Wednesday, March 28, 2007

from Sledding Past the Lawyer

...In the winter, we had the big, downhill playground/parking lot for sledding. Sledding was exciting when the yard was first plowed, especially if the snow had been deep enough to force the plows into leaving a nicely packed base. Snow plows of the era weren't as thorough as they are now.

...We played on mounds of snow, but we never built forts. The School yard was too public a place to expect privacy or security for our co
nstructions. We didn't bother with building anything at home, either. It was too much like work there. The best places to start snow forts were the mounds created by snowplows or heavy drifts. And we didn't have any at home. The mounds appeared across the street when the playground was plowed for parking. While we didn't build forts, per se, we did create safety mounds for snowball fights or the inevitable king-of- the-mountain---leading to snow all over ourselves, hilarious laughing, and exhaustion.

...We had some good Saturday snow battles because the area had hedges to complement the mounds. They were good for
running battles, although we had to insure that the spot we ran to had snowball snow. You can't carry much ammunition with you for a running snowball fight. The School, its corners, and its fire escape bases lent themselves to great fight sites. If it was still snowing, the fun was doubled. Visibility was worse and sneaking up on your opponent was easier.

...Snow comes in many varieties under many names, especially in the far north, where the Eskimos have more names and nuances than Carter had liver pills. Yupik Eskimo has such offerings as: “qanir” (to snow); “qanuk” (snowflake); “nutaryuk” (fresh snow); “aniv” (snow on the ground); “qengaruk” (snowb
ank); and “pirta” (blizzard.)

The best type of snow for making snowballs is powder snow with light moisture content. Grab a handful and pat and round one out in your hands, rather like making a meatball. The harder you squeeze, the more formidable the ball is for throwing. Most of the time, we didn't have enough time between peltings to make dense---or even round---snowballs. We made our ammunition quick and easy. Besides, we weren't out to hurt each other.

That same slightly moist snow makes fine snowmen, though it's heavy for shoveling. Start with a snowball, roll it around the yard for a bit, and voila! One third of a snowman! Do it three times in varying sizes and you have a snowman's body. That's when the variations usually occur.

The only snowmen I was involved with were in our back yard. I usually made one with Mary Anne, often while it was still snowing. We had plenty of room to roll the balls around and build them up, but we sometimes made them too big and had a devil of a time moving them to where we wanted to build the snowman. The size of a snowman is pretty much limited to the strength of the builders in rolling the snow. On occasion, some kids built one on the School's grassy front space. But it was a lost cause. As soon as School reconvened, the snowman became a target for morning snowballs and didn't last long.

Granular snow was useless from our point of view. It was normally found in week-old snow and is a manifestation of frozen-melted snow becoming ice. Icy snow, on the other hand, breaks off the pack in chunks and is impossible to form into a snowball----and throwing ice chunks was unappreciated. The dry, powdery kind (kanevvluk) usually arrives as a medium fall and is impossible to use in the making of snowballs---but it was fine for knocking a kid down in it and washing his face. Of course, I never did that. I remembered how many times my brothers had done it to me. “Gotcha!” “Hey, knock it off!” “Cut it out” “I'll get you for this!” Of course, it goes without saying that warming weather “slush” is worthless.

That dry, powdery snow, when fallen in the mountains, was excellent for the ski slopes. Skiers love it, especially when it's fresh and virgin. I tried to go skiing once---in High School. One snowy Saturday during high school, a bunch of us drove up to Mt. Cathalia in New York. None of us had skis. We assumed we could rent them. The ride was a snowy one, but we didn't encounter any traffic accidents or tie-ups on the trip---either direction. But, high school gents of the period didn't normally run around with a lot of money in their pockets. This was the early sixties and the Mt. Cathalia Ski Center demanded a $50 deposit for each pair of rented skis. The ski slopes were inviting, as were the prospects of snow bunnies, but we didn't have the necessary money. Our dispirited ski team then adjourned to the lodge, found the fireplace, ordered a few beers, listened to “bossa nova,” and spent the afternoon relaxing amongst ourselves and with whomever entered the area---and we didn't have a broken leg among us. [Drinking age in New York at the time was 18.]

