While the famous play and movie about Sir Thomas More, Henry VIII’s Lord High Chancellor of England (1529-1532), lauds him as a “Man for all Seasons” for refusing to annul Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon, I am not such a man. I would have annulled the marriage. I hate the steamy jungles of summer and the cold, grey days of winter, always preferring the fall of the year, even more than spring.
It’s my favorite season because that’s when I left the cold of a late Mississippi November and exchanged it for boot camp in sunny San Diego. In my mind, I had committed to join the Navy when I was 12 years old; however, I had to wait until I was 17 so Mama could sign for me to enlist. You could join the British Navy when you were 15 in those days, but I never could figure out how to get to England.
I never got along with my Daddy. You might say we had a “love and hate” relationship: I loved him and he hated me. I never really understood why; although, he had a bad alcohol problem and it was best to just stay out of his way. When I left home that November, it was like the Biblical story of the Return of the Prodigal Son, except in reverse: he wouldn’t even take me to the bus station. As I walked down the gravel road toward town, not to return for two years, he threw rocks at me. It’s funny how things turn out. When he got old and infirm, I was the only one who took care of him before he committed suicide.
I didn’t take anything with me or have any money when I left home that day, and I will always remember the kind lady who ran the combination bus station/florist shop in Lumberton, Mrs. Frankie Blackwell, a saint no longer with us, who came outside as I waited for the bus in the rain and gave me a bag full of candy bars. They held me together until I got to California.
I laugh to myself every time I think about some of the unique businesses that we often see juxtaposed together here in the south – like Mrs. Blackwell’s bus station/florist shop. I’ve seen some strange combinations - like beauty parlors and feed stores, gas stations and pet grooming, hardware stores and dress shops all sharing the same buildings. I never actually saw this, but I heard about it: a veterinarian and a taxidermist sharing an office – either way you get your pet back.
The terms “fall” and “autumn” are interchangeable, although you are more likely to hear autumn used in England to describe the third season of the year. In medieval times, the term “harvest” was used to describe this time of the year as this was when farmers would gather their crops for winter storage. As more and more people moved into cities and society became less agrarian, “autumn” (from “autumnus” the Latin root word for the passing of the year) fell out of favor, and “fall” (from the Old English word, “fianell,” or “falling from a great height”), obviously a reference to the falling of the leaves, became more popular. Incidentally, it’s considered to be good luck if you catch a falling leaf.
There are two ways of looking at the term “fall.” If you ask a meteorologist, you are simply talking about weather for the months of September, October, and November. On the other hand, if you ask an astronomer, and I had to learn all this when I took celestial navigation at Naval Officer Candidate’s School, the fall equinox is the astronomical start of the fall season in the Northern Hemisphere and of the spring season in the Southern Hemisphere. The word “equinox” comes from Latin “aequus,” meaning “equal,” and “nox” meaning “night.” On the equinox, which was September 21 this year, day and night were roughly equal in length. A simple way of thinking about it is that, just for a moment, the Northern and Southern hemispheres receive the same amount of daylight. During the equinox, the Sun crosses what is called the “celestial equator” -an imaginary extension of earth’s equator line into space. The equinox occurs precisely when the Sun’s center passes through this line. Days then become shorter than nights as the Sun continues to rise later and nightfall arrives earlier (Hence the move to Daylight Savings Time). This ends with the December solstice when days start to grow longer again.
The thing about fall in the Navy was that you could at least stay warm. Winter, not so much. On my way to boot camp, I flew out of Jackson, my first time on an airplane (this was 1959), and changed planes in Dallas. I almost missed my connecting flight because of the escalator in the airport. I had never seen one before, and I lost track of time, just riding it up and down. We landed in San Diego about midnight, and they picked us up in a cattle car and hauled us to the boot camp. It was a long time until breakfast, and my candy bars were running low. It got worse; breakfast turned into brunch, because before we got to eat, we had our heads shaved, received 6 shots, 3 in each arm, and had our initial clothing issue. Try as I may, I don’t remember anyone asking me, “Do you want to be vaccinated?”
It was the clothing issue that really caught my attention. I had never owned more than 4 or 5 sets of clothes in my life, and I left the building with my arms full of underwear, socks, two pair of shoes, two sets of denim dungarees, an undress blue uniform, a sweater, a jacket, a peacoat, a wool watch cap, a bathing suit, a silk neck kerchief, and two dixie cups (white hats). By the time we graduated, 16 weeks later, everyone’s “seabag” had been increased by the addition of white uniforms, dress blues, dress shoes, and even a navy blue “flat hat” with U.S. Navy inscribed in gold letters on the front. You can imagine my amazement when I arrived at my first ship and found out that I was required to store everything I owned in a personal locker about the size of a small college dormitory refrigerator.
