Friday, December 19, 2008

Fighting Cold Words

It snowed today---I mean really snowed. I woke up to a view of snow out the window on everything and the snow still falling: limited visibility and the stark limbs on the trees. And now, a few hours later, it's still snowing. I like that---though of course I can't drive any longer, so the dangers of the road don't affect me. And actually, there wouldn't be so many road dangers if drivers would slow down their speeds and speed up their senses, especially the common one.

Such a morning sends me back to childhood's wintry days of sledding and snowball fighting. It was a glorious time, what with the running battles and bulls eye hits and all.

A winner or loser is not necessary in a snowball fight. It only requires participants. The fun is in the fight, and it begins with the first thrown ball. Terms and rules are relatively foreign to this type of fight. Almost anything goes. After all, it's just snow, isn't it?

When we moved down the street in 1954, we were across the street from St. Joseph's School and Church---longtime Middletown fixtures. Easy access to the facilities immediately came to mind, and we we were quick to stake our fiefdom claims. 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 could almost fly down the snow-packed hill in numbers, but we had to be careful at the end where the street was. Cars were always a danger, but luckily no one was ever hurt while I was a senior sledding analyst at the schoolyard. We could safely sled on the Church side of the playground, but the ride was much shorter. The sidewalk curb and plowed snow near the side Church door ended the ride too soon.

The School side of the playground was the better choice. Indeed, if the snow was fresh, and if I had a spotter, I could sled down the hill feeling the thrill of speed, continue across the street and up into our snow-covered driveway. What a ride! I tried to fight off the urge to call “Whee!” and stick with the more manly “Yeah!”

A few days after the snowfall, especially if Sunday intervened, the good sledding was gone. With all the cars driving through and parking for Sunday mass---and the additional plowing---the pavement started showing through. If we tried to sled, we'd have to twist and turn to keep on the snow portions. Obviously, you can't sled on pavement. We moved to the cemetery hill (or maybe started there, depending on the group) where there was no traffic to wear away the snow base. And it was close by---only a thirty or fourty feet from the playground arena.

The younger kids, many girls, and the “wimps” used the newly appearing aluminum flying saucers on the school ground. By common agreement, we didn't allow those poor excuses for sleds on the cemetery hill while we were there. Perhaps we were unfair in so classifying the saucers, but they really were a cop-out in search of a sled, hard to control on the narrow cemetery hill, prone to rider falls and off course sailing, and they didn't go as fast as the standard sleds.

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 constructions. 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. The School and Church property on a snowy day off was a veritable paradise for snow activities.

We had good Saturday snow battles because the area had surrounding 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, and reaching a safe spot with no snow or snowballs led to disaster. A dive towards a bush to gain advantage without being hit was a regular tactic. 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 your opponent was easier.

“Hey, Vince! Turn around!” Splattt! I enjoyed the opportunity to practice my summer baseball arm and aim by throwing those wet missiles towards the Smith kids or anybody staying around after school.

If you were a Boy Scout type, you'd get to the school before the other kids and make caches of snowballs where you thought you'd be during the fight. The only danger, of course, was a lucky someone discovering a cache and happily using it.

During school hours, the nuns made sure we didn't have snowball fights, no matter how much fun they were. No one ever walked by wearing a top hat, so we never had that laugh provoking opportunity---and God forbid one of us would dare to throw a snowball at a nun or a priest. Of course if the snow were fresh and plentiful, there probably wouldn't have been school that day anyway.

Snow is nature's reward for bearing the cold. I can stand the winter cold much better if there's snow around. And that's another reason why you won't find me in Florida for the season. 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” (snowbank); and “pirta” (blizzard.)

The best type of snow for making snowballs is powder snow with a good moisture content. [Of course, we never tested it in a lab, so the moisture is measured by feel and experience.] 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---and the better control you have over it when it's launched at the foe. 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. We did, however, have some difficulty in getting the second and third parts up to the top. The perfect construction snow is rather heavy to lift.

The only snowmen I was involved with were in our back yard. I usually made one with my sister, 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. Ours were never show-room quality. 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 cover 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 warmer weather “slush' is worthless.

