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Essay

The Making of a Senior Weather Expert

After I retired about a decade ago, I became something I had been training to become ever since boyhood: a full-fledged senior weather expert.  The sort of person who not only knows when it will clear over, and when the next rainstorm is coming, but what the implications are for the type of clothing people should be wearing, and for planned picnics, tennis games, and other sorts of outdoor excursions.  And, most important of all, the sort of person able to convey his knowledge of the situation in a sufficiently convincing way that others will take heed.

          You don’t need formal meteorological training to become a senior weather expert.  Such training, indeed, may not be helpful.  While the formally-trained meteorologist certainly “knows his stuff,” he is also prone to break out in a highly technical patois in which terms such as millibars, kilopascals, and occluded fronts figure prominently, leading his befuddled listeners to head for the hills—or the Scotch bottle.  Just as it is a writer’s first duty to be read, so it is a weather expert’s first duty to be understood.

          All that said, I should say that I’m also a couple of steps beyond Gramps or Granny and their sensitive joints—the traditional weather experts of yesteryear.  Instincts are helpful, and mine are a match for anybody’s, but they will carry one only so far.  The throbbing ankle or swollen knee will reveal that a storm is coming, but they won’t reveal how severe that storm is likely to be, when exactly it will arrive, or how long it’s likely to last.  To be more than a one-time wonder, the senior weather expert must place those instincts in the context of some solid factual knowledge—knowledge about statistical weather norms, past weather extremes, and the way in which weather patterns are changing.  One must know how fast cold fronts and warm fronts generally move eastward. One must also appreciate that, like characters in a play, weather fronts have both a back story and a forward one.  And one must always keep oneself informed of ongoing weather developments.  Finally, as suggested earlier, one must keep one’s presentation skills honed.  All in all, not an onerous job, but one that does requires someone to pay attention to what’s going on.

          It is knowledge of what I’ve called “past weather extremes,” spectacular events such as the New York City blizzard of 1947 or the eastern North American ice storm of 1998, for which senior weather experts are most noted.  Not only are such storms the stuff of legend; they have obvious entertainment value.  Who isn’t enthralled by a good yarn about the Blizzard of “47 (the first two digits are always omitted in serious weather discussions) or the Ice Storm of “98?  But like strong spices in the chef’s cupboard, such spectacular events must be used judiciously and rather sparingly.  Overuse is liable to turn the weather expert into a caricature of himself.  At the end of the day, the whole raison d’être behind using such extreme events is to discover what they have to teach us about our weather today.  The weather expert’s job is to provide guidance to his fellow citizens, not to do a Gabby Hayes re-run.

          Besides, if he’s to be convincing, the weather expert must be true to himself.  I’ve never lived in a rural area and am not about to start now. I look and sound much more like a professor than like the typical weather expert of yesteryear–  very possibly because I was a professor for the better part of 15 years.  I’m both more youthful-looking and more urban-sounding than your father’s or grandfather’s weather expert.  I would only make a fool of myself if I sought to determine wind direction by wetting an index finger and holding it up to the wind, or to forecast the severity of a forthcoming winter by seeing how thick a mole’s burrow was on Hallowe’en. As for the Gabby Hayes-style locutions such as “tarnation” and “by cracky,” let’s not even go there.

          How did I become a weather expert?  For starters, I diligently immersed myself in the weather stats from earliest childhood.  As a boy, I would consult the weather page of the New York Times even before turning to the sports page to check on the doings of my beloved New York Yankees.  Most of the time, at least.

          Having filled that little brain with all sorts of goodies about temperatures, humidity, and extremes of precipitation, I would demonstrate my knowledge by reciting said stats on the school playground on what I deemed to be suitable occasions.  My idea of a suitable occasion clearly wasn’t everybody’s.  Over the years, I came in for more than my fair share of teasing from the less statistically inclined among my schoolmates.  This I took in stride, as part of the price one paid for being the possessor of such arcane lore.  Let the hoi polloi rag me to their hearts’ content.  In the end, I knew, I would have the last laugh.

          Besides, it wasn’t all about numbers.  For the big picture, and I do mean “picture,” there was the amazing Tex Antoine holding forth on WNBC every night.  Dressed in an artist’s smock, Antoine, better known as “Uncle Wethbee,” dazzled us all with his rapid-fire drawings of warm and cold fronts, clouds, and impending storms.  Antoine didn’t deal very much in numbers.  In his hands, the weather report was a story, or more properly a series of stories—a front story and a back story in addition to the current story, all superbly illustrated by his flamboyantly-executed drawings.

          Not the least of Antoine’s virtues was the example he set, to an impressionable youngster, as an urban weather expert.  In his smock, and with his urbane manner, he was clearly someone who would have been much more at home in a café than out in a field staring down a mole’s burrow to discover its thickness. Thanks to old Tex, I knew I wouldn’t have to pretend to be some kind of hayseed to be a weather expert.  I could be my sophisticated urban intellectual self and still be a weather expert at the same time.[1]  That was one reason why his five-minute show was generally the high spot of my day during the 1950s.

          It was from Antoine that I learned, early on, that weather is a lot more than a set of numbers, interesting though these might be.  And thanks to my own real-life experience, as a guy trying to work in as many swims and tennis games as possible in an uncertain climate, I’ve acquired that precision of observation that’s at the bottom of any weather expert’s bag of tricks.  But now, if you’ll excuse me, I must go for my daily constitutional.  Right now, the weather is still good for it, but if I wait another half-hour, that warm front heading in from Ontario might wreak havoc with my plans.  .  .


[1] The tragic end to which Antoine’s career came, many years later, when he made a terrible joke about rape while in his cups, should not blind us to his real achievements in his younger and sober days. 

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