By Ellen Moyer
It is September, the ninth month of our calendar year. It was once the seventh month (Sept meant 7) in the ancient Roman calendar. That calendar was revised in 153 BC to add January and February, but the name September the 7th month, now the 9th month, has remained ever since. September has another peculiar, or nutty, characteristic. Sept. 1 begins on the same day of the week as December every year. It also marks the beginning of autumn, the end of the growing season and a time of rejoicing in weeklong festivals of harvest to prepare for the cold Winter to come.
Our bushy-tailed friends, the second-most fed and observed wildlife, the squirrels, are harvesting too. Always bundles of energy like the planet Mercury that governs September, they are busy planting nuts in secret places. Their sense of smell will locate them in the hunger months to come. Squirrels are rodents like prairie dogs, marmots, chipmunks and mice, but they have a bushy tail that serves as an umbrella and blanket. There are over 200 species of them. A newcomer to the area, the black squirrel came to Washington, DC, in 1902 in an exchange for our Eastern Grey squirrels between the National Zoo and one in Ontario, Canada. Eventually they scampered into Chevy Chase and now even to Annapolis, dodging the auto wheels of its biggest predator. They annoy us too, part of our love-hate relationship, when they attack our bird feeders or cause mischief with our electricity. Writing in the New York Times, Jon Mooallem commented, “The world will end in fire, ice or attacks on power grids by squirrels.” Every year squirrels prancing on the power lines are instantly fried, sparking an arc that cuts power to thousands of users. Our squirrelly friends have shut down Nasdaq (perhaps not so nutty), hospitals, airports, universities and towns all over America. When you see the little critter up there like a circus performer on the wires, warn it, “There’s danger ahead.”
Nuts, besides being good heart healthy food, is a slang word for many things including insanity. The nut hand is a poker term for the strongest hand in a given situation. Supposedly the term arose in the American Colonial West when a player bet everything he possessed on his hand. To ensure that if he lost he would have to make good on his bet, he would place the nuts from his wagon wheels on the table. If it was Winter, the nuts would be stone cold, hence the term “stone-cold nuts.” Since it was expected that such a bet would be rare, the best possible hand became known as the nuts.
The term “the nuts” seems to have originated centuries earlier in Old English usage, meaning any source of pleasure. Nut has been a movie, a comic strip in the National Lampoon and a Marvel Comic based on the Egyptian goddess of the Sky — Nut. It is also the initials for the National Union of Teachers in Great Britain.
On Dec. 22, 1944, the word nuts took on historical significance. It was World War II and during the Battle of the Bulge. Six days earlier, in an effort to gain access to the harbor of Antwerp, the Germans in a surprise attack launched their largest offensive of the war on the western front. On their southern drive, they surrounded the town of Bastogne, Belgium, occupied by 101st Airborne and Gen. Anthony McAuliffe. After delivering a severe pounding but unable to move forward, the Germans sent a white flag to General McAuliffe proposing an American surrender. Receiving the message the General exclaimed “Us surrender? Aw nuts.” Near the end of a two-hour period, with German tanks ready to move to annihilate Bastogne, the Americans responded. The message back to the German High Command contained one word “NUTS!” Translated, go to hell. American fortitude held Bastogne. In one of the costliest battles in lives lost, the German offensive failed. Within five months Germany was defeated. Nuts held the day.