I remember the autumn night in the mid-1960s like it was yesterday.
I was in the car with my mom. We were headed west on Illinois 15 from Belleville past the old Cahokia Downs Race Track. Illinois 15 was known as “460” then. Probably headed down U.S. 460 to my grandparents’ home in Centreville.
For the first time in my young life, I looked up and noticed the big, round orange moon in the sky.
I was mesmerized. If there were a man on the moon, I swear that I could have seen him walking on that big orange moon that clear, autumn night.
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I asked my mom something like, “When did the moon turn into a pumpkin?”
I got a quick lesson.
“That’s a harvest moon,” she told me. “A sure sign summer’s over. Cold weather’s just around the corner.”
You would have thought I just saw a flying saucer. Or George Jetson and his son, Elroy. I had never noticed a harvest moon before. I didn’t spend much time in my childhood gazing at the stars or the sky. Occasionally, when we camped out in the backyard. But I always heard a strange, freaky noise in the nearby woods that chased me indoors. I lied and said mosquitoes were bad. Such a mama’s boy.
I remember going home that autumn night and pulling the encyclopedias out of the bedroom closet. Encyclopedias were our only source of information and research at the time. They sat in our closet and collected dust mostly. We bought them off a door-to-door salesman many years before. Not sure why. Probably for rare nights like this when one of us boys got curious about school things like the size and color of the moon.
For some reason, on this night, that harvest moon fascinated me as much as a new Archie comic book, a Cardinals’ rookie baseball card, or Ann-Margret wiggling around in an Elvis movie.
I didn’t understand everything in that encyclopedia, but I learned a little more about harvest moons that night.
I learned that the harvest moon happensonly in the fall — the full moon closest to something called the autumnal equinox. I had no idea what that was but I learned it’s the first official day of fall in late September.
That was confusing. I had always thought Labor Day was the first day of fall. In my little world, Labor Day was the end of summer because we returned to school. Calendars were simpler then. We were out of school for summer on Memorial Day and went back in the fall on Labor Day.
I learned that a harvest moon is not actually bigger or fatter. It’s an optical illusion. I didn’t know what an optical illusion was either. Mom explained something about what you see isn’t always what you get. I didn’t understand it then but it was great advice as I got older, about life more than the moon.
Why is a harvest moon orange? I learned it has nothing to do with the harvest moon but something about the moon and the sun both look redder when they’re by the horizon. I still prefer my theory that a harvest moon magically turns into a pumpkin to welcome the season.
By far, this time of year is my favorite season, because of the pumpkin weather, changing colors and morning frosts.
I like this time of year most because it’s not yet daylight-saving time and there’s still a brief but meaningful purpose to evenings.
I like this time of year most because it’s the start of hockey season. Optimism is high. Could this be the year the Blues win the Stanley Cup? Or maybe the first round of the playoffs?
I like this time of year best because it’s the last pause before the holiday season. No holiday sales yet. No dreams of a white Christmas.
I like this time of year most because on a recent weeknight, I heard Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon” on the radio, and it seems so seasonal even though the old song is about a lost love and not the big, fat orange moon overhead.
There’s no doubt that one of the best things about this time of year, for me, is seeing a harvest moon.
That big, fat round pumpkin in the sky.
It reminds me of that car conversation with my late mom many falls ago on 460 near the old Cahokia Downs Race Track.
It warmly reminds me summer is over and cold weather is just around the corner.