Back in the Februarys of My Boyhood
Reprinted from the February issue of PineStraw magazine.
My neighbor was outrigged in a full arctic parka, down on her knees wrapping what appeared to be miniature quilts around a number of rose bushes in her yard.
The temperature was somewhere in the lower 20s, by far the coldest morning of a winter that had seen unseasonably warm temperatures and nary a hint of snow thus far.
“Good morning,” I called cheerfully over her dormant Bermuda lawn. “Beautiful morning, isn’t it?” The golden light of dawn made the bare limbs and evergreen foliage come alive with muted colors — a world stripped bare of unnecessary ornamentation, exposing the architecture of a dozing Earth.
That’s my poetic take on midwinter in the mid-South, at any rate. My neighbor had another one altogether.
She tucked in her last rose bush and stood up, thumping her arms as if to keep vital blood moving, and declared with the teensiest note of contempt: “Oh, it’s positively stunning — if you happen to be a candidate in the New Hampshire primary. But we moved here to get away from this kind of winter.”
She punctuated this with a gentle swear word and added, “I forgot to cover up my roses last night. I just hope they aren’t %$*@ frozen to death.”
Admittedly I’m only a world expert on how to kill innocent zone five plants above the Mason-Dixon Line, but as a veteran of both Southern and Northern winters, I suggested that her beloved tea roses would probably survive this first cold wave of the season just fine, especially given that temperatures by the weekend were expected to rebound to the lower 60s.
“I just hope it’s not too warm,” I needlessly added. “I love midwinter. Especially February.”
She gave me a look. “Are you crazy? Nobody loves February, dear, except maybe florists, guilty husbands, chocolate makers and Federal employees. Oh, yeah ... and all those candidates making hot air up in New Hampshire.”
“Well,” I said, “it’s also my birthday month. I once had the time of my life covering the New Hampshire primary.”
“Good for you,” she said. “And happy *&$%#@ birthday.”
Indeed, as I hoofed on to work, thinking about the conjunction of February and presidential politics, I was suddenly remembering an even colder and clearer February morning in 1980 when I arrived at Logan Airport in Boston, rented a car, and headed off to cover the nation’s first presidential primary for my magazine in Atlanta.
It was the coldest day I’d ever felt. My first time ever on New England soil.
Fresh off a plane from the Iowa caucuses, where I’d followed George H.W. Bush around on the rural hustings for more than a week, hitting every coffee shop and hair salon in the state — watching him pull off an unexpected upset of front-runner Ronald Reagan in the process — I emerged from the Sumner Tunnel into frozen, sun-splashed downtown Boston and saw buildings leaking so much steam I thought perhaps they were on fire. There was no snow, but the cold was unlike anything I’d ever experienced.
I had a day to kill before my candidate touched down in Keene, New Hampshire, and I was scheduled to cover the New Hampshire primary on Feb. 23. I decided to play tourist and catch some historical sights. It was my 27th birthday, after all, and this was a gift to myself, a Southern boy who — crazy, I know — always dreamed of experiencing real New England winter.
My first move was to “pak the cah” and go snoop around Fanueil Hall, to lay gloved hands on some hot coffee and ask an unshaven clerk wearing a Bruins jacket how to get to Old North Church and whether the bank temperature sign reading minus-9 degrees could possibly be correct. He only laughed and told me it would be better to leave my car and go find the church in the city’s North End on foot unless I wanted to be shot dead by an irate Italian resident for trespassing in their close-knit neighborhood.
I took his advice, set off to find the church made famous by Longfellow’s account of Paul Revere’s ride, and quickly had feet that felt like blocks of ice inside my pathetic tassel loafers.
Somehow I reached the church and found its front door mercifully unlocked, whereupon I went inside and sat in a boxed pew that probably belonged to a signer of the U.S. Constitution, admired the simple Yankee architecture, took off my shoes and rubbed my feet.
Back in my rental car, heater running full-blast, I took a spin around Boston Common — craziest drivers I’d ever seen, let me tell you, even counting Rome at rush hour — and somehow managed to find my way past Fenway Park, over the River Charles, through Harvard Square and out to Fresh Pond and thence on to Lexington and Concord on Highway 2, where the Sons of Liberty had once fired the first shots of American independence.
I was thrilled to the bottoms of my frozen feet when a signpost quaintly announced “Walden Pond,” prompting a sharp left to a frozen pond surrounded by cattails. The English major in me briefly considered taking the trail around the famous pond to commune with the spirit of Henry David Thoreau, but then I envisioned park rangers finding my frozen body sometime in April and having a good laugh over my pathetic loafers.
