Friday, November 20, 2009

The Wind Whispers Plans

There’s a tree standing in the park across from my house. It’s a Pin Oak, I believe, and it has been a barometer, of sorts, for the over 20 years we’ve lived here. You see, unlike many of the oaks, maples and other leaf-turning trees that surround us, the Pin Oak often holds onto its leaves, sometimes well into, and even throughout, the winter.
But not this year.
The leaves of that beautiful, well-shaped tree are almost all gone now, just into the third week of November, making me wonder just what kind of winter we’re in for.
The much-welcomed, balmy days of St. Martin’s Summer have passed, leaving steel-grey skies, sharp winds and a spattering of rain drops that have begun to sound icy as they fall. This “unique” summer/fall season has left crops in the fields, with farmers praying for a few more days of dry, sunny weather that will allow them to finish what was begun months ago.
It seems like even the squirrels are worried now.
Our neighborhood is thick with the furry fellows, with the tree-lined park hosting generation after generation of familiar brown ones, along with thriving pockets of the little black squirrels that were introduced into Galva awhile back. Every year, I try to be their benefactor, leaving daily piles of corn and other feed for them and the birds. Usually that’s a process that waits until the snow flies, as there is generally an ample supply of seeds, nuts, berries and other fruits to keep them all busy and well fed.
But they announced a change in plans just a few days ago, back, even when we were still hanging onto a last bit of warmish weather. As part of our autumn decor, I had filled an antique basket with armloads of Sweet Annie, dried grasses, bittersweet and Indian Corn and placed it on our front porch, along with a few, scattered pumpkins and gourds. It sat, untouched, until just a few days ago, when the neighborhood squirrels began a determined assault.
“We’re here for the corn,” they seemed to be saying.
Every day, we would arrive home to find a porch floor covered with the chewed remains of their bounty, as they dragged the ears from the basket, one by one. Questing for a balanced diet, they have even attacked some of the gourds, leaving meaty piles of fragments in favor of the seeds.
Even Salty, my self-tamed porch squirrel, who knows he can have a saltine cracker any time he asks, got into the act, burying himself in the basket in a orgy of corn-fed delight. It made for an amusing (to me, at least) squirrel-meets-cat incident the other day, when Max, the surly, half-wild street cat who poses as my pet, followed me out of the front door after a brief, 14-hour nap on a newly folded basketful of laundry.
At first, I feared Max would pounce at the first sight of friend Salty, but he froze, thinking, maybe, that I had placed the squirrel in the basket for him as a kind of picnic. Salty, who was blithely rummaging through the ears in search of his favorite color, ignored any thought of danger, as he assumed it was just me--his faithful bearer of crackers--coming outside. I knew that grabbing Max at this critical juncture would just result in a new set of nasty scratches, so I resorted to an alarm system devised by our friends the beavers and stamped my foot on the porch floor. It’s a cement porch, so the result was somewhat muffled, but it was enough to alert Salty to the fact that something untoward was going on. His head popped out of the bramble of weeds, grasses and branches, where he gazed upon his ancient enemy waiting just a couple of feet away.
Jet-propelled squirrel is the best way to describe what happened next, as Salty exploded out of the basket like a furry fall firework, flew onto the porch rail and into a nearby tree, all the time swearing at Max as only a squirrel can swear at a cat.
He swore at me, too, just for harboring such an evil beast.
Having missed his chance, Max resorted to his usual cat-cool persona, stretching and sharpening his claws on a nearby bench, while waiting to see what would happen next. Nothing did, of course, and the balance of nature that exists in my front yard returned.
Fearing a not-so-happy ending to another encounter, I took the rest of the corn out of the basket and tossed it into the yard. After a few more on-porch forays to see if it was truly all gone, Salty and his friends have made away with those last few ears, while promising to return when I get my act together and start feeding them in earnest.
With no cat-squirrel drama to entertain me this morning, I gazed at that Pin Oak and realized that another season is passing. They are all beautiful in their way, with each promising another sparkling chapter of life and renewal, if we only take time to look. But on this morning, I was reminded of a poem I was asked to write for a long-ago creative writing class in college. It was to be a haiku, the ancient Japanese style that consists of three alternating lines of five, seven and five syllables. I still remember that bit of verse, as I remember late-fall days that have come and gone over the years:

