How the Weather Was

It began snowing the night before, and by the time Mike Mewshaw, Tom Trainum and I set out to crash John F. Kennedy’s inaugural ball more than eight inches had fallen and the city was practically immobilized. At dawn, soldiers had had to use flamethrowers to clear the snow from Pennsylvania Avenue for the noontime swearing-in ceremony.

To official Washington, snow was the near equivalent of an enemy invasion, and the realization that the most powerful city in the world could be counted on to undergo virtual paralysis for a considerable number of days each winter was an irony which wasn’t lost on us by the time we were of high school age. Inescapably, the all-pervasive business of government and the virulent Cold War atmosphere of those years of the 1950s — a subject of daily dinnertime discussion for many of us — made for a natural association in our minds with the severity of Washington’s winters. Yet within the maw of those long, biting seasons, in those moments when snowfall engulfed us and everything came to a halt, something else emerged: a serene, pristine landscape layered clean of the cumbrous gears and levers of power, a world all our own brought to a standstill.

To us, Kennedy’s election hinted at an era of great changes. As 17-year-olds we were too young to vote, but we all hoped he would win. His relative youth readily appealed to us, the controversy about his religion engaged our Irish Catholic identity, and the somnolence of the Eisenhower years, by comparison, was a tangible reminder of the chained stirrings of our adolescence.

Mewshaw decided that a proper celebration was in order and that we should attend the ball, and we painstakingly skidded the five miles of freeway to the D.C. Armory in Trainum’s car. Mewshaw had somehow gotten ahold of a cowboy hat, boots and a ratty suede jacket, and told us that the getup would turn out to be our “ticket to greatness.”

“You check that rag for hoof-and-mouth disease?” Trainum asked.

“You laugh,” Mewshaw persisted, “but we’re boppin’ tonight. And in a little while I’m gonna be King Creole.” It was typical of the sort of blithe rejoinder perfected by the young novelist-in-waiting.

We spent 15 minutes skirting the edge of the armory through knee-deep drifts to the rear of the building. A lone security guard stood at the back entrance, a metaphorical sentry for those days of pre-assassination complacence. The guard watched us emerge from the darkness and smiled slightly. From his expression he had apparently pegged us correctly: three kids who had wandered out from the suburbs.

“You boys a ways from home, ain’t you?”

“Come all the way from Texas,” Mewshaw countered quickly. He had been working on a drawl on the way over in the car. “Rode up on the Greyhound, see my man LBJ.”

“Uh-huh,” the guard said.

“Yep, Cut And Shoot, Texas,” Mewshaw said. “I imagine you prob’ly heard of it.” He had used the name of the hometown of Roy Harris, a fighter who had been flattened by Floyd Patterson a few months earlier. “Purty place. Not as cold as here, though, nossir. Man freeze his katooties off in this town.”

Trainum, maintained his laconic, heavy-lidded and bemused demeanor; he saved the spoken word for only the most appropriate moments. I contributed a “that’s right,” a couple of times, and then kept silent, nodding assent at Mewshaw’s continuing spiel. A few feet beyond the guard the lights inside the armory blazed warmly through the ajar door, and we could hear music and make out clumps of gowned women and men in evening wear.

The guard, a heavyset middle-aged black man, chuckled at Mewshaw’s energetic patter, but appeared to be otherwise implacable.

“Long ride,” Mewshaw went on beseechingly. “Eighteen hours on the Hound, ain’t had a bath, don’t know what I’ll do if I cain’t see Lyndon.” Mewshaw kept up his pitched testimony, and for pure, unremitting precocity it would have been hard to top. Whether out of grudging amusement — or whether he actually began to think the story he was hearing might be true — I can’t say, but the guard eventually seemed to waver.

We talked briefly about politics. The guard’s eyes lit up when he spoke about Kennedy. Mewshaw inquired about the guard’s family, and remonstrated with him about the Senators ballclub leaving town for Minnesota. I told a couple of jokes. Trainum laughed heartily a few times like an authentic hayseed. It was obvious the guard was enjoying himself, and it looked as if we just might pull it off.

“Wa’ll, we ought to be headin’ in now,” Mewshaw said, patting the guard on the shoulder. “Been rully nice talkin’ to you.” Trainum and I started forward, and as I took my first step I nearly fell, my heart was pounding so crazily.

“Uh, you boys, I don’t know,” the guard said. He was smiling but suddenly looked confused and a little frightened. “They tol’ me not to let anybody through. Be my job if I did.”

