It’s not your grandfather’s winter


In this space in January 1999, the theme was the weather.

“The weather has been all the talk the last few weeks. The most common opening line is, Whatever happened to global warming? Everyone’s a comedian.”

The month, indeed that winter, froze us. Below zero wind chills and temperatures under 10 degrees Fahrenheit have their charms, although they are 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 goes on and on.

I remembered something from E.B. White, writing in January of 1943 from Brooklin, Maine.

“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.”

Then there was January 2006.

“I noticed that the water temperature in Woods Hole this morning is 40 degrees. Offshore, southeast of the Vineyard, it’s warmer, about 44. These are meaningful data points, if you measure the quality of any particular winter as I do. For me, a wicked winter is one in which there is chop to chop harbor ice in Vineyard Haven, a jam of ice in Woods Hole when the current is ebbing, and a mosaic of ice and sea smoke over Nantucket Sound. When winter has met each of these standards, you can be sure it’s been terrifically cold for a terrifically long time. There may even be skating and ice boating ice on Squibnocket Pond. That’s a wicked winter.”

Naturally enough, friends and neighbors like to reminisce about winter years ago. Apparently, abused as we 21st-century Vineyarders may yet be by ice and snow, winters were better, colder, icier, and more fun years ago. It may be true.

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 people there.

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. Most of us kept a skiff handy as we walked.

In winter then, 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 a spoon-like underbody at each end, the best shape for icebreaking, though it was an awful 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.

We were all members of what E. B. White called 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.” But, circumscribed this way, the human spirit grows restless, and “After a long spell of cold, with little sun and little relief, sometimes a man’s thoughts turn to warmer climates with longing.” Indeed.

Now we’re the fraternity of the faux-Carolinas. Temperatures in the 40s to 60s. Ice confined to our drinks. Whatever happened to the global warming of 1999 and the winters of yore, we’d like to know.