By David A. Bates
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The Great Midwest. The Snow Belt. Living, working and driving there can be at best a challenge and at worst a hazard to life and limb. But to a kid in junior high school, and hating it, the Snow Belt can bring joyous freedom. For not only is The Great Midwest home to severe weather, it is also the home of Snow Days.
Snow days. Parents face them with dread and trepidation, but the kids embrace them with relish. A snow day means a day away from Geometry, Social Studies and Gym. It means a day spent snuggled in bed until well past ten in the morning and then in a near-paralytic stupor in front of the Cathode Ray God.
Unless you lived in my neighborhood back in the early 1960’s.
In my neighborhood, a heavy snow meant one thing and one thing only - Snow Wars. Snow wars were combat with an intensity rivaling Juno Beach. Snow wars in which no clear winner was ever determined. Not even the spring thaw brought peace in our time. Hostilities were merely suspended temporarily, until the next Snow Day.
Our Snow Wars were fought along multiple fronts, which rarely followed traditional patterns. A front might stretch for ten city blocks, bending and twisting to accommodate the most ideal defensive positions. Hedges were preferred because the approaching enemy forces could be observed for some distance, yet the defenders were safe from assault. Not even the most tightly packed iceball could penetrate a thick hedgerow. Thorns were always a bonus. Even the boldest of snow warriors would not risk crippling injury at the hands of a prickly bush, not even for the thrill of pummeling the enemy into submission.
Old Lady Burnham’s house was, by universal agreement, the DMZ. She had little patience for thirteen-year-olds and even less for the occasional misfired shot. Telephone calls to parents, or the police, were the most effective deterrent to a well-organized offensive ever developed. Those of us on the receiving end of one of Old Lady Burnham’s complaints always believed that the United Nations missed the boat in not using her as an international peacekeeper. She could strike fear in the hearts of the coldest snow troopers. Even the prickly bushes were preferable to a round with Old Lady Burnham. For that reason, landmarks easily recognizable to both sides were established at various locations along our fronts for the sole purpose of warning the combatants of their increasingly dangerous proximity to the haunts of Old Lady Burnham. The fire hydrant on the corner of Tenth and Crescent was the absolute edge of the free-firing zone. Beyond that point, the possibility of an errant overhand lob finding its way onto Old Lady Burnham’s front porch became a behavior modifier more significant than being hit squarely in the face by one of Chucky Scaparelli’s full-bore fastballs.
The day the Snow Wars changed forever began not unlike all previous Snow Days. A ten-inch overnight snowfall, coupled with an inch of sleet, sealed the fate of school early on. Like all good Snow Troopers, we listened for school closing reports on our radios beginning at around five-thirty in the morning. Any and all background noise halted immediately with the words: "The following schools are closed today due to weather conditions..." The silence continued until we heard the name we all waited for, our school, mentioned among the list of climatic casualties. Then the cacophony of voices in full cheer mode could be heard from households all over town.
For our parents, it was just another day to slog to the office or the plant. For us, it was party time. We barely finished our breakfasts before donning our best Snow Wars bib and tucker. Off to the field of battle we trotted as fast as our buckle-booted feet could carry us.
The battle commenced pretty much as it had stopped earlier in the week, with the combatants taking up positions along a front covering at least four city blocks. The ice-covered snow was perfect for our mission, which was to leave no human body unscathed.
Chucky Scaparelli and his minions mounted an attack on our left flank, catching us by surprise. No one in our group figured Chucky for having the intelligence to plan those kinds of elaborate tactics. His usual approach was straightforward and direct, namely, a rock-hard fist applied liberally to soft, break-away facial features. Fortunately for our side, my cousin Phil and several of his buddies spotted the assault in time to react. Phil’s forces had the temporary advantage of greater numbers. Thus blessed, his suicide squad managed to drive Chucky and his gang back behind Gladstone’s Pharmacy. The rest of us, at Phil’s prompting, decided to press our advantage. We poured over the front lines in pursuit of the fleeing enemy. Hurling iceballs as fast as we could pack them, we gained almost an entire block before Chucky’s squad regrouped and held. They had managed to retreat as far as the prickly hedgerow along the alley behind the Martins’ house. Since Bob Martin was among Chucky’s troops, any hopes of their being driven off by an irate homeowner vanished.
