Volume XII, Issue 1 ~ January 1-7, 2004

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Burton on the Bay

The Future Can Keep Its Secrets —
I Like Surprises

On New Year’s Eve, you gotta take someone [with you] you can kiss.
—Liz in Lynn Johnston’s comic strip For Better or For Worse,
December 29, 2003

Maybe that piece of advice comes a tad late for the night of December 31, 2003, but you can make a note for yourself for the last day of December, 2004. It’s worth remembering, though, that even if the last kiss of one year is held long enough to become the first of the next it doesn’t promise anything — even between you and that significant other in the lip-lock.

Yet who really wants to look ahead? You might not like what you see, which reminds me of a radio program that played on New Year’s Eve back in the early ’40s when I was too young for revelry on the big occasion. That old show over the airwaves made obvious what Grandma Burton had meant when she cautioned me a few days after I said I’d like to know what the new year would bring.

“Other than the weather, so we can plan crops, it’s usually better that we don’t know what’s ahead,” she said. “Leave that to fortune tellers — and you probably wouldn’t believe them.”

Oracles of Old
That radio program of yore focused on a well-to-do man who somehow gained knowledge of a year’s newspapers in advance. As I recall, it was in London on New Year’s Eve.

He scanned the papers from the end of the year backward toward the present, chuckling at some of the gossip, expressing surprise at some of the big events and taking an occasional note on stocks that would skyrocket in the coming year.

His biggest find in those to-be-published pages was the winner of the richest race of the year, the long shot of all long shots. He scribbled the nag’s name on his note pad as visions of a fortune danced through his head. However, his expectations were short-lived.

Some papers later, the first of the next year — tomorrow — there it was: his obituary. He had died suddenly, it read, and he did. He was found slumped over, as I recall, by a servant, who noticed the name of the horse on the pad and scoffed at the idea of it winning any race. So he tossed the pad with that and all other entries gleaned from future newspapers into the waste basket.

A few days later when I next saw Grandma, I told her about the radio program. She smiled and said something to the effect that I should always remember that sometimes it’s best that happenings in life come as surprises. I took her advice.

So as I look to 2004, the only thing I can be sure of is that, seeing as it will be Leap Year, February will have 29 days. Also that within the week (if I live that long), I will ruin a few personal checks by dating them 2003. Other than that, it’s like those lines from the old song: “What will be, will be.”

Though I’m into the last quarter of a century, I still cherish happy surprises, and I equally dislike knowing about things in the future that I can’t do anything about.

Surprise, Surprise
The future: One never knows what it will bring.

I see that again and again as I think back on many of the 77 New Year’s Eves that have come on the scene since I did.

In 1945, I was back in civilian clothes, a freshman at Goddard College in Vermont, and at Times Square with a vivacious raven-haired young lass whose lips were locked with mine as the big moment came. Ah, we had the world by the fanny — 1946 would be ours.

Know what? Less than two months later, our torrid relationship was history. But before ’46 came to an end, I was recruited out of college to be news editor of a radio station that was going on the air for the first time on December 7. One commitment was wiped from the slate, to be replaced by another that has lasted to this day: Journalism.

Yet had I known on the eve of 1946 that the co-ed from Brooklyn and I would part ways while the new year was still young, I would have missed the euphoria of a night at Times Square in the Big Apple, a thrill I had only imagined while listening to like celebrations via radio perhaps a dozen years earlier. You were wise, Grandma.

Who’d Have Thought It?
Think back several years to the time the millennium was upon us. Talk of Y2K was on all lips; computers were to crash, maybe everything else in our technology-oriented society with them. We stocked up on foods, smokes, flashlights and other necessities. At year’s end, we still had the batteries we’d hoarded.

Many would-be celebrants stayed home fearing power outages, streets without traffic lights or who knows what. The Doomsday boosters reigned, and what happened? Nothing, that’s what.

So let 2004 come in as it wishes, which of course it will. And little we can do about it. When ’03 arrived, who’d have thought the mouthy, cowardly Sadaam would be dug out of a spider hole; The New York Times would be the victim of the biggest fiction fiasco ever in journalism; an obscure gelding named Funny Cide would win two races in the Triple Crown; another race horse, Seabiscuit, would be resurrected as a nation’s folk hero — or that here in the good Ole U-S-of-A, we’d be heading into the new year amid fears of Mad Cow Disease?

Or that, after so many dry years, Maryland would have its wettest on record; the Boston Red Sox would come so close to becoming world champs; a then-unknown fan named Steve Bartman would poke a hand over the fence to rob the Chicago Cubs of chances for the same honors — or that at fast food shops, we’d be eating something old with a new name, Freedom Fries? How many of us realized at the birth of ’03 that Madame Chiang Kai-Shek was still alive? How many of us imagined that we’d be wondering who could ever take Johnny Cash’s place in country music — or we’d have the opportunity to bid the despot Idi Amin a long overdue farewell?

We were thinking a year ago that by now we’d all be doing arm exercises — not to prime ourselves for barroom arm-wrestling contests but to get in shape for pulling the handles of one-armed bandits at Maryland tracks and casinos. As ’04 gets into gear, it’s the same old outlook. Same results coming up? Who knows?

Take the World for What it Is
New Year’s Eve is best not for fathoming the future but for reflecting on the past. Celebrating the arrival of the new and taking the world for what it is. As Mme. Arman de Caillavet told Colette as reported in Judith Thurman’s biography, Secrets of the Flesh, A Life of Colette:

“You must take the world for what it is, despise it and exploit it.” And, might this writer add, treasure its blessings and make the most of its shortcomings. Take Grandma’s word: Don’t pry into its future.

In the “Bearer of Evil Tydings,” fellow Vermonter Robert Frost ended his poem with the same message:

Why hurry to tell Belshazzar
what soon enough he would know?

As will we all. Enough said but for Happy New Year …

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Last updated December 31, 2003 @ 9:12pm.