The next year, the Mr. Cathalia Ski Center burned to the ground---and it never reopened. Go figure.

We had numerous running fights in the cemetery where the trees and the stones acted as temporary cover while we ran around pelting each other. We just had to be sure to stay away from any burials. A snowball fight really has no winner or loser unless the poorer fighter gives up and runs home crying. The thrill is in the fight. The agony is in de feet. Getting hit by snowballs was no big thing. We just didn't like a cold snowball in the face, especially if the snow was on the grainy-icy side. It was disorienting for enough time to maybe get hit again and again. In my case, summer experience with baseball helped a lot with my snowball accuracy. I especially liked my curves hitting the opponent on his noggin. Of course, on occasion the same thing happened to me.

...But we were kids, and we didn't really know that proper respect for the dead included giving up our cemetery snowball fights. We were on more dangerous ground when we threw our bodies and sleds down one of the cemetery roads behind the church. The road on the left edge of the cemetery proper was a steep downhill path with a sharp right turn. If you didn't turn properly, chances were you'd be in the cyclone fence at best, the filthy brook at worst. As noted above, that portion of the road, though plowed, was never used by funeral processions in the winter because of its inherent danger.

We had a little natural banking which helped you turn correctly, but it wasn't an engineered bank, only one deposited by the cemetery snowplow. You couldn't make an early right turn because those annoying gravestones were in the way. And you couldn't very well turn left unless you wanted to hit one of the pine trees bordering the hill. They certainly wouldn't provide a soft stop since their bases were trimmed up to about two feet leaving the unforgiving trunks. I suppose you could have turned left between the tree trunks, but that took skill and quick thinking. We were only kids.

I'd stand at the top of the hill. I'd take aim at the snowy course with pressed lips and childhood determination, take a deep breath, and start the run. At a desired speed and at the very top of the hill before the incline, I'd throw the sled down and throw myself aboard. The quality of my ride depended on my accuracy at hitting the sled. It was no fun to be half off the thing and fighting to hang on. That was a sure recipe for a snow-covered, banked, and botched ride. If I landed properly and the sled was centered on the hill, I had a chance to experience a thrill. The ride was speedy, and I had to be sure to turn properly near the bottom. That done, my sled would slow down on the runoff portion of the road---the right ell. I'd have been successful and very pleased. I was one of the elite who made a perfect ride.

Kids have always been kids. Science tells us that, with the proper algae, we could have red, blue, salmon, or yellow snow. The algae create beautiful scenes, mostly in the mountains where people don't ski or usually tread. The snow doesn't fall in colors, but once on the ground with the right circumstances and algae, the colors appeared. But, we weren't in the mountains, and our yellow snow patches were definitely not due to algae.

The real tiring part of sledding was the constant walking or running back up the hill for another go. We needed a ski lift for sleds. If we were at the hill without a sled, we borrowed from each other or would go down the hill two to a sled, one person lying on top of the other, or one person sitting behind the other---but sitting on a sled was considered wimpy. That sitting system was often used for the younger or heavier kids---you'd agree to that with a heavyweight passenger or a scared, but eager, little kid.

There were rats around the brook, but we never saw them in the winter. During the summer, some of the older kids went to the brook to shoot rats with their BB guns. Okay Ralphie, I never had a BB gun, Red Ryder or any other brand, and I never saw any rats anywhere around the water. Maybe those older kids were more accurate than we thought.

My sled did well on the hill because I could steer it. Some new sleds were still too tight to turn well. Even so, there were kids who panicked and didn't try to turn, thus plowing into the snow and fence. Or they didn't place themselves properly when throwing the sleds down and fell off. Or they simply fell on the runway and let their sleds go. When that happened, we had to dodge the errant sleds. Still, I don't remember any serious accidents---just some bruises and scrapes. Hurt kids just sulked home to their Moms for fix-ups. In the fifties of our youth, there were rarely detours through
an attorney's office. Times have changed.

Those days I'd wander home happy, tired, and covered with snow. I'd have wet mittens or gloves (to throw on the heating outlet,) soaked socks, and a rosy glow on my cheeks. I was a bit of a mess, but after the undressing rituals, I rested warmly in front of the TV or sat in a wing chair reading. I relished the hot chocolate or tomato soup Mom kindly made for me. I was too young for a warmed snifter of brandy.

