JIM DODSON: My Springtime Ritual Is Denied
Over the past 20 years, I've performed an odd little ritual annually during the last week of March, a week or so before the start of the Masters golf tournament.
You might call it my personal greeting to Yankee spring or just a misplaced Southern golf nut's personal eccentricity and symbolic cure for cabin fever.
Anyhow, here's what I do:
I take my Ping sand wedge and a brand new Titleist Number 3 golf ball and walk out to what I call my "Philosopher's Garden" in front of my house, drop the ball on a nice semi-thawed piece of beige turf, take dead aim at my house and swing hard.
There's no warm-up swing, no second chance.
The excitement comes from seeing if I can loft the ball safely over the house with one cold swing and without knocking out a window or dislodging a roof shingle.
The one time I attempted this stunt at my former mother-in-law's rural homestead up in northern Maine, unfortunately, near disaster resulted. My Titleist came down prematurely in flight through one of the antique leaded panes of her dining room window and stopped dead on the side table where my mother-in-law was having her afternoon tea and reading a book. As I hastily informed her, hoping to soften the offense, I couldn't hit a shot like that again if my very life depended on it.
Yet curiously, in 20 straight years I've never failed to clear my own house with one good cold swing. What that means, exactly, I haven't a clue. Except perhaps this silly homage to my distant Carolina golf roots has become such a part of my life up here in the northern hinterlands I simply can't stop now.
On what we in the South used to call Easter Monday, as I followed spring north to Maine to check up on my bright high school senior, look over a golf project I'm designing, and sign a contract some thoughtful folks from Massachusetts have taken on our house, I counted 11 golf courses with people playing on them as far north as the suburbs of Boston. I also realized the end of March was looming, and so was my nutty pre-Masters golf ritual.
This year, of course, the drama of the ritual would be lessened by the fact that I've spent a second winter in a row playing golf in the Carolina Sandhills. My swing is anything but cold.
Yet March is full of nasty surprises, as that same wise mother-in-law annually reminded me for nigh on two decades. It's a winter month in Maine, she counseled. Forget that at your peril. And so is at least half of April.
Sure enough, upon arriving here late on Easter Monday, I found a pile of plowed-up snow at least six feet high, remnants of what many are already calling the snowiest winter in a century. After a week of warming temperatures, the crusted snow on my Philosopher's Garden was still at least a foot deep.
Signs of Spring Everywhere
Yet 20 years count for something. The signs of spring were everywhere and unmistakable -- if you only know where to look.
To begin with, the frost heaves on the Meadow Road out to our place -- nature's speed bumps, created when the ground begins to thaw but refreezes and grotesquely swells -- are large enough this spring to break an axle or at least jolt loose a filling. Anything smaller than a Subaru risks vanishing completely from sight in the potholes left by this year's monster winter.
When I passed my neighbor Roger's house an hour before dusk that first evening home, his sap buckets were already hung on his ancient sugar maples, and wood smoke was furling cheerfully from his little cooking shed, his annual maple syrup-making chores well under way.
Besides a noticeably stronger sun, the next sign I detected came the following afternoon when I glanced out the window of the Bowdoin College library and watched several groups of visiting high school juniors clustered like baby ducks on the campus sidewalk around a student admissions officer, the spring college-visitation season already progressing.
With the season of rebirth and melting snow come new horizons. Exactly one year ago, I was moved to realize, my teenage son was right where they are.
Just outside the window, meanwhile, a gray squirrel diligently scouted up hickory nuts that had been revealed by the receding snow and was meticulously moving them to a patch of moss by the library venting system, getting a jump on his spring larder. After consolidating a dozen nuts, he paused and made a pig of himself eating one in a skirt of afternoon morning sun.
Speaking of eating, perhaps the truest signs of spring's slow return to the north country, at least hereabouts, are the vernal reopenings of Fat Boy Drive-in and the Topsham Dairy Queen.
Fat Boy's has been peddling its bounty of greasy burgers, shakes and onion rings for decades, beloved staples of the local diet. It reopened this week, and the parking lot has been wall-to-wall with hungry customers, Including me.
My kids always adored the place, so I stopped by for old times' sake and ordered a burger and Coke. The guy in the pickup truck next to me had his window fully rolled down and Jimmy Buffett blaring, stuffing his face with fries, grooving like a teen on spring break. The temperature was a balmy 48 degrees: Maine's own version of March Madness.