I can’t recall why I wanted to see the town of Amherst, possibly because candidate George Bush had mentioned it and I’d always liked the poetry of its most famous recluse, Emily Dickinson. I checked into the handsome Lord Jeffrey Inn and had a nice supper of baked halibut and Indian pudding, and found myself seated by William F. Buckley, the conservative author and commentator, in the bar afterward. He was giving a lecture in town the next day.
We had a pleasant conversation about Bush’s upset win in Iowa, and I filled him in on how Bush’s “guerrilla” strategy of shaking every hand in Iowa rather than relying on TV spots — not unlike Rick Santorum’s strategy this year — pulled off the startling upset of Ronald Reagan. I went to bed wondering what famous person I might meet next.
The next afternoon, I arrived at the small airport in Keene to await Bush’s plane from his big Iowa upset. The place was curiously quiet — a clerk and I chatted about the weirdly snowless winter thus far — but soon began to change when a TV reporter from NBC buzzed in with his trenchcoat flapping. I happened to be in the men’s room washing my hands when he breezed in to brush and spray his stylish hair. He asked me if I was a local reporter. I explained that I’d been covering the Bush campaign in Iowa, one of only two reporters who’d been with Bush. “Oh, really?” He asked me how Bush pulled off the upset, and I told him about the guerrilla strategy, cleverly remarking, “Bush beat Reagan in the bushes.”
By the time the candidate’s plane landed, the airport was crawling with reporters and TV crews. I watched the guy from NBC position himself for a live report as the new front-runner passed directly behind him, waving and smiling, heading for his campaign bus where I had a reserved seat.
I heard the reporter tell Tom Brokaw all about the guerrilla strategy and conclude his live broadcast with a clever, “And so, Tom, as someone close to the campaign remarked, ‘Bush beat Reagan in the bushes.’”
Birthday gift No. 2: Never open your yap to TV reporters with hair issues, Bozo.
Over the next couple of weeks I tracked all over the Granite State with Bush and Reagan and a gaggle of other candidates like Howard Baker and Bob Dole. Baker actually turned out to be the sparkling orator of the bunch, and Dole far funnier than his public reputation would suggest.
Though I’d covered part of Jimmy Carter’s campaign in the Deep South four years before, I was, in fact, the rookie on the press bus. At one point at Dartmouth College, syndicated columnist Jack Germond bought me a bourbon in the bar after a debate and advised through his cigarette-stained teeth, “Listen, kid. Word of advice. Get the hell out of this racket before you turn into me.”
On the third Saturday of the month, we were gathered in a chilly Nashua armory for a debate that was supposed to be exclusively between Bush and Reagan, paid for by Reagan, who at the last minute artfully invited five other candidates to join the fray. When Bush balked and the moderator insisted that Reagan’s microphone be switched off, the Gipper grabbed the microphone and shouted, “I am paying for this microphone, Mr. Green!” at which point the crowd went positively crazy. Bush’s quest for the White House died on the spot.
Fun and addictive as it was — the spin doctors, the battle-weary hacks, the earnest blonde groupies — I eventually went home to a much warmer Atlanta weary of national politics and decided I really didn’t want to be Jack Germond after all. Ironically, the night before I flew home — the day after the primary where Reagan trounced Bush — a foot of snow fell.
What did stay with me, however, was a deeper attraction to the winter landscape of northern New England, a cold that challenged my professed love of winter and perhaps explains why I eventually settled into life on a forested hill on the coast of Maine and stayed there quite happily for nearly two decades.
During my subsequent years at Yankee Magazine, a stream of interesting presidential candidates came calling during New Hampshire’s famed February primary. Among other aspirants, I got to meet (with seasonally appropriate footwear, no less) and chat with a stream of Democrats, including Gary Hart, John Glenn, Ernest Hollings and Jesse Jackson. Four years later, a friend invited me to have dinner with Bob Dole and Jack Kemp. I also took in interesting stump speeches by Pat Robertson and a rising star named Bill Clinton. It was a political junkie’s winter dream.
Sometimes, I’ll admit, I miss those deep frozen winters of northern New England, even if I don’t miss the partisan bloodsport that American political campaigning and governing has become.
As I walked to work this cold midwinter morning 32 years after that bone-chilling but life-changing February, the New Hampshire primary was merely days away from happening in its new January slot, followed closely by South Carolina’s and Florida’s unauthorized primary. This new arrangement is supposedly designed to prevent a winner-take-all scenario by the early-voting states. By February, Colorado, Arizona and Michigan will have weighed in on the matter, and the guy with the most dough will sew it up by mid-February.
What’s different is me. I do love these soulful winter days, but not the cold the way I used to. I’m back in the Februarys of my boyhood, a landscape that shows me the beautiful architecture of Southern winter and roses wrapped in quilts.
My kind of birthday gift.
Jim Dodson, Sunday essayist for The Pilot and editor of Pinestraw magazine, can be reached at email@example.com.
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