The wind whispers plans
To the listening winter.
Their laughter is cold.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

On Indian Summer and other Days

“It’s been a unique year.”
That was the comment a farmer friend made to me before church the other day as I gently questioned his progress in the race against time we call harvest.
A unique year, indeed.
A wet spring that seriously delayed planting, a cool summer that made for slower-than-usual growth, and a rainy fall that’s slowed the harvest way down. For the rest of us, it’s been kind of like rooting for your favorite team to come back from overwhelming odds, including a whole bunch of bad luck and some terrible calls by the officials.
Here’s hoping things work out better for our farmers than they have for the Bears so far.
But, the long spate of bad conditions was replaced by the nicest kind of fall weather last week. They call it Indian Summer.
No one really knows the exact origin of the term, though some of the guesses range from downright racist and historically inaccurate to, simply, the time when Native Americans harvested their crops and burned off the grasslands, which created the haze that is often a part of the autumnal scene. But all seem to agree that it refers to a period of warm, calm weather that occurs sometime after the first hard frost and before the snow flies. It is, certainly, one of my favorite times of the year. Partly because of the wonderful respite it provides, and also because of the memories and traditions it represents.
One of them, for me, and for millions of others, was “Injun Summer,” a two-panel drawing by Chicago Tribune cartoonist John T. McCutcheon that portrayed a boy and his grandfather watching the sunset changes occurring in a nearby field at the end of a hazy fall day, as explained by the grandfather:

“But every year, 'long about now, they all come back, leastways their sperrits do. They're here now. You can see 'em off across the fields. Look real hard. See that kind o' hazy misty look out yonder? Well, them's Injuns—Injun sperrits marchin' along an' dancin' in the sunlight. That's what makes that kind o' haze that's everywhere—it's jest the sperrits of the Injuns all come back. They're all around us now.”

The timeless cartoon first ran in 1907 and continued until 1992, when it was dropped for fear it might be offensive to Native Americans.
While that very well may be the case, to me, it perfectly captured the mystery and magic of the season. Every year, my dad and I would wait for the cartoon to be printed on the cover of the Trib’s magazine section. Every year, we would look at it, clip it out, read and re-read it, and dream of a final few warm fall days spent out of doors, as crackling leaf fires filled our noses with the sharp, sweet aroma of season’s end. My brother, who also shared those moments with dad, kindly gave me a framed copy of the cartoon a couple of years ago that hangs above my desk, reminding me daily of years and seasons gone by.
But while Indian Summer is possibly the best-known name for this time of year, there are no lack of descriptors for an unusually nice stretch of warm fall weather, with many northern countries having their own traditions.
Two of the best came to my attention courtesy of Father John Burns, who, as a true student of the Saints and the days that honor them, mentioned them in his Sunday homily as they occurred. St. Luke’s Day, on October 18th, is often known in Great Britain as St. Luke’s Little Summer, and is noted as a day for fine fall weather and, also, a night to dream about one’s future spouse:

“St Luke, St Luke, be kind to me

In dreams let me my true love see,”

But my favorite Indian Summer alternative is St. Martin’s Day, a popular feast day around the world that marks the transition from the growing season and harvest to winter. It is often a time when that last burst of warm weather can occur in many of those countries, plus it has another meaning that might warm us all a bit.
You see, St. Martin started out his adult life as a Roman soldier. He is, therefore, the Patron Saint of Soldiers, and his feast day was yesterday, November 11th.
Also known as Veteran’s Day.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Where have you gone, Bobby Richardson?

