Commentary

Editor’s Notebook: Looking skyward, waiting for the wind

December 1, 2021 5:55 am
Bare tree branches against a blue sky

For catchers of leaves, this is a season of patience. (Dana Wormald | New Hampshire Bulletin)

“Maybe Rosebud was something he couldn’t get or something he lost. Anyway, it wouldn’t explain anything. I don’t think any word can explain a man’s life. No, I guess Rosebud is just a piece in a jigsaw puzzle – a missing piece.” – Jerry Thompson (played by William Alland), “Citizen Kane,” 1941.

IT IS 1978 or ’79 at North Elementary School in Londonderry, late November, and the trees surrounding the playing field are mostly bare. Mostly.

A couple groups of older kids, separated by 20 yards or so, take turns launching a new Nerf football into the sky toward the opposing group – perfect spiral after perfect spiral. In the marble pit, some poor schlub with a prized ball bearing is getting hustled by a sharpshooter with a sack full of “triples” – the largest marbles on the market and hard to find. Over near the playground equipment, a high-swinging kid is being dared to release the chains and jump into the claws of gravity. Will she or won’t she?

On the outskirts of the action, two boys go unnoticed like a couple of Icaruses in that famous painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Eyes directed skyward, they are waiting, patiently, for the wind – and not just any wind but one that will finally set free the last of the oak leaves clinging to the trees’ crowns.

Recess is almost over, but the boys don’t know that. They are lost in their game. 

DEAN MARTIN WAS AROUND the house a lot when I was a kid. When he wasn’t crooning Christmas songs from the stereo, he was acting cool in a Saturday afternoon Western on some Boston UHF station or simply being cool in a rebroadcast of an old variety show.

A new documentary about Martin debuted on Turner Classic Movies a week before Thanksgiving 2021 – aptly titled “King of Cool” – and it’s worth watching if you get TCM and have 107 minutes to spare. There’s a lot of great music, snippets from “Rio Bravo” and the original “Ocean’s 11,” and a bunch of old friends and relatives offering insight on who the man was.

The fundamental flaw of the film is one openly acknowledged by the filmmakers: Nobody really knew Martin at all – not his children, his wives, his closest friends. So the documentarians, inspired by the most classic of Hollywood classics, attempted to solve the riddle playfully – by asking interviewees to suggest what they believe was Martin’s “Rosebud.”

Family? His hometown of Steubenville, Ohio? His second wife, Jeanne? Plenty of guesses, but nothing so tangible or poignant as Charles Foster Kane’s beloved sled swallowed up by flames just before the end credits roll.

The audience is meant to see Martin as he was – talented, loving, and incomparably cool – while also joining the documentarians in obsessively chewing on the riddle: Who was Dean Martin? But to me, as enjoyable as I found those 107 minutes, it’s a fabricated mystery to be met with a shrug. I mean, who really knows anybody?

RECESS IS ALMOST OVER, but the boys don’t know that. They are lost in their game. 

Waiting.

Before they feel the first true gust they hear it, moving through the trees and climbing toward the handful of dead oak leaves that refused to let go of their branches yesterday or the day before. One of the leaves is flapping now like a miniature New Hampshire state flag, and it has the players’ full attention. 

Another gust, a little stronger than the first, and the leaf releases.

The two boys begin running at once, following the leaf with their eyes and feet. At the peak of leaf-catching season, they wouldn’t dream of going after the same quarry, but in the lean days of late November the game is competitive. The kid who best reads the wind, who best anticipates the next roll, flip, and tumble of the leaf, will win the day.

I’m not sure whether I caught that particular leaf, or if there were others. The memory – which is more of a feeling than imagery in these distant days – stops at the chase. I just remember running without worrying where my feet would land or what my classmates thought of me and my friend or our game. I remember how a dead oak leaf, finally free, looked against the pale sky. And I remember experiencing something I’ve spent a lifetime trying to replicate or even describe. Joy, I suppose. Freedom, maybe. Ask the best-selling gurus and they’ll say I was “fully present,” that I found “stillness” on the playground that day.

But they don’t really have access to the right words, if there are right words, and neither do I. It’s not just a sled, or Steubenville, or an oak leaf – and it’s not mere presence. It’s something faint but powerful, impossibly elusive but right there. You almost have it, and then you don’t.

And that’s the tricky thing about rosebuds.

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Dana Wormald
Dana Wormald

Dana Wormald, a lifelong resident of New Hampshire, has been a newspaper editor for more than 25 years. He began his career on the Concord Monitor’s news desk in 1995 and later spent more than a decade at the New Hampshire Union Leader. In 2014, he returned to the Monitor to serve as opinion editor, a position he held until being named editor of the Bulletin.

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