My original thought here was to write something about winters in the near future — you know, with global warming in mind and all — but my science fiction writer’s instincts seem to have atrophied over the years, and it would be easier to recall winters past.
I remember reveling in snow, ice, and cold as a young man in Chicago. I never did get used to summers back there, though I can certainly recall some fun, often accompanied by something borderline or outright illegal. Being, as I am, congenitally perverse, I seemed to find more license, even romance, in the most brutal winters. One major exception springs to mind and that is delivering the Chicago Sun Times one morning in what must have been 40-below weather, when I returned after having completed only half the route, papers rolled and bundled on my sled. I returned to the house with tears freezing on my face and claiming that such weather was not fit for human beings.
The pewter skies and freezing rain we’ve experienced in San Diego recently seem far more menacing than anything the Hawk brought down on me in Chicago as a kid. A good deal of it is a terror of homelessness since October; a terror staved off by a generous employer, a good-hearted son, and an ex-wife who is anything but the stereotype in the material of stand-up comics.
But one winter in particular, that of 1968/’69, stands out as almost idyllic, if not exactly in the Hallmark tradition. It was the last winter I would spend in the Midwest before migrating to California. I was 17 years old and turned 18 in the December of ’68. I had left the Art Institute in Chicago in October after my father died. I was in a rock band that was making money and felt freer to pursue this without my father’s objections. I was a mediocre artist anyway, despite much encouragement from parents and teachers who should have known better.
We played a lot of colleges around Illinois, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Michigan. At one point we were banned from Grant County, Illinois, a story of bad behavior of talented teenagers in rock groups at that time. It was an easy enough problem to get around: we simply changed the name of the band from the Sounds of Silence (lame anyway) to Faith. This was just before Blind Faith hit the market in spring of 1969, at which point we were in California and changed the band’s name yet again to Contact.
I remember New Year’s Eve ’68/’69 in Fox Lake, Illinois, smoking much marijuana and listening to our guitar player’s collection of blues records all night. That single night, though I was playing bass in the band at the time, I learned a good percentage of the blues progressions and riffs I play to this day. The television was on all night, and images of the Vietnam War flickered in black-and-white through the living room. We’d find ourselves staring in horror until we simply had to go outside and have snowball fights. We’d then go back inside and listen to Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Sonny Boy Williamson, and Lightnin’ Hopkins.
In Champagne, Illinois, at the college, and at Circle Campus at the University of Chicago and at Southern Illinois in Carbondale, we were treated like royalty. We were also paid very well.
Despite dilettante pot smoking, no one was drug dependent yet, and none of us really drank. I can’t say it was a time of innocence (most of us knew someone in Vietnam, and we had all been through the Democratic Convention demonstrations and police riots, and Bobby Kennedy had been killed in June), but it was a time during which we were not really misspending our youth, unless you consider rock music itself to qualify. I have no idea if New Year’s Eve fell on a Friday night that year or not, but the experience seemed like the ultimate and ideal Friday night. In a sense, all New Year’s Eves are by their nature Friday nights.
Among my first winter memories, documented on 8mm-home-movie camera film, are of me in a snowsuit. I must have been six years old, and myself and my sister and baby brother are cavorting in the snow, building a snowman and tossing snowballs. I look happy in that home movie, and that was long before I learned to fake happiness.
It might have been a year later (I remember being a little taller) that my father took me for a haircut. I remember snow banks in the city that seemed to tower over the parked cars and my father and I having to climb down from our 1948 Plymouth, walking toward the slowly rotating and striped pole. My father held my hand. I was looking forward only to the opportunity to read comic books while we waited for my turn. I remember, I think, Sergeant Rock and his Fury Commandos, Superman, and the rest of the usual fare from the 1950s. None of these were abided in our household, so this was a kind of literary excursion on my part. I saved the Donald Ducks for last, as they were, in my estimation, babyish.
Twenty years later I was hypnotized by a friend, newly PhD’d in psychology, and though I did not find the experience dramatic in any way, I do remember as I lay on my sofa in Coronado, being guided back to that winter of 1958 and feeling the sharp sting of January winds off the plains beyond town against the razor cut at the back of my neck. I could, years later, smell the witch hazel or bay rum the barber had used there before brushing my neck with talcum powder. And I could feel, actually feel, my father’s hand over mine as I studied the snow banks and pretended I was on some frozen planet.
Winter held none of the depression-inducing dread that I have felt keenly this year in our subtropical city studded with palm trees. And the sadness associated with homeless did not exist. There were bums back then and all safely miles away on Madison Avenue.
It is a certainty that in six months I will be bemoaning the tortures of summer here.