The Dairy Queen, just across the river, gained local fame when President Lyndon Johnson stopped there for a dipped cone sometime in the summer of 1966. The photograph of the president eating a cone of ice cream in Maine made newspapers across the country, for some inexplicable reason, and the owner of the small shop envisioned a marketing bonanza.
He had "LBJ Ate Here" painted on a sign, and now just about the only thing people know about my adopted Yankee hometown is that LBJ ate an ice cream cone here.
Closer to home, which remains mine for the moment, the other little mind game I play in a slowly thawing world is to imagine what surprises I might find when the snow finally melts off completely.
One year I found my beloved wristwatch in the grass, where it evidently had fallen off during the final mowing of the yard in late November. It was still keeping perfect time. I fully intended to write the manufacturer and give him the good news, but then the watch stopped running, as if it had merely survived the worst that winter could hurl it only to expire in its owner's hands.
This spring week, however, as the temperatures rebounded to the mid-50s, the biggest surprise came on Wednesday afternoon when my son informed his mom and me that rather than attend the splendid college he's been admitted to this year, he was thinking instead of striking off for Europe or maybe Australia, to have an adventure.
His mom and I were surprised, to be sure, because he's talked of nothing else but this college since he got admitted.
On the other hand, I could empathize with his desire to strike over the horizon and leave the classroom behind for a while. He's hungry to taste life and test himself against a less cloistered world. Thirty-five years ago, I wanted to do exactly the same thing, and eventually did -- though my dad talked me out of doing it after high school graduation. My big breakout came instead a year or so after college.
Seven years ago, I dragged this same sweet bright boy halfway around the world to have a little pre-adolescent fun and make a philosophical point. I simply hoped to show him there's nothing to be afraid of in making the journey into the unknown, that every bend in the road is simply a fresh opportunity for personal growth.
The most fun I've had writing a book came out of our goofy adventures, a freewheeling summer that amounted to two eighth-grade boys on the lam, making a cheerful nuisance of themselves in the tourist traps of Europe and dusty byways of the classical Mediterranean.
So perhaps, as with winter wheat, I've merely harvested what I planted long before the heavy snows of this valedictory winter and uncertain spring arrived.
As I sat waiting for him to meet me for an early supper at the new Irish pub in town that same night, trying not to worry where this unforeseen development might lead, I read a story in that day's edition of USA Today about how millions of Boomer parents are increasingly anxious about the future. "Their offspring -- post college degreed and in their mid- to late 20s -- still haven't a clue what to do with their lives."
My son finally came through the door of the crowded pub, politely removing his ball cap. We ordered corned beef and the house meatloaf and had a good hour's talk.
I already knew a lot of what's on his mind. He wants to make movies or be a writer. Possibly go to film school in Prague. Or maybe spend more time in Ecuador. He wants to travel, see things, taste life on his own. He doesn't worship money. He's reading Buddhism's holiest scriptures. He doesn't wish to find himself trapped someday, just doing a meaningless job. He's a little weary of American life, the corporate greed, the mindless celebrity, the war. Not to mention high school.
Trying to Remember
It's a father's job to listen and try to remember what it was like when he, too, had such dreams and fears in a distant yielding spring -- when he was also dying to head for the horizon.
Our children, wrote the writer who most influenced me, are the birds we let loose into darkness. Somehow they will fly higher, see more, go farther.
As we chatted, I fear I gave my former Old World traveling partner no great pearls of paternal insight on these matters, though I did tell him something a wise old bird once told me: That we all eventually get what our hearts truly desire. The trick is to know what your heart truly desires.
He looked at me and calmly smiled.
Then, on the drive home, I saw something wondrous, a kind of benediction perhaps to this sacred spring conversation, something I've never seen in 20 years in Maine. On the Meadow Road just before dusk, I passed a vast thawing field filled with robins, hundreds and maybe thousands of red-breasted robins sitting like patient Buddhist monks in the muddy soil. As I passed, they flew away in a curtain of wings. I said a prayer of thanks.
That night, unfortunately, it snowed seven more inches. I woke to a world of white and went outside to see if I could possibly attempt my silly spring ritual one last time before I shoved off for my new life in the Sandhills.
But the snow on my Philosopher's Garden was now two feet deep. There would be no 21st attempt.
As I drove through town, I wondered if this meant an end or a beginning. In spring you can never quite tell. The Dairy Queen was open, and I was half-tempted to stop for a small cone of ice cream for old times' sake. LBJ ate here, after all.
Instead, like an old bird still in flight, I headed for my own new horizon.
More like this story