to the deck.  Almost ten inches of snow had fallen and more was on the way.  I shrugged off her suggestion to put on a coat and attempted to take a stack of cardboard out through the back-door.  But they wouldn't fit.  And I couldn't open the door because of the snow that had piled up.  So I had to go out the front and walk around.  The wind was blowing sideways, in huge, unannounced blasts.  My glasses were immediately soaked with water and ice pellets.  I trudged through the thick carpet of snow on the sidewalk and made my way around the house.  I slipped walking up the steps because I couldn't see them.  A few of the cardboard pieces caught the wind and, like a sail, soared across the front lawn.  My sneakers were no match for the huge drifts as I tried to retrieve the pieces, while at the same time trying not to drop the ones in my arm.  Wet, freezing, shoes filled with snow, and unable to see, I made it to the top step and began to walk around to the back deck.  Donna was standing by the sliding-glass doors with a compassionate smile.  As I caught the blunt-end of another arctic blast directly in my face, I imagined instantaneously that this is what hell must be like.  It's not hot.  It's not a furnace.  Not at all.  It's a sub-zero prison encased in ice, snow, and freezing rain where you're seperated from your loved ones by an impermeable wall, forced to carry unwieldy objects back and forth without ceasing and without proper footwear or a decent coat.

And it woke me up.  I'm still breathing heavily at the thought of it.  It's not a nightmare.  It's reality.  It's real and it's coming, and I'm powerless to stop it.  A few pretty leaves and a pieceof pumpkin pie might briefly take your mind off of it, but only for awhile.  Because I know what's out there.



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