Winter flirts with New Orleans; it plays peek-a-boo, hide-and-seek. When the sun glares with blinding intensity and clouds stay out of the way, some January days demand no more than shirt sleeves.
However, expensive fur cannot blunt nor absorb the slicing cold when temperatures dip and the air hangs heavy with moisture from the Gulf of Mexico, Lake Ponchartrain and, most of all, the Mississippi, a mile wide at that point. There is simply no comforting protection against the thoroughly moistened chill of New Orleans’ winters.
One morning the first winter I attended McDonough 10, the rain incredibly turned to snow. I stuck out my tongue for the fat flakes that tumbled lazily from the sky; they made the sidewalks wet. The kids already at school were naturally bombing each other “snowballs” scraped up from the playground; they fell apart when thrown. Nobody cared.
New Orleans’ powers-that-be made the wise decision to close schools at noon. We were all, including teachers, too excited to settle down to classroom routine. We wanted to enjoy the white magic, taking advantage of a landscape my generation never knew before. By the usual afternoon time to let out, only bits of snow nestled among bushes and shadows; the other flakes melted, leaving winter’s green leaves shining.
The next day the swirling flakes seemed a distant dream, much like the summer thunderstorms that almost daily march across the city, swallowing sometimes a single block at a time. You can watch the rain’s slow but inevitable advance, usually in the late afternoons. The heavens can water New Orleans with terrible ferocity.
But once the tempests’ thundering outbursts move on, the sun bakes banquettes dry almost immediately. Plants swallow and digest the moisture. Windows show streaks in their dust when pushed up again. If caught out in the open, people and their clothing wind up very soaked. But, otherwise, in lulls, between those seasonal furies, the storms seem stuff of fiction, little more than a dream – like the snow that single day.
What was the rare occasion when I was a schoolboy became common when I joined the Army. The coldest winter in 50 years welcomed me to Germany. Frankly, I didn’t notice the seasons changing: brisk from November until April; we wore wool uniforms all the year. Not until I returned in 1953, the summer was summer-ly; we needed air-conditioning.
Of course the worst hot days came while I was living in Manhattan. It was not over-peopled; but the buildings stood close together. Only in the bathtub was I able to escape. My savior was Duke’s sister, Ruth Ellington. On Central Park South, she had lots of cool air, and insisted that I should have her very expensive Scotch in silver chalices. I hold onto that summer even while the Tuesday snow is falling here.
And Goethe sleeps on the love seat; but he would rather be outside, playing and eating the wonderful white substance.