I spent this New Year’s Eve safely at home, hunkered down with the family and a couple of friends. I’ve done New Years in a variety of venues—on a rooftop in Manhattan, in the streets of Cork, Ireland—but home is best. At home, at the very least, you can be certain that no one is going to sneak up behind you and blow a party horn. Or if they do, you know that you have the ability to send them to their rooms without dessert.
My children are the only ones who are truly excited by New Years, for the very good reason that they usually can’t stay up that late and see what a dud the whole enterprise turns out to be. I think that below a certain age, you actually expect to be able to feel something change at midnight on December 31st.
I remember this feeling from my own deplorable youth. On New Year’s Eve 1966-67 I was lying on my back in what we called the “kangaroo pouch” of my father’s 1963 Volkswagen beetle, a car that I would probably still be driving today had I not thoughtlessly steered it off of a cliff on the first day of my senior year of high school eleven years later.
I had liked 1966, which was the year I turned eight. I’d spent much of the year launching Estes rockets and exploring the pine forest behind our house. Eight was good. Still, I already had the feeling that something was wrong with me, something huge that was already sweeping in over the horizon like a great black cloud. I had the feeling that in 1967 things would get worse, and as it turns out, I was right.
Still, I remember lying there on my back in the kangaroo pouch, staring through the oval window toward the sky. Our family—my parents, my sister, and me—had spent New Years with some friends, the Whites, and it was the first time I’d been allowed to stay up past midnight. I was certain that some fundamental law of the universe was going to change at twelve. I was young enough not only to believe that this was true, but to think that it would be something worth blowing a party horn about.
Bill White and his wife Ginny owned a bulldog named Percy, a dog that threw up pretty much whenever it wanted. I spent much of the evening at the side of Percy the bulldog and playing with a Magic Eight Ball. The adults saw fit to give me alcohol for the first time in my life, a small glass of a dark green cordial they called Crème de Menthe. It burned.
The Whites had something called a rumpus room, which had a bar actually built into one wall, and a candlestick telephone. I sat with Percy on the couch and watched the rumpus. Mr. White told jokes about Italians. My parents talked about the war. Our neighbors’ son, Bob Pinkney Jr., was flying a Huey over North Vietnam. His father, Bob Pinkney Sr., who worked for Boeing, and who had helped to design the Huey, had changed in the last six months. Since his son went to Vietnam, his hair had turned almost completely grey.
I asked the Magic Eight ball if Bob Pinkney, Jr. would die in Vietnam. The answer came floating out of the blackish blue murk: Better not tell you now. I asked if the dark cloud I felt coming for me was going to go away. Reply hazy, try again. Was 1967 going to be a good year—for the country, for my family, for me? Don’t count on it.
Percy, sitting next to me on the couch, thought this all over, then barfed on the courderoy pants I’d gotten for Christmas.
At midnight, I blew a party horn and yelled and cried and hugged my mother.
Then I was in the back of the Volkswagen, looking up at the stars.
I thought I saw something in the sky that night, an undulating white cloud that hovered and changed shape like an angel. At the time I remember thinking, it’s the ghost of 1966, vanishing like steam in the dark night of the new year.
Now I wonder if it actually was an angel, some spirit of infinite good will sent to counter whatever dark clouds stretch our their hands to snatch us. And if it was an angel, it surely wasn’t there just to watch over me. That angel was there looking out for lots of people, including Bob Pinkney Jr., who did come home alive from Vietnam, changed forever, but alive.
Magic eight ball, will we ever understand the mysteries of our lives, the heartbreaking and joyful miracles of time?
Reply hazy, try again.