Autumn At Its Peak

Originally posted October 27, 2009

I spent three autumns – those of 1983, 1984 and 1990 – in Columbia, Missouri, a city just far enough south that autumn is a beautiful and lengthy season, warm and colorful into November. There was no sense of impending chill, for the most part, but then Missouri is far enough south that in normal years, the oncoming winter is neither overly chilly nor markedly drear. It was as if the beauty of autumn came free, a season of change and color and mellow mood for which no winter payment was demanded.

In Minnesota, I think, autumn is viewed in two ways. (I imagine there are those who don’t spend any time thinking about the meaning of autumn or of any of the seasons; I do not understand such folk, and I pity them.) Autumn to some of us is a borrowed joy, a season of oranges, reds and browns tinged with enough melancholy to make it pleasant, a pageant of waning sunlight and cool air for which we pay during the long Northland winter.

Or else autumn is a gift of nature, a bonus time of sunlit afternoons and chill, misty mornings, the seasonal equivalent of a two-minute warning, with Nature telling us that our temperate times are soon to end and if we have things to accomplish, we best do them today: Rake the lawn, clean the gutters, gaze at the long Vs of geese heading south, and then look at the half-moon attended by Jupiter and feel the chill of the breeze from the north.

So which is it? Do we borrow autumn’s subtle spectacle and pay for it later, when the wind carries the empty chill of Arctic air instead of the scent of brown and gold leaves? Or is autumn a gift, a season of time passing that levies no obligation but to cherish it?

I think the season may be both gift and obligation at the same time. If autumn does have a price, though, it’s not just winter’s winds. I think that price is closely related to the weight of autumns gone by. The season is my favorite, and as I wander through my fifty-seventh autumn, I carry with me much of what transpired in those previous fifty-six autumnal seasons. This is not heavy baggage; it’s a backpack’s worth at most. And not all of the memories stuffed into the backpack are sad ones: This week, for instance, brings the Texas Gal and me the joy of the second anniversary of our wedding. Last week, I realized that my father would have turned ninety, were he still among us. That’s he’s not is a sorrow; that he was here for so many years, until he was eighty-three, was a joy, and both of those thoughts, too, belong in the autumnal backpack.

When rummaging through that backpack, one does find years when autumn was a series of troubles, but one also finds years when autumn was one bit of joy following another for months. When those troubles and joys come in consecutive years, their impact is huge, even though more than thirty years have passed. As autumn began in 1974, I was still recovering from the lung ailment that had taken most of my summer away. In late September, my father had a heart attack, one from which he fully recovered, but we had no way to know at the time. And a month later came a horrific traffic accident in which I was badly injured and lost a dear friend. For a long time, the only thing I knew about the future was that it would arrive and would eventually bring another autumn. Whether that next autumn would be better was not something I was willing to assume.

It was better. If there is a shining season during the years I spent on the campus of St. Cloud State, it is the autumn of 1975. Dad was healthy, I was healthy. My classes – the last I’d take on campus before my internship and graduation – fascinated me, and two of them were instrumental in my learning to be a writer. I still spent a great deal of time at The Table in the student union, though as some folks had graduated, the cast of characters was evolving. I was also spending a lot of time with my pal Murl, whom I’d met that summer.

It was a golden time, one that seems more rich in memory with each passing year. But there were concrete reasons for that sense of goodness: Hope and renewal found me for the first time in a year. (That healing was a process, of course, and had started some seasons earlier, but it was during that autumn of 1975 that I truly began to feel mended.) My smile returned. And all around me – my home, my car, the student union, downtown bars and everywhere else – music was a friend once more, instead of a reminder of loss. And here are some of the friends I heard.

A Six-Pack From A Golden Autumn (1975)
“Miracles” by Jefferson Starship from Red Octopus
“Dance With Me” by Orleans, Asylum 456261
“Sky High” by Jigsaw from Sky High
“At Seventeen” by Janis Ian from Watercolors
“My Little Town” by Simon & Garfunkel, Columbia 10230
“SOS” by ABBA, Atlantic 3265

None of these, of course, are anything near obscure, but there are a couple of them that don’t get aired all that frequently on oldies radio. I heard the intro to “Miracles” on the radio the other day while I was out on some errands; it was the first time in a long time I’d heard the song on the radio, I thought. I ended up taking a longer path home than normal, just to hear the whole thing.

Along with “Miracles,” I think that “Sky High” and “At Seventeen” are also a little bit ignored and maybe forgotten, which is too bad. All six of these did well on the charts, with five of them hitting the Top Ten: An edit of “Miracles” went to No. 3; “Dance With Me” topped at No. 6; “Sky High” went to No. 3; “At Seventeen” also reached No. 3, “My Little Town” got as high as No. 9; and “SOS” peaked at No. 15.

These records aren’t necessarily the best sounds from the autumn of 1975, but they are among the ones that come to mind most quickly when I think of that season. More to the point, when I hear any of them, I am reminded of the healing golden-orange light of the autumn of 1975 and the renewal I felt all through that season. And I think two of them would make my all-time jukebox (a mental exercise at this point, but perhaps the basis for a series of posts in the future): “Miracles” and “Dance With Me.”

(I think that the three I’ve tagged as singles – the ABBA, the Simon & Garfunkel and the Orleans – are in fact the single edits, but I’m not anywhere near certain about that. Information to the contrary would be appreciated.)

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