Wednesday, January 2, 2008

The Dark Ages

"Happy New Year." I say that without exclamation, because the start of a new year is rarely a happy experience for most of us. We're feeling fat and bloated, sleep deprived and cranky, and, after spending little time in the office over the last two weeks, doubtless unhappy to be back at work. Riding the bus and subway to work this morning, I couldn't help but notice the somber faces of the crowds trudging Park Avenue, bent against the cold wind like beggars under their sacks. It's certainly easy to understand why so many animals hibernate through this season. But we humans, ostensibly masters of our environment, able to combat extremes of heat and cold, labor on through the seasons, bundled against winter's cold.

But apparently this flurry of activity during winter's coldest months is a modern development. I was recently reading a new historical geography of France - The Discovery of France - and learned that in the coldest areas of western Europe many communities essentially hibernated until the spring thaw. There would be little or no commercial activity, no travel, and only meager time spent outside. Families would huddle together with their animals - including sheep, cows, goats, etc. - and spend much of their time sleeping. While this might seem surprising, realize that winters were generally colder and of longer duration until the early 20th century. (Chalk that difference up to the climate change wrought by global warming.) Also understand that for many Europeans, fuel supplies were quite limited and expensive when available. But enough science and history.

When I was a cadet at the Virginia Military Institute (VMI) in the early 80s, we called this time between the Christmas holiday and Spring break the "Dark Ages." Tucked under red comforters in our folding beds, we'd awake each morning to the clang of the warming steam radiators and a lone bugler blowing reveille in the darkened barracks. We would line up outside barracks in our company formations and march off to breakfast in the dark. And, after a day of classes we'd change into our grey wool blouses and march off to supper - again, in the dark.

For Rats (VMI's term for freshmen) this was a time of fear and depression. Having enjoyed the liberation of home and family for the holidays, we would spend the ensuing winter months praying for the arrival of Spring and the end of the period of torture and humiliation known as the "Ratline." Laboring under a heavy course load, we struggled through months of physical and emotional torment. When friends ask what it was like, I compare it to the first half of the movie Full Metal Jacket - plus 18 credit hours. (This was the period during which so many Rats reached the breaking point and quit, abandoning VMI for the relative ease of regular college life.)

On a warm spring day, with flags fluttering and the parade ground covered by cadets on parade, VMI could seem a magical place . . . proud parents taking pictures of their sons (and now daughters) arrayed in coatees and shakos, with freshly polished brass and steel sabers glinting in the mountain sunlight. Under those conditions, with the statues of Stonewall Jackson and George C. Marshall surveying the field of neat formations, it was easy to get caught up in the romance and history of a place like VMI, the "West Point of the South," as it is nicknamed. But in cold January and February, under grey clouds that matched our grey uniforms, the place seemed a prison. (Indeed, while visiting VMI as a senior in high school, my father remarked during a tour of the campus, surrounded by other parents and prospective cadets, "It reminds me of Alcatraz.")

By the winter of my senior year, the romance of VMI had faded, the naivete of an 18-year-old freshman having been replaced by the realization that the quaint 19th century uniforms and flashing sabers were just window dressing to cover up the harsh reality of military life. Rather than marvel at the history and pageantry, I was more apt to contemplate the final line of Wilfred Owens' great poem from the trenches of the First World War: "Dulce et decorum est/ pro patria mori."

Like VMI, New York City can exhibit that polar contrast between its mythic, beautiful face and the grey reality of urban squalor. And today that reality seems just a bit harsher as used Christmas trees are tossed to the curb throughout the City and the Christmas decorations come down, only to be replaced by the garish displays of Valentine's Day wares. Here's hoping the "Dark Ages" are mercifully short and Spring arrives a little early this year.

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