Thursday, September 29, 2011

Old September

School didn’t start, then, until after Labor Day—probably because it was so hot before then that our brains refused to work in un-air conditioned classrooms, and no teacher in his or her right mind wanted to deal with sweaty, unfocused teenagers with greasy faces who stank of sticky 6-12 gnat repellent and raging hormones.

Shopping for school was fun, though. I remember the cedary smell of new pencils, with shavings that curled happily into gray hand-cranked sharpeners that clung to the walls of our classrooms; the snappy click-click of new ballpoint pens and the careful slurping up of thick black ink from glass bottles into old-fashioned fountain pens; the hard bright snaps of shiny three-ring binders; the rustle of new lined notebook paper with holes already punched; the time spent carefully lettering plastic index tabs in bold red, green, blue, and yellow for English, math, science, civics. If I was lucky, I got to pick out a couple of new skirts and blouses, a new snuggly sweater, a pair of soft leather Capezio flats in the year’s latest color, and a fresh lipstick and bottle of nail polish chosen after careful perusal of the latest sultry Revlon ads in Glamour and Mademoiselle magazines.

Orlando in the late 1950s and early 1960s was a sleepy little cow town. The only real shopping districts were on Orange Avenue—where Ivey’s and Dickson-Ives department stores faced off on one corner—and the specialty shops in upscale Winter Park. Drive farther out of town in any direction, and what you found were used car lots, cow pastures, or orange groves as far as the eye could see. No Disney.

September meant weekdays filled with classes and evenings filled with homework, Thursday afternoon pep rallies, Friday night football games with friends, giant floodlights, Coke, and popcorn. September was languid Saturday mornings with the weekend stretching out ahead like a river and, often, Saturday night movies. Sundays were church in the morning, after-church lunch at Morrison’s cafeteria, and late afternoon drives with my parents.

“Let’s go for a drive!” my dad would cry, and clap his hands, and we’d pile into the car just for the fun of driving around, seeing what we could discover on back roads outside of town when the light took on a golden glow and began to slant in shimmery rays through oaks and Spanish moss, through tall pines and spreading orange groves, with the smell of wood smoke from bonfires and cooking fires wisping through the countryside.

Sometime in September, usually right around my birthday near the equinox, we could tell that the quality of light was changing and the weather was shifting, too. Out there on the dirt back roads between Gotha and Windermere, Clermont and Ocoee, DeLand and Cassadaga, early twilight brought a cooldown or even a chill, and we’d reach for the sweaters we’d brought in the car and start murmuring happily about the hot cocoa, marshmallows, and chocolate chip cookies that waited for us at home. On the best of these late afternoon drives, we’d watch the harvest moon come up over the groves, big and orange and brilliant in the smoky blue-dark dusk.

Back then, September was truly the beginning of fall—the month of welcome relief after the long, oppressive summer heat. I’ve never been able to decide what caused my spirits to lift more—my birthday, the new school year, or that first beautiful fall chill. I suspect the answer was “all of the above.”

The memories of those long-past autumns haunt me now, not so much because my parents are dead and buried—although that’s certainly a factor—but mainly because lately we are well into October or even November before we get the fall cooldown that was once September’s hallmark. I live two hours north of Orlando now, so I reckon from past experience we should be feeling fall sooner, not later, but that’s not the case.

Climate change, they say. Global warming, they say. And while there are naysayers, it does seem as if a great majority of the world’s climate scientists agree that something is going on that’s given the earth a fever, and we human beings may be the germs that are causing that disease.

So lately, fall has been a disappointment. My birthdays come and go, and harvest moons rise and set, with no perceptible change in the weather. My Halloween socks lie unused in their dresser drawer until almost Thanksgiving. Instead of sharpening pencils or filling fountain pens and squeezing into a rickety wooden desk chair, I take my seat on a Steelcase ergonomic marvel at my big-screen iMac. It’s not school that occupies my thoughts now, but writing, drought, and the sorry state of our rivers and freshwater springs.

I do still get a rush, though, when the back-to-school shopping flyers start to appear. I think I’ll take a Facebook friend’s advice and do some school shopping next fall and donate what I buy to Stuff the Bus, a local organization that accepts donations for needy students.

Maybe it’s because I’d given up hope, or maybe it’s just a total quirk, or maybe it’s some other reason that I can’t know, but we’ve been blessed this year with what’s felt, at least for a couple of weeks, like an old September. The first break in the heat came just before Labor Day, with another, longer, cooler break—nights down in the 50s and highs in the 80s—a couple of weeks after that. I’ve been tempted to clap my hands and holler, “Let’s go for a drive!” but with gas at $3.50 a gallon, I’ve hesitated.

But tomorrow is the last day of the month, and like a gift, we’re getting a cold front, with forecast lows in the 50s for September 30 and 40s for October 1. Maybe I should throw a party.

Or maybe I should just take a long drive out an old country road. I’ll take a sweater, and I can look forward to a big steaming mug of hot chocolate and marshmallows once I get home. Maybe the fragrant smoke from wood fires will waft like ghosts through the late afternoon sun that glows in golden shafts through big live oak branches and Spanish moss. Maybe I can spot the fingernail-thin crescent moon, just past new and beginning to wax, near the Western horizon. In a perfect world, the moon would ride there accompanied by bright Venus or shiny Jupiter, sparkling like heavenly messengers.

Yup, I think I’ll take that drive, because this might be the last old September I’ll ever have.

Thanks to Forrest Stowe for the use of his photograph, above.