Editorial: Winter memories, spring dreams

Blizzards and wind chills have their charms, and the magical warming that sometimes follows is charming as well. But, cold is serious, worrisome, and expensive. Burst pipes, Chappy cut off, busted hips, auto crashes, kids home from school, compost piles in flames, building projects delayed, firewood too wet to burn: the list of calamities can be long. But, not this time. After the snowstorm, which wreaked havoc here and elsewhere in the Northeast, though not destruction or loss of electric power for Vineyarders, temperatures have resumed the January levels of discomfort to which we’ve been accustomed over generations. This weekend, when cold weather exhausts itself, the snow will be gone and our moods will lift.

E.B. White, writing in January of 1943 from Brooklin, Maine, knew a thing or two about winter and cold weather. “There has been more talk about the weather around here this year than common, but there has been more weather to talk about. For about a month now we have had solid cold — firm, business-like cold that stalked in and took charge of the countryside as a brisk housewife might take charge of someone else’s kitchen in an emergency. Clean, hard, purposeful cold, unyielding and unremitting. Some days have been clear and cold, others have been stormy and cold. We have had cold with snow and cold without snow, windy cold and quiet cold, rough cold and indulgent peace-loving cold. But always cold.”

One warming strategy when the weather is cold is to gather with friends and neighbors to remember winters past. Apparently, abused as we think we are today by ice and snow, winters were better, colder, icier, and more fun years ago. It may be true.

Some of you will recall iceboating on Squibnocket Pond, or skating the length and breadth of the pond on unexpectedly smooth ice. That was fun, no doubt about it. Frigid, but fun. Sixty mile an hour ice flyers, specially designed for the occasion or dug out of the debris in the barn, were the rage for the two or three weeks when there was hard ice to run them on and not too much snow.

There was no ice arena then. Skating on Uncle Seth’s or Ice House or Parsonage ponds was a rare treat. It was best in the evening when the full moon bathed the sheared surface with pale light, and the crisp scrape of the skate blades was the only sound, although there may have been 50 of you there.

Experts say that Seth’s was an especially good place to skate because the surrounding high land and the woods sheltered the surface, and that allowed smooth ice. Today, the coarse sand the town has put by the side of the pond to form a wider beach often blows across the surface near shore and wrecks your edges.

There were winters in the mid-70s when Vineyard Haven Harbor was solid with ice and folks walked out to their moored boats from Owen Park. Some even skated around them, though the ice was soft and slushy. The wise ones kept a skiff handy as we walked. There hasn’t been significant harbor ice, or sea ice in Vineyard Sound and Woods Hole, for years.

In distant winters, the Steamship Authority often had to ask the Coast Guard to send an icebreaker to open a lead for the Islander to take freight out to Nantucket. The old double-ender had the best shape for icebreaking, though it was an awfully long trip, beginning in Woods Hole. Later, when the boatline began running to Nantucket from Hyannis, the quick formation of ice in Hyannis harbor made for frequent calls for icebreaker help.

This week, the rig that is laying cable off Eastville is working in the stiff northerlies, and the salt water spray that drums against the bow and sides of the barge has bearded it with ice. Very rough duty for the crews and also for the workers who are preparing for the installation of the new, permanent Lagoon Pond Drawbridge.

We are all members of what E. B. White calls the “fraternity of the cold.”

“Nobody is kept from joining. Even old people sitting by the fire belong, as the floor draft closes in around their ankles. The members get along well together: extreme cold when it first arrives seems to generate cheerfulness and sociability. For a few hours all life’s dubious problems are dropped in favor of the clear and congenial task of keeping alive. It is rather soothing when existence is reduced to the level of a woodbox that needs filling, a chink that needs plugging, a rug that needs pushing against the door.”

Still, circumscribed this way, the human spirit grows restless, and winter’s magic grows tiresome. We dream of spring.