Here to return to
WINTER AS IT WAS
WITH the wind howling from the northwest, and the mercury crouching below the zero mark, it seems a good time to sit in the house and think of winter as it used to be. What is the advantage of growing old, if one cannot find an hour now and then for the pleasures of memory?
The year's end is for the young. Such is the order of the world, the universal paradox. Opposite seeks opposite. And we were young once, — a good while ago, — and for us, also, winter was a bright and busy season, its days all too short and too few. I speak of “weekdays,” be it understood. As for winter Sundays, in an unwarmed meeting-house (though the sermon might be like the breath of Nebuchadnezzar's furnace), we should have been paragons of early piety, beings too good to live, if we had wished the hours longer. Let their miseries be forgotten.
On week-days, once out of school, we wasted no time. We knew where we were going, and we want on the run. We were boys, not men. Some of us, at least, were not yet infected with the idea that we ever should be men. We aspired neither to men's work nor to men's pleasures. We aimed not at self-improvement. We thought not of getting rich. We might recite “Excelsior” in the schoolroom, but it did us no harm; our innocence was incorruptible. Two things we did: we skated, and we slid down-hill. There was always either snow or ice. The present demoralization of the seasons had not yet begun. Winter was winter. Snowdrifts were over your head, and ice was three feet thick. And zero — for boys who slept in attics to which no particle of artificial heat ever penetrated, zero was something like summer. Young America was tough in those days.
I recall at this moment the bitterly cold day when one of our number skated into an airhole on Whitman's Pond. It was during the noon recess. His home was a mile or more east of the pond, and the schoolhouse was at least a mile west of the pond. He sank into the water up to his chin, and saved himself with difficulty, the airhole luckily being small and the ice firm about the edges. What would a twentieth-century boy do under such circumstances? I can only guess. But I know what Charles H. did. He same back to the schoolhouse first, to make his apologies to the master; I can see him now, as he came in smiling, looking just a little foolish; then he ran home — three miles, perhaps — to change his clothing. And he is living still. Oh, yes, we were tough, — or we died young.
That was while we were in the high school, when I was perhaps eleven or twelve years old. But my liveliest recollections of winter antedate that period by several years. Then sliding down-hill was our dearest excitement. Ours was “no great of a hill,” to use a form of speech common among us; I smile now as I go past it; but it could not have suited us better if it had been made on purpose; and no half holiday or moonlight evening was long enough to exhaust our enjoyment of the exercise —walking up and sliding down, walking up and sliding down. “Monotonous,” do I hear some one say? It was monotony such as would have ended too soon though it had lasted forever. If I had a thousand dollars to spend in an afternoon's sport now, I should not know how to get half as much exhilaration out of it as two hours on that snow-covered slope afforded. There is something in a boy's spirits that a man's money can never buy, nor a man's will bring back to him.
As years passed, we ventured farther from home to a steeper and longer declivity. Glorious hours we spent there, every boy riding his own sled after his own fashion. Boys who were boys rode “side-saddle” or “belly-bump;” but here and there a timid soul, or one who considered the toes of his boots, condescended to an upright position, feet foremost, like a girl — in the language of the polite people, sur son séant.
Later still came the day of the double-runner, when we slid down-hill gregariously, as it were, or, if you will, in chorus (the word is justified), every boy's arms clinging to the boy in front of him. Older fellows now took a hand with us, and we resorted to the highway. With the icy track at its smoothest, we went the longer half of a mile, and had a mile and a half to walk back, the “going” being slippery enough to double the return distance.
At this time it was that there came a passing rage (such as communities are suddenly taken with, now and then, for a certain amusement — golf, croquet, or what not) for coasting in a huge pung. Grown people, men and women, filled it, while one man sat on a hand-sled between the thins and guided its course. Near the foot of the hill the road took a pretty sharp turn, with a stone wall on the awkward side of the way; but the excitement more than paid for the risk, and by sheer good luck a thaw intervened before anybody was killed.
There was quiet amusement in the neighborhood, I remember, because Mrs. C., who was distressingly timid about riding behind a horse (she could never be induced to get into a carriage unless the animal were “old as Time and slow as cold molasses”), saw no danger in this automobile on runners, which traveled at the rate of a mile a minute, more or less, with nothing between its occupants and sudden death except the strength and skill of the amateur steersman, who must keep his own seat and steer the heavy load behind him. So it is. A man goes into battle with a cheer, but turns pale at finding himself number thirteen at the dinner-table.
Sliding down-hill was such sport as no language can begin to describe; but skating was unspeakably better. Those first skates! I wish I had them still, though I would show them with caution, lest the irreverent should laugh. They would be a spectacle. How voluminously the irons curled up in front! And how gracefully as well! A piece of true artistry. And how comfortably they were cut off short behind, so that you could stop “in short metre,” no matter what speed you had on, by digging your heels into the ice. And what a complicated harness of straps was required to keep them in place. Those straps had much to answer for in the way of cold feet, to say nothing of the passion we were thrown into when one of them broke; and we a mile or two from home, with the ice perfection — “a perfect glare” — and the fun at its height. This was before the day of “rockers,” of which I had a pair later, — and a proud boy I was. Pretty treacherous we found them to start with, or rather to stop with; but for better or worse we got the hang of their peculiarities before our skulls were irreparably broken.
Skating then was like whist-playing now, — an endless
study. You thought you were fairly good at it till a new boy came along and
showed you tricks such as you had never dreamed of; just as you thought, perhaps,
that you could play whist till you sat opposite a man who asked, in a tone
between bewilderment and asperity, why on earth you led him a heart at a
certain critical stage, or why in the name of common sense you didn’t know that
the ten of clubs was on your left. Art is long. It was true then, as it is now.
But what matter? We skated for fun, as we did everything else (out of school),
except to shovel paths and saw wood. Those things were work. And work was
longer even than art. Work was never done. So it
seemed. And how bleak and comfortless the weather was while we were doing it! A
cruel world, and no mistake. But half an hour afterward, on the hillside or
the pond, the breeze was just balmy, and life — there was no time to think how
good we found it. No doubt it is true, as the poet said,
“There's something in a flying horse,
There’s something in a huge balloon;”
but there’s more, a thousand times over, in being a boy.