Posts Tagged ‘spring’

As I type this at the start of March, weather forecasters are tossing around phrases like “omega block,” “atmospheric bomb” and “monster” to describe a developing blizzard that has the potential to devastate a good chunk of the East Coast in five days or so.

By the time this post runs, we’ll know how accurate the predictions were.

(Edit: That storm, a few weeks ago, didn’t hit eastern Pennsylvania. But another one is bringing us two to four inches of snow today.)

It’s been a cold, gray, rainy, windy winter … and a long one, even by the standards of someone who considers himself alternately a Rust Belter or a New Englander at heart.

And I wish it would end now, if not sooner.

I do not know how to jump-start spring (or summer). Absent a candle, I open another can of beer and curse the darkness.

My grandfather seems to have had something that brought warm weather a little closer. And this was around the time of year he turned to it.

March 18, 1975.

March 18, 1975.

I’ve written before that tomatoes were a staple crop in my grandparents’ yard throughout my childhood. (If you missed that post last year, go read it now. It’s better than this one.)

I don’t remember my grandpa having growth lights in his basement. I’m guessing he coaxed his tomato seedlings out of the soil simply by putting them next to the sunniest window in the house and dosing them with Miracle-Gro.

But clearly, he wasn’t waiting for consistently warm weather to get his crop started.

Maybe he started his tomatoes the day after St. Patrick’s from some sense of tradition, or some old-timer’s knowledge of just the right time to do such things.

Or maybe, like me, he was fed up with winter and looking for any outlet he could find that would bring warmer weather closer.

If you can put seeds into soil and start getting them to sprout, you can feel reasonably confident that you’ll pluck ripe, warm fruit from them sometime, if not necessarily immediately.

(His calendar entries for April 3 and 4, 1975, show temps down to 30 degrees, 50-mph wind gusts, and a note about “winter’s last blast.” So he knew when he planted his tomatoes — presumably inside — that Stamford wasn’t immune to one last wintry spanking.)

April 3 and 4, 1975.

April 3 and 4, 1975. Gotta love the barometer reading. Now, that’s attention to detail.

I could stand a seedling or two right now to bring the promise of warmer weather. I should cut the top off this empty can of Genny Bock, fill it with soil and seeds, and park it by the window.

‘Tis better to light a candle, and all that business.


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I think, in the years before I knew him, my grandpa had a bit of an outdoorsy streak — just likeĀ  lots of other red-blooded American men.

He wasn’t the sort to swim in icy lakes at dawn, or shinny up a mountain bare-handed.

But, given the opportunity, I think he enjoyed a bit of roughing it out in the woods every now and again.I believe he spent most of his life in city settings — not among skyscrapers per se, but in closely developed neighborhoods — so maybe that explains why he liked to go get a few lungfuls of fresh air from time to time.

Give him a rustic cottage, and a rowboat, and a fire to grill over, and he could enjoy nature happily enough.

Either 1957 or '59, I believe, in the little western Massachusetts town of Becket.

Either 1957 or ’59, I believe, in the little western Massachusetts town of Becket. My grandpa is rowing; my grandma and aunt are enjoying the ride.

From the same trip to Becket: The family enjoys dinner out back of the cottage. Check out my grandfather in *shorts* -- a rare look for him.

From the same trip to Becket: The family enjoys dinner out back of the cottage. Check out my grandfather shirtless and in shorts. Both were rare looks for him, at least in my experience.

Living in Stamford didn’t give him quite the same opportunity to commune with nature. Sure, there were places he could go to enjoy the great outdoors. But the neighborhood where he lived was pretty well built-out and paved over.

Perhaps that was why he deemed a couple seasonal reminders of Mother Nature worth including on his calendar, 50 years ago this month.

March 2, 1963.

March 2, 1963.

If there’s a backstory here, and skunks were a regular part of life on Hope Street, I don’t know it. Perhaps my grandpa encountered one traipsing across the back yard and saw fit to record it.

Or maybe he read this factoid somewhere and decided to lift it for his own calendar. It does sound kinda like something you’d read in the Old Farmer’s Almanac.

Wiki, for what it’s worth, says that striped skunks don’t really hibernate so much as they go semi-dormant. And they can start breeding as early as mid-February. So this date doesn’t necessarily represent when skunks start to emerge. More likely, it’s when my grandpa first took notice of one.

As it happens, the smell of skunk is one that I used to associate pretty strongly with Stamford. The drive from one set of grandparents’ house to the other took us through some wooded areas, and it was common to pick up a couple snootfuls of skunk along the way — especially when we made the drive at night.

I don’t mentally connect that smell with Stamford quite so strongly as I used to. But my childhood association of skunks with Stamford (and trips to the grandparents) may be one reason why I have always liked the smell of skunks.

(From a distance, that is. The smell of a skunk close up is ferociously nasty.)