There’s been something going on for the past few days that nobody seems to care much about very much. It’s called the World Series. This year, it’s between the New York Yankees and the Philadelphia Phillies, who won it last year.
Time was, the fall classic attracted the rapt attention of just about every man, woman and child in America. It was flat-out exciting, no matter who was playing (good news for Cub fans.) But those days, seemingly, are gone. Even the players seem less engaged than they used to be. For instance, it took a fastball in the ribs to remind Yankee slugger Alex Rodriguez of where he was and what he was doing.
"I will say this, that the one time I got hit in [Game 3], my first at-bat, kind of woke me up a little bit and just reminded me, 'Hey, this is the World Series, let's get it going a little bit.'”
Get it going a little bit?
I’m not sure when the World Series became more of an afterthought and less of a thrilling yearly conclusion to the great American pastime. Even the media has missed the boat, with the Philadelphia Inquirer mistakenly running an ad last Monday for Macy’s congratulating their home team on winning the series, The fact that the Phillies were trailing the Yankees three games to one at that time is just details, I guess.
Part of it, I think, has to do with when the games are played. It used to be that World Series games were all played in the daytime, when baseball was meant to be played in the first place. In fact, Game 4 of the 1971 World Series was the first ever to be played under the lights. But, eventually, more and more Series games were scheduled at night, when television audiences (and advertising revenues) were larger, with game 6 of the 1987 series the last World Series game played during the day. The effect of daytime play was that it occurred when many people were at work or school. There was a certain deliciousness about enjoying a baseball game when you were supposed to be studying math or stocking shelves. I remember one year in about fourth grade when my friend Kerry swiped his dad’s transistor radio and brought it to school. He secretly placed the radio in his desk, then ran the earpiece wire under his shirt, assuming, I guess, that he would not be required to leave his seat for the entire nine innings. The earpiece itself was cleverly concealed by his hand, which he endeavored to place over his ear the whole time. He would, he said, communicate with the rest of us via a series of hand signals, coughs and sniffles to let us know the ongoing results of that day’s game. It seemed to work wonderfully, as we assumed Mrs. Peterson, our teacher, was too dimwitted to notice all of the boys and most of the girls watching Kerry instead of her for the bulk of the afternoon. I think the White Sox were leading when she burst our bubble.
“What’s the score, Kerry?” she said. “I missed that last sign.”
But I don’t think it was just the time of day that made the series so attractive back then. I think it was the players. I still remember all the names of the guys who played for my favorite team of the late ’50’s and early ’60’s, the New York Yankees. I admired outfielders Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris, along with pitcher Whitey Ford and catchers Yogi Berra and the amazing Elston Howard. But my real favorites were the members of what sportswriters called, “the million dollar infield,” not because they even came close to collectively making a million (heck, Mantle only made $60,000), but because they were worth a million and more. That infield included first baseman, Bill “Moose” Skowron, shortstop Tony Kubek, third baseman Clete Boyer, and my personal favorite, second baseman Bobby Richardson.
Richardson was a slick-fielding, generally light-hitting guy, which matched my image of my own baseball persona, as I never could hit a lick. But while his offensive season stats were only average, he was a fine clutch hitter, which made world series time even more interesting for me. He was named World Series MVP in 1960, when he hit .367, powered a grand slam and tallied 12 RBI. The Yanks lost that series to the Pirates, so Richardson remains the only World Series MVP selected from the losing team. As the losers, Richardson and his teammates got an extra $5,214.64, which was big bucks in those days. It still is, as far as I’m concerned, but it’s pretty small potatoes compared to the over $350,000 the winners received last year.
And maybe that’s the real problem.
I admire today’s players for the time, talent and sheer athleticism that’s taken them to the major leagues. But, pardon me if I don’t live and die with the fates of a bunch of gazillionaires who will probably be playing for the highest bidder the next time their contract is up.
I’m writing this on Tuesday morning, so by the time you read this column, it may all be over. Or there may be one more game to play. If there is, I may be watching. Or maybe not.
What the heck, it’s only the World Series.