We pulled up well out of range of the siege we knew was soon to begin. Nobody wanted to concede a standoff this early in the day. What we needed was a plan. What we got was Ricky Nettrow’s little brother volunteering to sneak around behind and hit them from the rear. To our minds, such a move was sheer madness. Chucky liked being outwitted in Snow Wars even less than he liked being called by his nickname - Meatface. Chucky was the first among us to develop Acne. We could only imagine with horror what would happen to little Johnny if he did manage to make it behind them. Even at the age of thirteen, when the activities of most boys revolved around either being cool or toughness one-upmanship, we were anything but comfortable with the thought of facing Ricky’s parents after their first glimpse of the remains of their younger son.
The only solution was to follow Johnny’s lead and embark upon a flanking action of our own. We quickly decided to make a wide sweep of the immediate vicinity and hit Chucky’s squad from the side. As we began our movement, we stockpiled as many snowballs as we could physically carry in the belief that once hostilities resumed, there wouldn’t be time to re-arm. Thus, loaded down with icy ordnance, we made our move.
Chucky’s friends spotted our leading wave moments before we opened fire. Outnumbered as they were, their counter-attack was withering. Snowballs flew in our direction like an avalanche. We looked to be in very real danger of total defeat, and in the backyard of one of the enemy officers. We beat a hasty retreat, firing as we fell back.
In our haste to escape the jaws of death, we failed to observe the all-important landmarks. So involved were we with our botched mission, not to mention saving our skins, that not one of us thought to utter a warning. In a sudden horrifying moment, I noticed that in our haste to escape certain capture, we had fallen back BEHIND the all-important fire hydrant. Chucky’s forces, also focused on our complete annihilation, failed to note our positions.
No one ever really knew who threw the fatal iceball. One minute we were struggling to survive the onslaught. The next minute, all time stood still as we heard a tinkling crash behind us. It wasn’t until we saw Chucky’s entire squad turn and run hell bent for election away from the field of battle that the enormity of what had just occurred struck us like a locomotive.
Someone had broken Old Lady Burnham’s picture window.
Slow death at the hands of the ugliest monster ever seen on the Saturday Night Creature Feature would have been preferable to the fate which now awaited us. Before we could escape, Old Lady Burnham flew out of her house faster than any of us thought humanly possible even for a kid and began screaming at us like a Banshee. It didn’t require a genius to know that before any of us arrived home, our parents would have all received a phone call, at work, and would be ready, willing and able to donate us to the first family of Gypsies that happened by. Thoughts of joining the circus passed through my mind, but I knew even that wouldn’t put me far enough away from the wrath of Old Lady Burnham.
It was two full weeks before any of us were allowed out of our homes except to go to school. Our allowances were immediately garnisheed for the replacement of the shattered windowpane. Warnings to stay away from Old Lady Burnham’s house were unnecessary. Not even Chucky had enough courage to go to within two blocks of the place.
But winter was far from over. Snow Wars, by their very nature, never end. What to do?
As before, it was Johnny Nettrow who gave us the solution to our problem. It was an unintentional solution, but a solution nonetheless.
Johnny started out that morning to build a simple snowman. In his enthusiasm for the project, he had overestimated the size and weight of the base he’d rolled. It wasn’t long before the thing towered above his head. Observing this, and being the ingenious individuals we were, the idea to construct a snow fort was born.
This wasn’t going to be just any snow fort. No sir! This was going to be the Fort Knox of snow forts. Not only did we pack snow into a wall fully fifteen feet long and five feet high, we then carried bucketfuls of water from the Nettrow’s kitchen and poured it over the edifice. Within less than half an hour, we had a snow fort which had walls harder than the wooden paddle in the Principal’s office. If Chucky Scaparelli and his hoodlum buddies harbored any ideas about our unconditional surrender, we just upped the ante.
Of course Chucky was not about to be outdone. Before we had applied the last bucket of water to our redoubt, Chucky’s hoard was busy constructing their own snow fort just across the alley in the vacant lot. Where we used water to form an ice barrier, they placed rocks into the sides of their fort. Where ours had extra thick walls, theirs was built in a semi-circle. Our ill-fated flanking movement two weeks earlier had taught them a lesson in defensive strategy.
It was shaping up to become the Armageddon of Snow Wars. All we needed was another of our parents’ worst nightmares. We needed another Snow Day.