So, yeah. What other natural phenomenon was capturing my grandpa’s attention in March 1963?

March 9, 1963.

March 9, 1963.

The spring maple sap run is a wonderfully New England thing to put on your calendar.

(The time of the sunset, while not specific to New England, is pretty sweet too. The days, they’re getting longer.)

I do not believe my grandparents actually did any maple sugaring or syrup-making. I can’t recall any mention of that in family history.

Plus, if I’m not mistaken, it’s messy work that requires the collection of a lot of sap — certainly more than the trees on my grandparents’ lot could muster.

Thanks to the blogosphere, I now know that it is possible to make maple syrup in Stamford, even if my family didn’t.

The excellent OmNomCT food blog, based in Fairfield County, recently wrote about the annual maple sugar weekend at the Stamford Museum & Nature Center. Apparently you can go there to learn about maple sugaring, buy locally made syrup, and even help judge a cooking contest in which local chefs put the syrup to creative use.

(Well, OK, you can’t do it this year, because the event happened March 2 and 3. But you can put it on your calendar for next year. I would if I lived there.)

Only about two weeks after the maple sap entry, my grandpa would have noted the formal start of spring on his calendar.

I wonder how long it took him after that to start daydreaming about grilling some burgers and hot dogs.

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February 2, 1969.

February 2, 1969.

Groundhog Day’s gotta be just about the dopiest thing ever conceived.

An overgrown rodent toddles out of its burrow and predicts the next six weeks of weather, based on whether or not it “sees its shadow” and skittles back in?

Sounds like something the German-American farmers of Lancaster County dreamed up after drinking too much bock.

Their first choice would doubtless have been to rout the grundsow out of their fields, not to dress up in top hats and celebrate it. But the groundhog — who is not only good at reproducing, but a mean bastard to boot — proved to be at least their equal in tenacity.

Then again, I suppose the groundhog is entitled to be good at something, because it’s not all that gifted when it comes to predicting the weather.

The Stormfax Weather Almanac website says Punxsutawney Phil — or, more accurately, the generations of groundhogs press-ganged into the spotlight as P.P. — has been right roughly 39 percent of the time.

That’s not much better than you’d get by simply flipping a pfennig every February and leaving the rodents out of it.

To make matters worse, the groundhog tradition commonly associated with Punxsutawney has apparently been co-opted by any number of other nondescript burgs.

Wikipedia’s list of groundhog predictions (yes, there is such a thing) cites the likes of Western Maryland Murray, Shubenacadie Sam, General Beauregard Lee (!) and Staten Island Chuck (!!!) among the ranks of animal prognosticators.

Having a groundhog ceremony if you’re not Punxsutawney is like playing “Sweet Caroline” if you’re not Fenway Park. It’s pretentious and unoriginal and lame and stolen and wrong. End of discussion.

But here’s the real reason I hate groundhogs:

The groundhog seems to be the spirit animal of eastern Pennsylvania. You see them all the time around here — especially in the spring, when they waddle hungrily out of hibernation. So familiar are they that the traditional Pennsylvania German men’s clubs in this part of the state are known as Grundsow Lodges.

To my snobbish, Boston-educated brain, the groundhog is a symbol of all that is wrong with Pennsylvania. It is dumpy and stolid and provincial, and retreats quickly to familiar surroundings at the sign of challenge.

And yet, there are those who find great worth in the groundhog, just as there are many who love Pennsylvania.

Robert Frost’s poem “A Drumlin Woodchuck” artfully uses the groundhog as a metaphor for human social discomfort. (I had no idea until I wrote this post that woodchucks and groundhogs were the same animal. Whaddya know.)

And my grandpa seems to have been charmed by groundhogs, or at least by Groundhog Day, because he marked the occasion on his calendar just about every year with some sort of doodle or notation.

So, to counterbalance my acidity, here are some sweet — or at least creative — musings from my grandfather on the annual Celebration of the Rodent.

February 2, 1975.

February 2, 1975. Compare the arm-like paws to the more animalistic paws on the 1969 grundsow.

February 2, 1973.

February 2, 1973.

February 2, 1966

February 2, 1966.


February 2, 1965.

February 2, 1965. Interesting how the calendars render “Ground Hog Day” as three words.


February 2, 1964. I like the word-shadow thing, even if my aunt apparently wasn't too impressed.

February 2, 1964. I like the word-shadow thing, even if my aunt apparently wasn’t too impressed.

February 2, 1962. Note that "Ground Hog Day" (or any derivative spelling thereof) is not pre-printed on the calendar.

February 2, 1962. Note that “Ground Hog Day” (or any derivative spelling thereof) is not pre-printed on the calendar.


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You know what’s coming up this week? That’s right: It’s the event I always think of as Bartles & Jaymes Day.

Bartles & Jaymes was the brand of wine coolers that made some of the best TV commercials of the Eighties — deadpan, droll, and as dry as their product was sweet.

