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Nip in the Air, Brotherhood in the Heart

January 17, 1987|KEITH LOVE | Times Staff Writer

I joined E. B. White's fraternity the other night. I never expected it to happen in Los Angeles.

It turned very cold--for these parts, anyway. And if you are lucky enough not to be homeless, you could get excited about it.

"There is a fraternity of the cold, to which I am glad I belong," White, the late New Yorker essayist, wrote from his Maine farm on a January day in 1943.

"Nobody is kept from joining. Even old people sitting by the fire belong, as the floor draft closes in around their ankles. The members get along well together; extreme cold, when it first arrives, seems to generate cheerfulness and sociability. For a few hours all life's dubious problems are dropped in favor of the clear and congenial task of keeping alive. It is rather soothing when existence is reduced to the level of a woodbox that needs filling. . . ."

The arrival of this rare adversary in the Southland flats brought women out in black woolen coats, the collars pulled up to their ears. They looked European, exotic.

Everything Looks Different

Suddenly, the blaze in the fireplace was something more than a quaint touch. The decision to go out to the market for more wood took on the importance of a mission.

You found the bottle of very dry sherry behind the tequila and the triple sec. It called for getting out the good crystal.

You could sit down to dinner in the heavy sweater that you bought in Ireland back when the dollar was a bully. You had almost forgotten you owned it.

There were good thoughts--the anticipation of sleeping under a pile of blankets. And there were bad ones--the vinyl car seat awaiting you next morning. Both made you contend with the idea of weather for a few moments.

Of course, White had more to contend with when he was writing his essay, "Cold Weather," 44 years ago in his iced-in farmhouse. It was 12 below zero.

"Morning comes and bed is a vise from which it is almost impossible to get free," he wrote. "Once up, things seem very fine and there are fires to be made all over the house and the old dog has to be wrapped in a wool throw because of his rheumatism. . . . Then everybody compares notes, each reads the thermometer for himself, and wonders whether the car will start. . . .

And Chilly Geese

"The general cheerfulness is in part surprise at discovering that it is entirely possible to exist in conditions that would appear, offhand, to be fatal. The cold hasn't a chance really against our club, against our walls, our wool, the blaze in the stove, the clever mitten, the harsh sock, the sound of kindling, the hot drink, the bright shirt that matches the bright cap. . . ."

When he finally left his house and went out into the cold, White got a scolding from his geese.

"They complain loudly about a frozen water pan, and their cornmeal mash is golden-yellow against the blue snow."

Well, there's no snow in Los Angeles. But there are some geese in my neighborhood. The owner of a rambling Craftsman's house has two of them on the premises to warn him of intruders.

They were complaining very loudly Friday morning, and it sounded great.

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