It was evident he wasn’t going to let us pass. “You understand,” he said almost apologetically. He had been grateful for the company and conversation on this miserable, freezing night, but couldn’t oblige us any further.

Mewshaw persisted a bit more, to no avail. We dawdled a while longer as the guard’s nervous agitation became more pronounced, sharing a half-pint I had brought along. “Ummm, this J.T.S. Brown,” Mewshaw intoned eventually, breaking the gathering tension. “Shit put a tingle in your tummy and a hurtin’ on your haid.” We laughed and the guard, clearly relieved, waved us off and said, “I’ll tell somebody tell LBJ you was here.”

We crept through the blanketed streets at 15 m.p.h., re-evaluating our chosen tactics. “I’m telling you we were this friggin’ close,” Mewshaw moaned. The roads were all but deserted, and in that respect, at least, the night and its spoils belonged to us alone. Years later it would be revealed that a vanquished Richard Nixon had driven D.C.’s snowy streets alone for hours that night, contemplating his thwarted future.

“Hell,” Mewshaw said as we headed back onto the freeway, “you damn well know he wanted to let us in. They’d of loved me in there.”

“Yeah,” said Trainum, “for the two seconds it took before somebody told you your horse was saddled up outside and just begging to be rode.”

* * *                                                                                                                

That Christmas Eve, as with the two previous ones, we spent at Union Station. At some point during that span I had begun reading Thomas Wolfe and Mewshaw had discovered William Styron. The vivid renderings of their train journeys enveloped us: the thought of lumbering south on the overnight run, an elegant midnight meal in the dining car, waking in a Pullman berth at first light and seeing vast stretches of bristling, wintry land spilling away to the horizon, the whole romantic panoply of journeying toward a Southland Christmas.

The Mason-Dixon Washington we grew up in was the gateway to both North and South, but increasingly Southern in pace and temperament. It was a beacon for hundreds of thousands of poor whites and blacks, domestics and hill-country secretaries and former sharecroppers who had begun the engorging trek up to Washington during WWII. For them, obviously, trains represented some measure of freedom, and the means which carried them to jobs and housing; for us, those grand engines hauled us into the realm of imagination.

Christmas Eve at Union Station was a blend of bazaar and banquet, an arabesque stream of hurrying, whiskey-faced travelers yearning for old roots. Congressmen, maids, bureaucrats, laborers, truck drivers — loaded-down with gifts, waiting on massive, high-backed oak benches or running across glazed and echoing marble floors for trains whose destinations were announced in those deep-bass medleys which wafted from the coffered, barrel-vault ceiling and resounded off elaborate, shadowed 19th-century cornices and balustrades.

People laughed in broad gusts, broke into song, shared their bottles openly. Redcaps and silver-haired Pullman porters moved amid the swirl, calling out to each other with holiday affection. Children meticulously dressed in the colors of the season, immune to sleep, sparked with flushed animation, totally immersed in this biggest of adventures.

Four or five of us went each year. From the waiting room we could see the great locomotives snorting their thick rumbles of steam, their departures always imminent, the promise of their secrets open to anyone with the price of a ticket. We dreamed of that ride, embellishing its textures with the fancies of youth, though the closest any of us got to it was one year when a pretty, inebriated woman grabbed Nugent and danced him partway across the floor and toward the gate, her head thrown back and her laughter full-throated. She left him there, of course, his back to us as he watched her disappear through a white-light threshold of vapor and falling snow, to wait along with the rest of us.

* * *

The rituals of a snowfall were all-important: Waking to that distinct gauzy-grey light and that unmistakable lean chill poised at the edge of the covers; lying there listening to the announcer’s voice over the kitchen radio move down the list of closed schools. Two days off for a moderate storm, and sometimes a third; the going rate of exchange for a major metropolitan area which for decades had never had more than two snowplows.

It always amazed me how in the early afternoon the Evening Star would somehow get delivered, despite the road conditions. Its predictable front-page photo became a motif for those earnestly anticipated winter occasions: a lone, darkly-etched figure crouched low against the storm, crossing the breadth of a desolate Pennsylvania Avenue, the White House faintly visible in the distance. Our fathers, the career bureaucrats who normally would have occupied that photo’s terrain, wandered idly and uncomfortably about the house, no doubt wondering how the nation could possibly function without them.

