Intimations of a Celestial Morning

November 27, 1994|By PETER A. JAY

Havre de Grace. -- If the boy hadn't gotten his parents' station wagon stuck in the mud, he would reflect later, he wouldn't have been up so early the next morning. And then, in some mysterious way, everything might have been different.

It had been a beautiful November night, and he'd been out with a girl from the neighborhood for a drive in the country. On the way home they had parked along a gravel road near the girl's house and looked up at the cold glittering stars.

It was a quiet place. There had been a hard frost, and there was no insect noise in the countryside. Maybe a fox squalled somewhere, and a train whistle sounded, very far away. No other cars drove past. As the boy had been away at college they had a lot to talk about, and it was quite late when he at last started the car and began to pull back onto the road.

Then he made a serious error. Instead of simply driving ahead he tried to turn around, and as he backed up both rear wheels slipped into a boggy place. There was an ominous slurping sound as the car settled onto its rear axle. They were hopelessly stuck.

They had to walk up the road to the girl's house. He was embarrassed, the more so because he tended to be boastful about his driving skills. But the girl thought it was funny, and so did her parents, whom he had known for years. They lent him their car to drive home. On the way he passed the bogged-down station wagon, which he would have to extricate in the morning.

The next day was his nineteenth birthday. He had his father's big tractor started before real daylight, picked up a log chain, and drove down the empty road as the day began to unfold.

The hilly country rolled away on either side of him, mist in the valleys, touches of frost on the dark crouching hills. The sun emerged. The air smelled of leaves and wet ground, the cold fragrance of approaching winter. It was a Sunday, and he saw no one moving on the farms or in the houses he passed.

He yanked the station wagon from its mudhole with no difficulty, and left it on the hard ground at the edge of the road. Then he took the tractor home, returned the borrowed car and walked to the station wagon before the day had entirely lost its magical sense of earliness. While driving home he stopped once again on a high hill to watch the sun begin to dissolve the pockets of mist.

There in the morning sunshine, with a woodpecker tapping some where above him in the bare limbs of a walnut tree and the hills unrolling off in every direction for as far as he could see, he suddenly felt that something very important was happening.

But what? He couldn't be quite sure. There was a sense of continuity -- of the year ending and the year like a phoenix about to begin again -- and one of exhilaration too. The woodpecker tapped on, and the sun grew stronger. As he looked out over the hills he saw that the frost was gone except where the shadows lingered. He felt shaken and speechless, overpowered by the indescribable beauty of the world.

And as it happened he remembered that morning always. While on one level at least everything that had occurred was entirely ordinary, even pedestrian, what he'd felt on that November hilltop was in some ways epiphanic, an experience that would subtly color his life for years and even decades to come.

The brilliance of the memory would fade, over the years. That was to be expected. The eyes of a 19-year-old see with a special sharpness that doesn't endure. Among those to whom the boy turned for counsel, one person in particular understoodthat, lamented it and finally accepted it.

There was a time when meadow, grove and stream,/ The earth, and every common sight,/ To me did seem/ Appareled in celestial light . . . Wordsworth recalls in ''Intimations of Immortality.'' But that time soon passes, and nothing can bring back the hour/ Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower.

But occasional flickers of that celestial light remain. They can be brought back by simple things, such as a clear November night, the sun rising through fog, or a woodpecker foraging for breakfast in a dead tree. Even the sight of a car stuck in the mud along a back road might do it.

The teen-ager who got himself stuck in the mud has an 18-year-old son now -- a young man who is briefly back from college, and who on this particular morning is driving off in the family car on errands of his own, into his own unfolding life.

The father watches the car disappear down the lane, and wonders parentally if he should have offered advice. But what advice? Always listen to woodpeckers? Be careful driving in the mud? Don't forget your tow chain? Nuts. You might as well tell a teen-ager it's sometimes especially worthwhile getting up early in the morning.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

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