Finally, after six days of preparation and prayer, our dream was realized. That night it snowed - hard. Early the next morning, we gathered around our respective radios in breathless anticipation. We awaited those immortal words: "The following schools are closed today..." The announcer began reading what seemed to be the longest list in the world. Every school we knew, and many we didn’t, was closed up tight. Still we waited. Surely they wouldn’t make US risk life and limb while every other student body in America slept in, would they? Forget the fact that we collectively planned to expose our bodies to far worse abuse than going to school could possibly inflict, it wasn’t fair to force us to trudge through all that inclement weather just to sit in class. Then, just when we were about to give up, when we knew beyond any doubt the next thing we heard would be a commercial break and the end of the list, our school was mentioned. We were free. Let the battle commence!
Breakfast was inhaled. No sooner had day broken then the opposing forces faced off across the narrow alley. Having had almost a full week to build our fort, we had the time to construct an entire room just for the storage of snowballs. It was filled to overflowing with icy missiles boasting a hardness comparable to cold rolled steel. Not only that, we now had an entire back yard covered with six inches of virgin snow. It was truly a beautiful sight to behold.
As befitting his beast-like temperament, Chucky fired the first volley. His speed and control were at their peak. A perfectly rounded iceball whizzed toward us at close to the speed of light - and splattered harmlessly against the rock-hard wall of our fort.
"Nice try, Meatface," one of the bolder members of our troupe yelled. Everyone, including the shouter, knew full well he would never have said that in a face-to-face situation. Not if he wanted to live to see another sunrise, that is. The only reaction his act of bravado elicited this time was a sudden and intense barrage of snow boulders over the walls of our fort. By simply ducking, we escaped serious injury.
Once we were certain the initial launch was over, we returned fire. Every member of the group began tossing our pre-manufactured snowballs toward the enemy encampment as fast as we could pick them up. Our volley had about the same effect on Chucky’s fort as his had on ours. That is to say they plopped harmlessly against the sides, to their glee. After a brief session of name-calling and hooting at our effete assault, Chucky’s gang initiated round two.
This continued for at least three hours. Neither side could do much more than add additional thickness to the opposing side’s fort. Then, to our collective horror, Chucky’s entire squad began an all-out assault. They softened our resolve with a barrage of iceballs, then ran straight toward our fort, firing as they advanced.
We threw iceballs at them as hard and as fast as we could. This tactic only resulted in increased profanity and even greater speed in the frontal assault. It looked like we were close to total defeat.
Then the impossible happened. Chucky’s entire force rammed into our icy wall as hard as they could. From behind the redoubt, we could hear the muffled "THUMP" of bodies ramming into the wall. Then we heard the even more muffled sounds of collective cursing. Chucky’s gang had charged us with all their might, only to hit our ice-hardened wall and bounce off. Our water strategy had worked. Before the enemy could collect themselves and regroup, we battered them with still more snowballs. They ran, actually ran, back to the safety of their own encampment. We had faced down the forces of evil and they blinked.
The great standoff resumed. The siege and counter-siege picked up where it left off before Chucky’s ill-fated attack. It was cold. Standing behind a wall of snow and ice generates far less body heat than running to and fro across the entire neighborhood hurling snowballs as we ran. We were approaching desperation, which meant desperate measures were called for.
My cousin Phil told us to huddle up. He had a plan, which usually meant someone was going to get hurt. When we heard the plan, we were absolutely certain someone was going to get hurt. It was utter madness, but so was freezing to death. Phil proposed that we attack Chucky’s fort in an all-out assault. Having just witnessed the failure of the first attack, we thought the cold air had finally frozen my cousin’s synapses. "We used ice, they didn’t," was all he would say. My cousin was always able to get others to do his bidding.
Since I was one of the larger kids in the group, all eyes suddenly turned toward me. I knew what they were thinking. If anyone had to lead such an assault, it should be someone big enough to ward off the worst of the snowball bombardment sure to occur the second we began our kamikaze run. "We’ll cover you," was their lame attempt at making me feel at ease. Cover me. I was about to die a horrible death and these guys were going to cover me.
But I was getting really cold. Daytime television was looking better and better. I reasoned that if I agreed to this insanity, I could have the remainder of the day to thaw out and lick my wounds. Besides, I’d been on the receiving end of Chucky’s thermonuclear snowballs before and had yet to succumb. How bad could it be?
We decided to make our death defying run on the count of three. I’d lead with the others right behind me, hurling snowballs over the walls as fast as they could to keep the defenders pinned down. We were hoping the element of surprise would be on our side.
It wasn’t. The second we emerged from behind our protection, Chucky and his thugs resumed hurling their snowballs at a heretofore unheard of velocity. We staggered under the withering fire, but came on. The enemy began throwing iceballs, with both hands, and still we came on. We were on a mission and no power on Earth could stop us.