A friend of mine who retired to Louisiana bought his own sewing machine and made a good bit of money hemming trousers, sewing on crows (rating insignias), etc. I don’t know where he stowed it, but he had enough juice to find a place in the berthing compartment. When you got promoted, all of your shipmates would hit you on the crow and “tack” it onto your arm – an old Navy rite of passage. Today, it is outlawed and would be considered as “assault.” If we have another war, we are all going to die, but we will be politically correct.
The point of all that clothing, which was initially free, was to equip everyone for whatever duty station they might be assigned to, anywhere in the world. While in boot camp, everything had to be washed by hand and tied to the company’s clothesline outside the barracks with a piece of white line. Each day, a different knot was required: clove hitch, bowline, running bowline, sheet bend, half hitch, reef knot, etc. Woe to the pilgrim who didn’t get his knots right. The drill instructor (DI) would come down the clothesline like a tornado through a trailer park, cutting down the errant knots with his boatswain’s knife, and usually stomping the clean clothing into the muddy deck. If you think that’s “over the top,” you should have seen the bunk inspections. We were on the third floor of the barracks, and if the DI didn’t like the way your bed was made up, he had a nasty habit of throwing your mattress, sheets, and pillow out the window into the courtyard. Later on in my career, I was a DI in a Naval Reserve boot camp in Charleston, South Carolina, one summer, and I made it a point to be a little more civil, although I did scream a lot.
I was always disappointed in the Navy clothing, however. No matter how much you put on, you would still freeze to death. I remember being topside at quarters one morning, steaming past the Statue of Liberty, into New York City harbor, in a 30-knot wind, wearing just about every piece of winter clothing I owned, and still not being able to feel my arms, legs, hands, ears, or lips. Peacoats, especially, are just about useless. They are heavy and of 100% wool, but the wind cuts right through them. I still have my original peacoat, which makes it over 60 years old. Written in magic marker inside on the lining are the numbers 908, which meant that, at the time of writing, piqued over some real or imagined slight, I had 908 days left on my initial enlistment. I was literally wearing my “short timer’s calendar.” Everybody had one – a calendar that they marked off, a chain that they snipped, marbles in a jar, etc. I would have fainted if I could have read the future and realized that I would be in the Navy for the next 34 years.
On one ship, the division I slept in was all the way forward by the anchor chain locker and always damp – so damp that the deck froze over in the winter. If you had ice skates, you could skate to the head in the middle of the night. It wasn’t bad in the summer, though. The cool, wet breeze acted like one of those swamp coolers you used to see on vintage Volkswagen beetles out in the California desert back in the 1960s. On that particular ship, when we were in homeport, we tied up in a nest and got our steam heat piped over from the pier during the cold New England winters. The ships tied up alongside the tender in order of seniority, and our captain was always the junior guy. This meant that by the time the steam heat had traveled across five or six other destroyers and finally got to us, there was usually only a memory of what would have been warmth at some time in the past. Consequently, everyone usually slept with all their clothes on.
I hated cold weather so bad that I turned down an opportunity to “winter over” at McMurdo Sound in Antarctica with a Navy Construction Battalion (CB – Seabees). It would have been good for my career, but I would have died of frostbite. We used to say that such weather was “good for women and cats but bad for sailors and dogs.” I certainly don’t mean that as a term of opprobrium, but you can’t say things like that now. It’s sexist; plus, the Navy is about 35% women these days. Anyway, when the barometer went down, I could always feel the hairs on the back of my neck rising. It’s also hard to think about Antarctica without imagining yourself as a character in that classic horror movie of 1951, “The Thing.”
I’ve always equated fall of the year with one of the answers to the “Riddle of the Sphinx” in Sophocles’ play, “Oedipus the King:” When asked, “What walks on four feet in the morning, two in the afternoon, and three at night?” – Oedipus answers, saving not only his life but also the city of Thebes from destruction: “Man: as an infant, he crawls on all fours; as an adult, he walks on two legs and: in old age, he uses a walking stick.” In my life, fall is definitely the “afternoon,” the prelude to winter and, I’m afraid, the inexorable advance of old age.
Light a candle for me.
Benny Hornsby of Oak Grove is a retired U.S. Navy captain. Visit his website, bennyhornsby.com, or email him: email@example.com.