In one springtime ad, the actor playing “Frank Bartles” (the speaking half of the duo) talked about seeing a calendar with the words “Vernal Equinox” on it.

“We went to school with old Vernal,” the actor playing Frank declared as his partner “Ed Jaymes” looked on, “and we’re proud to see he’s made a name for himself.”

Ever since then, the arrival of spring in my chosen hemisphere has made me think of those long-ago ads, even if I do not choose to celebrate it with cloying, effervescent fruit-flavored beverages.

(I was surprised to discover in my research that the Bartles & Jaymes brand still exists, though nowadays it uses bland beachfront imagery in its marketing. Who woulda thunk that a party-time beverage aimed at young people would reach its biggest success using two frumpy old guys?)

Spring means more than wine coolers, of course. It means slowly increasing warmth, and the arrival of crocuses, and the re-emergence of green, and the blowing of a bunch of wind, and the relegation of tuques and gloves to the back of the closet for another year.

And baseball. Heavens, yes, it means baseball.

The vernal equinox apparently meant something to my grandpa too, because he delighted in chronicling it on his calendar.

Sure, he used more or less the same drawing year after year. But the frequency and detail of that drawing indicate that he had some special feeling for the arrival of spring — some degree of joy that other holidays did not occasion.

(It also made him giddy to the point of doggerel, as we’ll see.)

Here’s wishing a warm, enjoyable spring to one and all. The days are getting longer and the leaves are getting ready to come out. The sustained warmth of summer will be here before we know it.

And that’s worth drinking to — no matter how you fill your glass.

March 20, 1962

March 20, 1964

March 20, 1965. Not the warmest first day of spring ever.

March 20, 1969. The robin must have flown elsewhere.

March 21, 1971. I wonder whether this "pronunciation" was meant to evoke the effects of a late-winter head cold.

March 21, 1975. Interesting how he always drew robins in mid-cry, since robins are not known for their song.

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“Everything looks worse in black and white.”
Paul Simon

Sometime in the spring of 1973 — the calendar does not record the date — my grandfather bought a bad batch of film.

Either that, or his neighborhood film developer hired a new guy to do the job and hadn’t quite finished training him yet.

Whatever the reason, one of his family photobooks has a couple of pictures from around that time that don’t seem to hold their age as well as the pictures around them. I don’t have scans of most of them, but I’ve paged through the book numerous times, and I can see them, with pale, faded colors and washed-out faces.

I don’t think it was my grandfather’s fault — he was pretty good with a camera — so I’m blaming some imbalance in the fragile combination of chemicals that creates, sets and keeps a film-based image.

In one specific case, a touch of Kodafail has actually worked in favor of the picture. It’s a shot my grandpa took of a dogwood tree in his back yard, all decked out in springtime pink. The pink — to my untrained eye, anyway — looks especially delicate, and the green grass around it looks especially light and fresh and spring-y. I do not perceive either color as quite true to life, but I like them both. (The sky looks kinda washed-out for a sunny day, too, but we’ll focus our attention on the native flora.)

The Hope Street dogwood, circa 1973. Click to enlarge - it looks a little nicer.

This is the kind of everyday beauty that makes you stop, in the middle of running from one gently nagging pain to the next, and say, “Man, that’s nice. The dry-cleaning can wait. I’m just gonna sit here in the sunshine, and soak that in for a minute, and make note of it.”

And, about a year after he took the picture above, my grandfather did just that, on his trusty calendar.

May 6-8, 1974: "Dogwood in bloom."

I wasn’t particularly impressed with either the photo or the tree itself when I was younger. As a kid, I rated all trees based on their climbability; and I don’t remember the dogwood offering much of interest on that score.

As a grown-up, I’ve come to appreciate dogwoods and other spring-flowering trees, both for their appearance and for their role as a harbinger of warmer weather.

After all, not everything that’s supposed to herald the arrival of spring actually does. April baseball, for instance, is a tease: It reminds you of warmth, but it’s often played in biting cold. (Engraved on my memory is a wire-service photo of Amos Otis, the excellent Kansas City centerfielder of the 1970s, standing impassive and baseball-ready as an early-season snowstorm swirls around him.)

Flowering trees, on the other hand, strike me as more trustworthy. They don’t show their colors until the truly cold weather has passed, and the days are comfortable more often than not. I also think the beauty of these trees makes it seem about five degrees warmer, no matter what the temperature really is — a subliminal mental effect that advertisers would kill for.

As I’ve mentioned before, my grandfather’s house was torn down in the mid-1980s to make way for condos. I tend to doubt the dogwood is still there; most likely there’s a breakfast nook where it used to stand.

I’m sure the condo has a much more efficient and effective heating system than my grandparents’ house had. Still, when the current resident looks out the window around this time of year, I bet it feels a couple of degrees colder than it did in the 1970s.

In our next installment: Back to the 1960s.

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