...instant cocoa didn't exist. Mom would heat milk in a small
pot, take a little out to mix with the measured amount of cocoa powder and sugar---maybe a touch of vanilla---and then pour the resulting dark chocolate mixture into the pot of milk. Voila! A little more heating and you had hot, drinkable cocoa. We normally had the dark can of Hershey's cocoa for these occasions. NesQuick was available, but we didn't use it. For cold milk drinks, we used Bosco or Brer' Rabbit molasses. Molasses and milk is an intriguing taste experience.

In the cold, snowy winter, the Davidge Park Pond (Davidge Park is officially Fancher-Davidge Park) froze over and was used for ice-skating. There was a little warming shack, a barrel of fire, and an attendant or two. A sign would tell us how thick the ice was, sort of a Nileometer for Middletown. If the ice was too thin, no one was allowed to skate. Too thick an ice cover was never a problem. That would have meant a serious cold snap and the pond would have a substantial ice cover. Besides, is there a thickness too thick for skating? I doubt it, though skating on a very thick surface might be like skating on a glacier.

The City cleaned the snow off the frozen pond with a small tractor. From my point of view, if the ice held up for the tractor, it could probably hold up for me. Because of the distance from home to the pond and the cold weather in Middletown, we didn't ride bikes to the pond. Dad drove us, so we only went at night.

The only ice skates I had access to were ill-fitting, thirty-year old figure skates. I couldn't balance on them very well. Actually, I could barely stand up, and it didn't make a difference how many socks I wore. So I didn't do much ice-skating. I got tired after a while of my ankles folding and hurting like hell. I just wasn't getting any respect or support. It was fun, though, standing around and talking at the fire-in-a-barrel or the little hut with the gas heater, or throwing snowballs with the other non-skaters. But it wasn't fun to have sore, wet ankles and wait for two hours until Dad picked us up.

I never observed anyone disappear under broken ice. The thickness meter out front warned us away if it was dangerous. And since the snow wouldn't have been cleaned off when the ice was too thin, there wouldn't have been much sense in trying to skate. Spring thaw was another thing, however. We knew the ice would shrink as the weather warmed, so we kept an eye on our “Nileometer.”

Watching a heavy snow storm from inside, especially if it was at night, was a pleasure. Everyone would be home, school would probably be called off the next day, and I could earn some extra money shoveling. After that I could go sledding or snowball fighting. Sometimes the latter took place while I was roaming around looking for work. I love the winter.

I would be happy for that substantial snowfall. I took my shovel and roamed the neighborhood getting snow shoveling jobs for extra money. Yes, substantial snow. Only I didn't want moist, heavy snow more than a couple of inches. It weighed too much, slowed my progress, exhausted me, and cut into my profits. I remember waist-high snow falls. But looking back, I wasn't all that tall. So the “huge” snowfalls were probably no more than 20 inches---still substantial, but not that much in comparison to my height today.

I had some non-classmate acquaintances from other schools. I saw them on occasion, mostly in the early evenings or an odd Saturday. Nicky W was one who played baseball with us. It was one of these fellows I met up with one snowy Saturday. I was shoveling walks and he found me. He wanted us to work as a team so we could earn more money. I agreed, even though I couldn't remember his name. I still can't. He had wrapped his head with a loose bandage and added some red ink. He thought the “bloody” bandage would create sympathy and earn us more money for shoveling. I didn't object, but I didn't let him actively use it to con people. He said nothing about the bandage, and when asked he just shrugged it off.

Although we did mainly homes, we did get the job for an apartment house. Not a fancy one---which would have had its own shoveler---but a mediocre looking one. We went to the super who was going to do it himself. He was glad to pay us for the work. For the whole afternoon throughout the local area, we worked hard, made good money, and I don't think I ever saw my partner again.

These days, finding work to earn money in shoveling snow after a snowstorm is nearly impossible. Most people have snow blowers or children to do the dirty work. Driveways are ploughed by trucks or jeeps with plow attachments. There isn't much left for the nomadic kid snow shoveler...

1 comment:

Danica said...

You write very well.