When I picture New Year's Eve, it's not champagne or midnight kisses. Instead I see an orange globe rising in frigid darkness, illuminated by the headlights of a silent car.
I remember the bite of raw, frozen hands, cut by slivers of ice and stung by road salt. I remember the puffs of exhalation that floated like clouds in the high beams, and sweat-soaked cotton beneath heavy woolen coats. I remember shouts and laughter echoing under the black bubble of night.
In the mid-'60s, my brother and I were too young to go out to New Year's Eve parties but too old to suffer babysitters when our parents did go out. So we would be left to ourselves, the last evening of the year stretching ahead of us, a dinner to heat up and some special New Year's treats awaiting under plastic wrap. I can still feel the intense sweetness of anticipation as our mother, wrapped in fur and scented with perfume, rustled through the house trying to reassure herself that we would not starve, or die in some household calamity, while she reveled. My father -- already on the front steps -- would boom, "They'll be fine!"
We were better than fine. We ate cake. We played board games -- endless rounds of Life or Careers or Monopoly. We risked nickels, dimes and quarters on poker hands as the "Million-Dollar Movie" -- we could count on some classic like "Day of the Triffids" or "Godzilla vs. Mothra" -- played on the console RCA. We made phony phone calls and set upon each other in bruising games of rug football.
As midnight approached, we grew ever more wide awake. Our mundane surroundings took on a surreal sheen. The year was about to end in an infinitesimal instant, a year which had -- to our minds -- lasted just about forever. And the year to come? It would change everything.
No wonder we were manic. We had to move! We had to get outside! It was the middle of winter!
The tradition was born, then, of antsy-ness and opportunity. Swimming was out of the question. Too dark for baseball. But we did have a hoop. So we fished up my mom's spare keys, backed her car down the driveway and left the headlights on, partially lighting the square of pavement that served as our basketball court. Then we began to play, quickly discarding our gloves and outer coats, pounding the ball on the frozen ground until our hands lost sensation. My brother was bigger and stronger, but I had a sweet outside jump shot that kept me in it. Somewhere along the way, one of us -- I can't remember who -- had the mighty insight: "Hey, it's midnight. This is for the first basket of the New Year."
In my memory, the battle for the first bucket of the year became a hoary tradition. In the years that followed, when midnight approached, we'd grab the ball and head outside. At least once, we played in an actual snowstorm. We'd heave and sweat, the steam rising from our bodies in the lamplight, putting up prayers to the dim outline of the hoop. Then one would be answered. Nothing but frozen net. There'd be a fist pump and a shout. This basket was, after all, an unmatchable feat, an unbeatable omen of success -- at least for a year.
When I coldly calculate, I am shocked to realize this venerable ritual lasted a measly three years, from the time I was 10 until I turned 13. Then, sure enough, a new year came along and changed everything. We moved to Florida. My brother began going out on New Year's Eve. End of tradition.
I have a basketball hoop in my driveway now, for the first time since I was 13. I'm planning to stay up past my bedtime this December 31 and take a single shot from the foul line. All or nothing on the first basket of the year. An arc, a swish, a seed planted in the fertile loam of something new.
Tom Shroder is editor of the Magazine.