Nothing moved on those days. Nothing except vehicles with chains or ponderous snowtires — and us. Sledders. Hundreds of us, an adolescent inclement-weather army spilling out from the suburban Maryland towns which hugged the District line, congregating at night on the hills behind the county hospital.

Cases of beer would have been packed in the snow during the late afternoon by budding young entrepreneurs who would realize a tidy profit selling to those who hadn’t brought their own. Early arrivers would start the first of three or four ongoing fires, using the old oil drums the generation before us had carted up there. For the next six hours or so people streamed in from all over; sleds looped and pounded the phosphorescent hills, tinny transistor radios squeaked out new releases by Lloyd Price and Buddy Holly, ready-to-rumble Kool slurred out of beer tingly thick with ice, the gropings of high school romance found illumination by firelight.

The names echo back awkwardly with the spiny wistfulness of chimes: Finnegan, Vergot, crazy Buddy Quinn; Jim Fineran and the Clements brothers, before Butch’s brain tumor took him; Pat Noon, half-breed town jock extraordinaire, funny, exuberant, but a bozo when drinking, self-proclaimed “King of Hospital Hill” — “165 pounds of solid mouth,” Mewshaw called him, in an impressive example of textbook projection; older guys like Frank Newman, before he enlisted, and Bobby Balestri before he took off across country after his father’s death and we lost contact with him; girls like Sue Schuh, “tuffest of the tuff,” and of course the regulars, Recee Scanlon and the girls from the neighborhood, warily keeping tabs on the girls from a neighboring town, a strange, tough bunch who fascinated us with their coiled, rangy energy, their cigarettes and hard eyes cleaving the night, their glowering boyfriends ever poised on the edge of fisticuffs.

The A-student wiseass insolence of Mewshaw and our clique marked us as distinct from the crowd, despite the shared activities like sports which afforded us a buffer. We were reading all the time — Faulkner, Welty, McCullers, among the revered Southern writers who were our first influences; and subsequently, discovering Steinbeck, Dos Passos, Fitzgerald, Kerouac and others, in turn. A few of us had begun our own literary efforts, and we critiqued each other’s fledgling attempts at short stories and poetry. The friars who drilled us in Caesar and Cicero in class had indeed enabled us to appreciate and understand what constituted a good sentence, although they would have been shocked to hear us espouse Hemingway’s dictum that the best you could hope for in this life was to recount what you did, what you said, and how the weather was. All we needed, we agreed, was to begin the journey to find the larger place, the spot where the right sustenance was to be found, a stretch of ground elsewhere where everything would cohere and there would be no need for the camouflage which cloaked who you really were.

* * *

It was likely a consequence of such musings that on a blizzard-wracked night that February I wandered off Hospital Hill and made an unannounced visit to a girl I’d met during the fall at a school dance. She lived over in Northwest Washington and I traveled the 20 miles back and forth across the District by lying on my sled and grabbing on to the back bumpers of storm-slowed cars. It was the way a lot of us got around when it snowed, although no one I knew had ever gone more than a couple of miles, and that on familiar local roads. I remember the ease with which I moved through the city’s mute, lush-white contours, and for three hours it seemed as if the city were mine alone. Traveling through intersections, I murmured the street names to myself, transforming them into entities of my own making as I slowly glided by. I thought of Robert Frost straining to read against the wind and cold during Kennedy’s swearing-in: The land was ours before we were the land’s.

I never saw the girl again. And what the man recalls of the boy of midcentury is his standing under a streetlight with her as he was about to head back, plotting his course as he stared out over the muffled roads. I remember the mixture of affection, awe and expectation in her eyes, the translucence and trust in her upturned face, wet with thick flakes. The scent of her schoolgirl perfume has stayed with me, as has the feel and smell of her coat, the wool glazed with falling snow. I can still picture that snow, illumined by streetlight, and the way the light bathed her features. And even now the sweet chill of her cheek and the moist warmth of her lips comes back, the imprint of her body persistent, pressed with all the clumsiness of youth against me, her sighs continuous with the exhalations of passing years.

Whatever has become of her, I wonder if she ever suspected that on that snowbound night in 1961 she saw me as clearly as anyone ever has. In the solitary hush of that stormy winter, when the blood quickened and the spirit made its first wagers, I wonder if she sensed that she was witness to my full intent to commence my quest, and if she knew what I couldn’t yet imagine, that all roads lead you home.

John Hutchison publishes the San Francisco Flier.