We had numerous on-the-run battles 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 new burials. We'd often stop behind the stones re-arm. I'd whisper: “Psst…Feeney! We'll take advantage of the break in action. I'm going to sneak over to the Johnson memorial because there are three stones together. I'll start pelting them from there, and you continue from here. Build up a supply of snowballs like they're doing. But we'll get them from two sides and conquer!.. We can't be stopped!.. Onward for snow and glory!.. Take up arms to foil a sea of troubles… No quarter…” And I'd march over to the Johnson memorial spouting fighting words and getting pelted by the ever vigilant Smith kids. So much for devious plotting.

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. 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.

No priests, nuns, or Church staff ever bothered us in the School yard or in the cemetery despite our obvious lack of sensitivity for the Church and its property or even the dead souls with their headstones. 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. 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, 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 and lots of laughter and possible derision from the onlookers. If I landed properly and the sled was centered on the hill, I had a chance to experience a thrill and stand tall. 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 to observe and use. 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.

We had natural staying power, but 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 ['Christmas Story'] 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.

Although the aforementioned aluminum flying saucers were becoming available, they were only used on the school playground proper. The hill was less steep, wider, and longer. On the cemetery road, no one dared ride down on a saucer when other kids were around. Talk about wimpy. We'd never have been able to live it down.

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.

The former, of course, was made from scratch since 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 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. I also went onto the ice with my booted feet, and I don't think I fell down any more than the skaters. I tried to cosy up to some of the girls, but they could just skate away. I wasn't all that charming, so I'd hand around the fire more often than not.

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 Davidge '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 loved 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. Despite its usefulness for snowballs and snowmen, 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 10 to 20 inches---still substantial, but not that much in comparison to my height today.

I had some non-classmate acquaintances from public school. I saw them on occasion, mostly in the early evenings or an odd Saturday. Nicky 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. “Don't worry. This thing'll get sympathy and more money for our work.” 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. Besides, his little ruse didn't gain us any extra money. Will still had hard negotiations with the homeowners and superintendents.

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 him 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.

In my high school years, the sledding impulse didn't leave me. With a bunch of guys and gals, we'd go tobogganing at what became known as 'Blood Hill.' I don't know who owned the property or the yard across the street where we parked, but we never saw anybody.

We spent many of our winter Saturdays at that “Blood Hill.' It was located on the Goshen-Florida (NY) road. I don't remember who owned the place. In fact, I'm not sure I knew it at the time. We parked across the street at a farmhouse, but never saw anyone around. Actually, I think Pat knew the owners, and she arranged things. Nobody else knew for sure. Well, let's be correct. I didn't know. Some of the girls may have known from Pat. And I suppose Spencer knew because he was dating Pat at the time. But, we never went there without Pat. She was our well-respected snow party planner---actually any type of party. During our senior year in High School, we had more parties at Pat's than physics labs at school.

'Blood Hill' received its name from us for the many minor injuries we incurred on the downhill runs. Few of them were actually bloody. Most just bumps, bruises or sprains. I think the toboggans were big enough for four people, and they turned over a lot. We weren't experts, and laughing all the time didn't help. At the bottom of the hill were a few silo stone foundation remnants. After those were the fence and the highway. To tell the truth, we had no business using that hill---but it was fun. I remember one time getting my leg caught under the speeding toboggan, but I managed to walk away from it. At least I never had bloody injuries. I can now imagine what liability the owners were open to, but that thought never crossed anyone's mind. And to this day, I don't know which of us provided the toboggans---check that! I think Pat had one of them. After all, her father owned a toy and sporting goods store in Goshen. He sold toys, sleds, toboggans, bikes---and fixed the latter as well. Yes, she probably had one of the toboggans.

Afterwards, we'd go to Pat's house for hot chocolate. We went there after most events just to hang around. We had no candy stores or malt shops that suited us in Goshen. Pat lived near the high school, her parents were friendly, and we decided there was no other option worth considering.

Ah, winter! The season of our content.

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