Temperatures Drop - 16 January 2004

Sunday morning last, clean blue, blue sky from the midtown skyline all the way north to the needle sharp George Washington Bridge.

A wonderful day, they tell me - they being a frosty-nosed, panting 20-odd-year-old couple - grandchildren - who've just, I presume, taken a quick, mad jog round the reservoir.

Well bully for them who don't know that the inventor of jogging died at 52 after a healthy jog.

They are all I'll see of that wonderful day, and positively all it will see of me.

Central Park Temperature, which is the official weather station: three degrees Fahrenheit or what in my time, if it had ever happened in London, would have been called 29 degrees of frost.

Meanwhile the word comes in from Vermont that my daughter bundled up a little more than usual and went off to preach in 59 degrees of frost or to put it more usually, 27 below zero.

Being bundled up in such brilliant but Arctic weather means earflaps and some sort of tight shawl worn up to the nose, making women, young and old, look like Yankee Muslims.

The weather bureau tells us that for once the word Arctic is to be taken literally.

In other words, this weather system does not, as usual, come blowing in from the Pacific across to the Rockies in Washington state and then due east across the prairie and then into New England.

It was born in the Arctic and swept down through Canada and fanned out across a 500-mile stretch through New England to the northern tip of the South.

Of course any wind coming across 3,000 miles of dry land is cracklingly dry and we love it in the fall because it's cooling and it chases away all the humidity and smog over the coastal cities.

But this time, receiving no opposition in the form of a warmer system, it was much too cold for snow.

So what did the city - New York city - do?

We have a mayor, Mr Bloomberg, a Republican who has never claimed to be, as the party claims every other day, to be the party of compassionate conservatism, but he has his own urbane, droll way of practising it.

I look out, as you know, straight ahead over the Central Park reservoir. I turn an inch or two more to the right and there is a great meadow, appropriately called The Meadow.

So on Saturday throughout the night Mayor Bloomberg had a fleet of his juggernaut machines at it making snow and pouring it over the meadow.

And Sunday morning, there was a compact, isolated playground of the deep and crisp and even.

And by the time I looked out, the scene was like a big canvas out of Bruegel with a score or two of little black imps sliding and waving and skiing.

It was a merry Christmas card indeed and a comical one. For you had only to turn your head a fraction, either way, and see the whole extent of a brown winter park, not a flake of snow, the leafless trees a forest of feather dusters.

However, sooner or later I had to cease my nostalgic meditations watching the happy kids at play and turn on the telly, and immediately became aware of New England and New York state and New Jersey as a vast disaster area.

You begin to see pictures, shots of old people being lifted into ambulances, others rescued from cars whose doors had to be opened with hammers and axes.

As the week went along the general outlook, for the poor and the homeless especially, was grim.

The temperature had eased up a touch to 12, 16 and for one blessed day almost touched a scorching 38 degrees but it was merely a blip.

As I talk now the weather bureau pronounces it to be the longest stretch of extremely cold weather in 50 years. And as I talk there is no end in sight.

Record lows, all through this vast region. A small town in upstate New York 33 below zero.

The mayors of many cities are mobilising firemen, police and willing volunteers to rescue the homeless and the thousands of families that - if you can believe it - have no heat.

"It's like," said one old woman in a hospital, "like waking up in a snow bank."

So on Tuesday and Wednesday I tried to banish these grim thoughts by turning at once to my mail.

Encouraging letters from New Zealand and from Gloucester. A sad letter from a girl in Africa who is an orphan and wants me to pay for her college education.

I try to cheer up on a late but welcome Christmas card from Wales, hoping that these talks will go on, as the lady optimistically writes, "for a very long time to come".

My spirits were truly revived though when I came to the last letter of the day - an offer to go to a college for a six month, I think it was six month, course and no initiation or registration fee.

The tuition fee was, they implied, ridiculously low.

Still, what they offered if you graduated was something practically everybody would like to have.

But I regret to say that the two women who rule my life - my wife and my secretary - told me it was too late. The secret the college promised me was one I would never know.

I tossed the letter into the waste basket. After a short, wistful look at the long envelope and its beautifully embossed title. It was from the College for Successful Ageing.

Well by mid-week sure enough there came sliding under the back door a familiar reaction to the frozen north - jokey postcards from friends in Florida.

A letter enclosing a blazing headline from a Miami newspaper: "New England, New York paralysed by record cold".

A recording engineer who tapes these talks has moved to Florida and of course he calls to tell me he's just emerged from the pool and is stretched out on his little lawn snorting fresh, not concentrated, Florida orange juice.

I try to sniff and despise these juvenile communications. But I have to admit I paused and I recalled longingly the last winter break I'd had in Palm Beach and at this time of the year - mid-January - over 40 years ago.

I was doing a piece on the history of that island strip of sand lying in a turquoise sea from its first days as a haven for draft dodgers from the Civil War.

A dozen years later a Spanish ship was wrecked nearby and spilled a cargo of coconuts on the beach. The seeds took root and within a few years it looked like the backdrop for a Hope/Crosby/Dorothy Lamour road picture.

In the 80s a tycoon from Philadelphia, who owned the railroad down the Florida peninsula, liked the look of Palm Beach as a fetching winter playground for his friends.

So in those spacious, robber baron days he threw a bridge across from the mainland, built a private track and simply carried his fellow millionaires over in a private train.

A famous architect friend built a whole lush settlement of Spanish villas with Martello towers, large gardens and luxurious appointments.

And for the next 40 years or so new money moved in - provided it was possessed by the right sort, that is to say by WASPy Anglo-Americans. It was quietly but firmly understood no Jews and of course NINA - No Irish Need Apply.

In the roaring 1920s there moved in one winter the son of a poor Irish refugee from the Irish potato famine who in America became a saloon keeper.

His son made himself an immense fortune through projects both respectable and dubious.

He bought a house in Palm Beach but he knew the rules and actually scorned trying to break down any barriers. He did not strain to hob nob with the established WASP nobility.

Well that's only the early part of my story. The end, I think is better.

On a January Friday afternoon I, along with a half dozen or so other reporters, had an assignment to watch the departure of some visiting big shot at the Palm Beach airport, which in those days - the very early 1960s - was no more pretentious than a country railway station.

What was odd about its functioning this time was a series of reconnaissance raids by many blue suits of searching and waving away and huddling even covers, of the very rich and their chauffeurs into a guarded lounge.

A general appeared and more men in blue suits who had also in common a mechanical habit of looking first over one shoulder and click, then over the other.

The control tower closed the airport to all incoming and outgoing planes for 20 minutes.

Suddenly on a private field there slid in a black limousine and out of it jumped two bodyguards.

A big plane we'd barely noticed on the horizon came swooshing down the tarmac.

It stopped and as the blue suits lined up by the limousine the general saluted, an emerging, slim, tall, youngish man with light brown hair and shoulders hunched.

Soon the engines roared and the great plane hurtled screaming down the runway.

Multi-millionaires shaded their eyes against the sun and no doubt mused on the many aspects of fame and fortune.

The grandson of the Irish immigrant saloon keeper was airborne. He was John Fitzgerald Kennedy, 35th President of the United States.


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