The February thaw came, as usual, when it was least expected. The people who can never find their warm mittens -- to say nothing of their left boot -- until winter is half over had, at last, got their equipment together. Salt had been spread, even where there was no snow. Dry gas was in every tank. Were we ever prepared!
Then the sun came out -- the real sun, not that yellow wafer of ice the sky had been featuring for months. Temperatures soared to 50 degrees.
And nobody knew what to do.
Noses cautiously poked above scarves to sniff the air. Eyes rolled anxiously behind all those knitted ski masks. What was that strange sound filtering faintly through the ear flaps? Could it be birds twittering?
This false spring was more alarming than a good 11-inch snowstorm.
The very young wandered trustingly on the street, wearing short sleeves and roller skates and licking ice-cream cones. The rest of us half-unzipped parkas, very suspiciously, as if we knew a trick when we saw one. Mostly we pretended nothing was happening. We felt almost relieved when night came and the temperatures dropped 25 degrees and those unbelievable mud puddles froze over.
We were ready for the worst; it was the best we couldn't deal with.
Alas, the February thaw seems to symbolize a prevailing attitude these days. When in doubt, we expect disaster. Worse, we count on it.
During the same week as the February thaw the archaic phrase, ''oil glut,'' was revived. But it produced no more dancing around the May pole than those unseasonably warm days.
Our heads are too full of doomsday scenarios. When we look at the falling gas prices, we only remember the long lines at the pumps.
We consider El Salvador and think of Vietnam.
We keep drawing those parallels to Rome -- or at least to 1929.
We simply do not feel safe with history anymore, and all the sophisticated locks and burglar alarms and nuclear missiles only seem to make us feel more helpless.
Shortages, recessions, violence have become our ''norms.''
We who once spoke of ''Manifest Destiny'' now confess: ''We may not make it'' -- and those are the words not of a lonely radical speaking to other lonely radicals but of an arch-conservative Republican, Howard Phillips, addressing a television audience.
If we are to believe the polls at all, the man in the street now thinks more than a little like T.S. Eliot when he wrote ''The Waste Land'' in such general despair 60 years ago.
As February cooled again, making us pay (as we keep saying) for the thaw, the disaster scenario to end disaster scenarios hit the front page. A quasi-scientific rumor began to spread some time ago, predicting that on March 10, 1982, when the nine planets lined up on the same side of the sun, something called the ''Jupiter Effect'' would occur. A sort of gravitational tug would stretch the sun. Solar flares would shower the universe. The earth's magnetic fields would be altered. Stresses would set up in our planet's crust, and, among other calamities, the San Andreas fault would break asunder.
What does it say that astrophysicists are finding it necessary to dignify the prophecy with a formal refutation? A lot of people have been all too inclined to believe the world might come to an end thus. It suits the mood.
Why do we Americans who once believed in the Happy Ending as a national right now accept the prospect of Apocalypse as a reasonable probability? Even the law of averages tells us it is as dumb to feel automatically hopeless as it is to feel mindlessly optimistic. We ex-optimists badly need to recover our balance -- to assert the possibility of something good happening.
February thaws do end. Winter returns. Don't lose that left boot and those outstanding mittens just yet. But, on the other hand, should we forget what February thaws signal -- eventually? Regeneration -- the coming of true spring.