After what seemed an eternity, we managed to reach Chucky’s fort. The head of steam we’d built up was now fully charged. We crashed into the frozen wall as one. Since I was in the lead, I took the brunt of the blow. At first, it seemed as though the wall would hold. Then, as if a miracle had occurred, it cracked. First a tiny bit, then more, until finally a huge, gaping hole appeared through which our collective army poured, still firing week-old iceballs. Where our formidable enemy had failed, we succeeded. Victory was ours. The long, cold Snow Wars were over, at least for that day.
But Chucky was not the type of guy to soon forget his humilation at the hands of lesser beings. He would, we all knew, return seeking vengeance. We began to actually hope there were no more snow days - no more opportunities for Chucky and his gang to steal back our glory.
To our good fortune, Spring arrived early that year. Only the Sun’s rays would put an end, once and for all, to Snow Wars. The great snow forts still stood in the spring warmth. They soon resembled an Arctic Stonehenge, their icy fingers reaching upward into the blue sky as if trying to grasp Winter’s cold from its springtime hiding place. By the end of the school year, only a semi-circle of stones remained in the vacant lot to mark the site of Chucky Scaparelli’s last stand.
By the following winter, most of our group had outgrown Snow Wars. We had suddenly discovered basketball, skating and, some of us at least, girls. Old Lady Burnham moved out of her house the summer after our last Snow War and in with a son who lived in another state. Her house was sold to a family with three boys, all younger than us, who loved to hide behind the prickly bushes and pelt us with snowballs as we passed by. We would occasionally feign a sortie, but not even Chucky could bring himself to chase them into what we would forever consider to be Old Lady Burnham’s turf. The names might have changed, but the Burnham specter remained.
As the years passed, we went through middle school and into high school. Snow Wars became a dim memory, buried under Football games, Friday night dances in the gym and driver’s ed. Chuck Scaparelli (He dropped the ‘y’ in tenth grade. No one debated his decision.) dropped out of school the day after his sixteenth birthday and, after a brief career as Chief Car Washer and Parts Go-fer at Red Denton’s Garage, moved to the West Coast. It was a very sudden move and was done both at the insistence of his father and without the permission of his probation officer. None of us ever found out what happened to Chucky after he moved away, although we always had suspicions. Whenever we read about the escapades of a serial killer or cult leader in the newspaper, we wondered if Chucky Scaparelli had resurfaced at last.
The Nettrow brothers each became successful in their own way. Rick became a doctor and by the age of forty was Chief of Cryogenics at a major university medical center. He achieved highest honors among his peers for his publication of a brilliant dissertation on long-term effects of exposure to extreme winter weather conditions.
After graduation from high school, John was accepted at West Point. Once in the Army, he rose to the rank of Lieutenant General. His essays on tactical flanking maneuvers won numerous citations and several medals.
My cousin Phil entered politics, first on the local level and then nationally. His ability to form coalitions made him a recognized leader almost at once. Phil never turned down a challenge or a committee assignment and was mentioned on two occasions as a potential candidate for Vice President.
Other Snow War veterans went in many different directions. Bob Martin moved with his family to New York City two years after the final Snow War. He overcame the decidedly negative influence of Chucky and became a playwright. His off-Broadway production about a group of adolescent friends coming of age won him considerable critical acclaim and opened on Broadway the following year. A feature film based on the play is scheduled to open nationwide next year.
As we grew older, we also grew apart, as childhood friends tend to do. We became teachers, factory workers, business executives and, in the case of at least two of Chucky’s closest associates, convicted felons. When we did meet, usually by chance and for brief moments, our conversations centered on our families, careers and current events. The Snow Wars were never mentioned.
Me? I toyed with the idea of playing football in high school, but somehow the idea lost its appeal when I really thought about it. I went on to college and then graduate school before finally falling into a career designing prefabricated buildings. I founded a company with a loan from my cousin which last year netted over fifty million dollars producing foam polymer structures for use in hostile environments.
Kids? Yes, as a matter of fact. Three of them. As I write this, they are all in our front yard throwing snowballs at each other. It must be in the blood. The moment I finish this memoir, I intend to pull on my insulated coveralls and teach them the finer points of constructing a proper snow fort. Then, if I don’t get too cold, I’ll show them how to pack an iceball. Playing in the snow may not prepare them for real life, but it’s important to keep some traditions alive.