There is something innately sad about the month of November in the towns and cities of the West Virginia hills. After a few snows the entire area becomes laden with a layer of soot put down to speed the melting of the snow and ice on city streets. This soot stains all: the streets, the cars, the store fronts. Even one's shoes and cuffs. It leaves its trail on the inside of every doorway. Trailing off into nothingness in every hallway or kitchen. And the residue of winter's beauty lies mingled with the soot as a gray slush in every gutter. The naked outlines of trees become outlined against the solid gray of the canopy sky. It becomes a scene of only light grays and dark grays. A lonely time. An inward time. Described best by the word , "nadir".
I remember well that November of my nineteenth year. That fateful year of a bleak November when the banners of childhood were at last laid down. Laid to a forgotten repose that comes back to haunt in later times. The banners that were the first to go were those of excellence, hope, and a better future. They, too, went to join their toy brothers of cowboy suits, cap guns, footballs, and such. There was a guilt imposed on the casting away of those hallmarks of youth. And that guilt cried out from some lost tomb built into the farthest corner of a graveyard of thoughts. A graveyard of mischievous deeds, innocent events and false glories. Yet that tomb was built when there was still hope for a better world, peace, and a better man.
That fateful year was a year of change. That sophomore year of conflict and battle. Why is it that that particular period of a man's life is always cast in an eternal winter of November? No warmth of black and white but always cold and only shades of gray? It is as if the gods had built that year to match the mood of the mind. It is that sophomore year when a man comes to grips with his own life. Talk, then, among friends in campus restaurants, is always of the past. A recessional to a fast retreating youth. A closing of the door. There is no turning back. And behind that senseless chatter of old ways, old times, and old friends is a deep and growing sadness. Like a huge canvas that widens and deepens until those old times and old ties are broken. Isolation sets in.
The freshman year is still too filled with high school and the shenanigans of youth. The summer before that November nadir brings on a new shell. A shell to hide the first faint inklings of that deepening sadness. Soon a whistling wind from the north--faint at first, then like a trumpet--announces the coming of a most dreaded winter: the winter of the fateful year. All too soon those innately depressing cold damp Sundays of late November arrive. Autumn is gone and weekends become unbearably long. And desolate. The snow outside with its layer of soot retreats from the streets, replaced by slush and mud. What snow remains lies hidden in the shadows and retreats to the eaves of rooftops as if hiding from some unknown foe. There is always that chair in the living room of the fraternity house where the wise-fool may sit and think. Long, vague, rambling unconnected thoughts that move at once from the remote past to some distant unknown future. The book lies open on the lap. It was page 219; now it is 243. Not one word seen, not one thought caught. With renewed vigor the next chapter is attacked but lost after one short paragraph. Caught and lost in the brief moment that can separate sadness and joy. Trying to find something that will make the wise-fool one...or the other. For anything is better than this horrid bleak November when he is nothing.
The bell from Woodburn Hall sounds a dirge of six bells. Dark outside now. A few snowflakes start falling. Yet something in those soft silent flakes of snow speaks to the wise-fool. There is a desire to treasure this moment. Something deep within him is changing. Eyes search and memorize every detail of the room. For he knows a day will dawn when he will savor this moment. The grief is overwhelming for the passing of this moment. Yet deeper within...was that a spark of joy? God forbid that it should be expressed! For there seems to be some strange quality to sadness and loneliness. It keeps one serious. While joy can make one frivolous and then careless which is like everyone else. In this peculiar way the sophomore year of life, that in reality is only a moment, finds solace, companionship, and peace with some disinterested flakes of snow. It is said that there is much to be gained from "...communion with nature." From one to it; but there is never any feedback. Nature goes on its timeless way millions of years before him and for millions of years after him. Unconcerned. No love lost. Just rambling on in its own genetic way. And the old order passes, yielding to the new...or something like that. So the sophomore suffers with his sadness. Because all great men suffered, he feels the need for suffering.
The college sophomore lives between his ears and behind his eyes. Nothing else matters. That nineteenth year in a man's life is both his best and worst. It is the ending of childhood and the beginning of manhood. An egocentric year when the entire cosmos and the grand stage and all it players revolve around him for his benefit alone. The year in which the grand panorama of mankind's brief span is enacted again in nine short months. And that horrid bleak November is its fulcrum.
During that time the wise-fool ponders a great deal on death. Attempting to eschew its finality; its un-realism; its illogical conclusion to life. And those dreary days of November are not much help in finding conclusions for the gray aura that cloaks them forces one's thoughts toward death. Bare trees reaching nowhere become monuments to those thoughts. The wind becomes a song of mourning as it chants among the eaves. The coldness becomes the grip of death itself. At nineteen death is both imminent and distant: imminent in the loss of boyhood innocence and yet as distant as old age.
Now later in life remembering, a trip back to those sacred halls of learning becomes a lonely journey. For some odd reason, that journey must be made alone and in November. Staring through the foggy windows of Greyhound, I pass through one small bus station after another: Clarksburg, Fairmont, and all the nameless wide places in the road. The sooty trails are still there in the doorways. The same slush of soot and snow in the gutters. Peopled by scores of unfamiliar faces. For some reason known only to those who have made the trip, conversation with the unfamiliar face is a sin. Nothing to do but sit...smoke...and gaze out the window to the hills and farms that never change and yet will never be the same again.
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