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Singing - sometimes - in the rain

By Melvin Maddocks / June 14, 1982



It was a wet spring, even as springs go. Ask Fort Wayne. Ask the tourist bureaus in Florida - ask them very softly.

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Then, when the rains were supposed to be over, June came to New England as if somehow April had been skipped and the calendar had turned back dutifully to make amends. Connecticut was cruelly deluged by eight inches of rain in eight days. In Boston a Brinks truck tried to cross a flooded intersection and stranded itself. Passersby in yellow slickers, wading in water above their knees , stared at the monster as though it were a beached whale.

Burglar alarms short-circuited. A fiddle festival was wisely cancelled. In Dorchester natives dressed in colonial costumes chose not to reenact the 1630 landing of pilgrims on Savin Hill Beach.

The full moon swelled tides just as the Department of the Interior added 159 sites to a proposed list of ''undeveloped coastal barriers'' ineligible for flood insurance.

Packs of solitaire and jigsaw puzzles materialized on a thousand tables. The lines to talk shows were clogged with listeners, deprived of sun, shut indoors, listening to the tom-tom of their gutters.

One can no more ignore the subject of rain this spring than one can ignore a dripping faucet at midnight. It imposes itself not only as messy weather but as a messy moral problem. The rain falls on the just and the unjust - and it falls justly and unjustly.

The reservoirs are filling. Hooray. The rivers are overflowing. Boo.

With rain there is always too much or too little - and never at the right time.

In the Russian village of Dorpat, according to the anthropologist Sir James Frazer, three men used to climb a fir tree in time of drought. One banged a hammer on a kettle to signify thunder. One slapped two firebrands together to mime lightning. The key man sprinkled water from a bowl - blessed rain.

Meanwhile, in well-drenched Java a sort of un-rain-maker was being employed to ''prop up the clouds'' and keep them from spilling more of the curse.

That's rain for you.

The only safe generalization you can make about rain is that it's all things to all people. To the Japanese printmaker it falls neatly - in perfectly parallel slant marks. You can hear it patter on those parasols as gently as a haiku verse.

In the music of Debussy, on the other hand, the rain seems to spray as if from an atomizer - faintly perfumed, so fine it isn't even wet. How the French impressionists loved their dry, dry water!

In life, as in art, rain varies. In the tropics it falls heavily, as though the humid air were suddenly overcome by its own weight. In England rain and mist , as Santayana pointed out, are almost visual effects, ''transforming familiar objects, harmonizing the accidental, making beautiful things magical and ugly things picturesque. Road and pavement become wet mirrors, in which the fragments of this gross world are shattered, inverted, and transmuted into jewels.''

Rain can be a morbid symbol. It can also be a romantic one. ''It always rains for the love scenes,'' an old Hollywood motto decreed.

Rain can wash away impurities, as tenderly as a mother bathing her baby. It can also wash away homes and people.

Too much rain turns the personality soggy.

But before we stamp our feet in the nearest puddle, consider the headline from the Falklands: ''When Weather Clears, British Chief Chooses Time for Attack.'' The story quoted Major General Jeremy Moore as saying: ''It was just my luck. The blasted cloud rolled over the top so I didn't get my look at Stanley.''

As usual, rain did not act for long as a buffer state. But can anything that delays the business of any war be all bad?