Sweating it out in the touted tropics
Come to see me in my Florida house.
I'm the guy in the seal-skin pants and jacket huddled by the thermostat. It's not that I'm really cold since I came back home to Florida to live, it's just that I can't keep warm. The sun shines a lot, but in winter it can't seem to warm me.
I was in the North Pacific once during the war, and I never expected a balmy clime. But in Florida, they keep telling you you're warm, while you're shivering.
I was just talking with a friend on the telephone. I mentioned Florida in the 30s.
"You mean when you were in high school?" said my friend.
"No, " I said, "I was referring to the temperature this morning."
By 10, I was a confirmed Floridian, who had all but forgotten his birthplace up North — in cold Atlanta.
There are a few things in my life that I always hated: rattlesnakes, Hubbard squash, grits and cold weather, for example.
I must say truthfully that I have been colder in Florida than anywhere else in all my days, because being in Florida does a Chamber of Commerce legerdemain trick on me: that of making me think it's warm only because it's supposed to be.
I'm writing in early March, and yesterday was in the 50s — going down to freezing at night.
Such weather, I feel in my soul, breaks the sacred compact made with me when I involuntarily became a Floridian in my gullible childhood.
When it's cold in Florida, everything still looks summery and inviting. The hibiscus bloom, and the water shimmers in the sunshine. Those accoutrements are just "props" arranged by the C of C in Florida to make Yankees scratch their heads and rationalize when they are looking for their overcoats. We schoolboys wanted to swim in Lake Virginia almost every day of the year. When it was just too cold, we "cursed whatever Northern gods might be." The Florida heat we boys could take all day long and never gripe about it — even in scratchy woolen football jerseys.
Came the day when I innocently took exams to see whether any institution of higher learning in the hinterlands might see some glimmer of hope in my future.
An envelope came weeks later telling me to come to Massachusetts, a state I couldn't even spell, and which shrouded a sense of inimical foreboding to a Florida Cracker like me.
When I got to Cambridge in September, the weather was just as nice as any Florida day you could ask for.
About a month later the weather-beast came out of hiding at the North Pole and whooped into Cambridge one morning when I was in the office of the dean of freshmen.
The dean noticed I didn't have an overcoat. When he asked why, I said I had never owned one. He told me to go across Harvard Square to the Coop, and charge one, preferably a Harris Tweed, to an account number he gave me. I told him I was a little short of money, and he said, "Pay it back when you can." That generous act made me smile in Boston despite the hateful weather.
I graduated in 1942 straight into the U.S. Navy. I had enlisted shortly before, but the summer dragged on without my being called up. First I was ordered to Notre Dame University, and after the weather turned "chilly" we trained at the crack of dawn on the shores of Lake Michigan, north of Chicago. We were given only raincoats because our overcoats had not yet arrived.
Those of us who weren't eliminated by pneumonia went on to duty in either hellishly hot or frigid climes.
We couldn't complain much — after all the Japanese were there sweating or shivering with us. Suddenly I was sent temporarily to a 40 mm machine-gun target range on a forlorn Northern Cape Cod beach, where I lived in a Quonset hut amid Arctic breezes from Newfoundland.
When the war was finally over, I accepted contracts from a European manager to sing opera and concerts in Europe. Of course, I ended up singing in mid-winter in such cities as Berlin, Paris, Hamburg, Copenhagen, London and Dublin. One thing about winters in Northern Europe — you don't have any sunshine to remind you that somewhere the sun is still shining. I noticed that my sunny Southern disposition was packed away somewhere in a piece of discarded luggage. Anyhow, it was a living — freezing though it might have been.
In the 1990s one summer, my b.w. and I were in the states and a friend offered us a nice trip on his big, beautiful airplane. We were just to "fly around" a few places and see some interesting things. Before we knew it, we were landing in Anchorage — that's in Alaska folks! We went ashore needing heavy jackets. It was still summer there, some misguided natives in shirtsleeves informed us.
We braced our shoulders and shifted into smiling histrionics, which may have been accented by the audible chattering of our teeth.
One day we flew over to Dillingham (July 31), a town east of Anchorage. I was first out the door when heavy sleet sent me back into the plane. When we had all "deplaned" we stood in the wind and wet and waited for a car to pick us up. We drove on roads, mostly mud, for about an hour heading for Aleknagik — a town my wife has henceforth referred to fondly as AleknaMUD. There are folks who love Alaska — and mud — dearly, folks who cherish short pseudo-summers, and the feeling of "roughing it" Arctic style in their own backyards.
I would be remiss if I didn't mention the glory of Alaskan scenery, the wild animals, and the imposing silhouette of Mt. McKinley. Most unforgettable was a boat trip on Prince William Sound with glaciers on all sides. In a hotel restaurant on Kodiak Island we enjoyed the best fish ever — halibut.
Early in World War II my ship visited the Aleutian Islands, off Alaska, after we learned that Japanese subs were operating there. I remember being on the flying bridge in a temperature more than 30 percent below zero. I made a note then — never to visit Alaska unless ordered to do so by the U.S. Navy.
There are some things in life, I suppose, that are meant to be tough, like Chicago winters, and New York bagels. Soft grocery store bagels and Miami sunshine don't seem to build real character.
There surely should be something that builds character when a person moves from Miami to Chicago and manages to survive for a full year.
People joke about living in places with climate extremes.
Of course, there's more joking about not freezing in Bismarck than there is about surviving the heat in Orlando.
I'll tell you succinctly why I have a special detestation for cold: