Column: Warmer weather at last

careyNow that the first robin has hopped across the lawn, where a sprout of green grass can at last be seen, and even while we await the overdue forsythia blossoms with their golden brilliance, we can rejoice it was no colder than it actually was since winter began in December.

But also overdue is a tribute to those hardy souls who have labored in the outside air despite the freezing temperatures, Department of Public Works drivers and loaders, crossing guards, first responders, construction workers, letter carriers and others.

There seem to be more new houses going up in Rye, despite the weather, than at any time in the past 58 years. Each new house owes its timely completion to the hardiness of those who put it together with freezing fingers.

The sight of people toiling outside when the mercury is far below freezing brings to mind a memorable scene in Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s graphic tale of “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.”

Ivan has run afoul of the Moscow KGB, he knows not why, and, despite his protestations of innocence, is shipped off to a labor camp, known as a gulag, in northern Siberia. He has no idea why he is there or whether he will ever get home again to his family in Moscow. Six days a week, he is marched to a construction site, there to work an eight-hour shift outside in bitter cold, building some sort of Soviet-style structure.

Ivan’s only benefit is he and the other inmates are permitted, while marching to their work site, to cover their faces with cloth to prevent frostbite. The armed guards who march the inmates to and from their work are not allowed to cover their own faces, and so they too must suffer, at least a little.

As for me, the only time I have worked outside in cold weather was near the end of 1942. I had left New Haven to spend a few vacation days with my parents in Boston. But I knew that unskilled workers were needed at the New Haven freight train station. While enjoying the warmth and love of my family, I heard how Captain Eddie Rickenbacker and his B-17 crew of five had run out of fuel en route from Hawaii to New Guinea and crash landed in the sea. They were adrift on a raft for 24 days with little or no food before being rescued.

I concluded that I could not sit idly by while so many Americans were suffering in our year-long participation in World War II. So I took a train back to New Haven and signed up to lift heavy freight out of and into box cars. While the loads were heavy, it was the cold that got to you.

Fortunately, I was able to get into my closed college dorm to sleep at night, the deep sleep of exhaustion. And I was not compelled by anyone else to work there in the cold, but could leave at will. My consolation was a feeling of being useful, while waiting to be called-up for active duty in the U.S. Naval Reserve, which I had joined in July 1942.

In the spring of 1943, I still felt the need to be useful while yet in college, so I worked four hours a day in a local munitions plant, the Winchester Repeating Arms Company. I stood on an assembly line, pulling down a lever on a drill press, to help make M-1 rifles for the army and Marines. I recommend anyone spend some time on an assembly line; it will make any other kind of work seem fascinating by comparison.

The following winter, 1944, I was at sea doing anti-submarine warfare, protecting friendly freighters from being torpedoed and sunk.

Others who were not compelled to be where they were at the time included George Herbert Walker Bush, who was born the day after me and was scheduled to be a member of the same college class as me. But he went straight from school into the navy for flight training in June 1942, when he turned 18. And the rest is history.