Helen Chappell - January 2009
These days, when I wake up and the first snowfall of the year is on the ground, I admire the white, transient beauty of winter, then hope it melts off before I have to drive in it. After that first winter wonderland, where white softness covers up a multitude of sins, subsequent snowfalls are greeted with mumbles of “not again!”
All the curmudgeonly grumbling about shoveling, taking a broom to sweep off the car, scraping the ice off the windshield and driving on ice soon follows. I’ve reached the age where I only drive on ice in absolute emergencies, and I don’t drive on ice at night for anyone or anything.
Yes, I’ve grown older, but I haven’t reached the stage where I’m writing bitter, spittle-flecked letters to the paper when my side loses, and I’m not yelling at kids to get off my lawn. Yet. Even though the second or third heavy snowfall of the year makes me feel as if I’d like to release my frustration by doing those things.
How did I get here – to the point where a snowfall becomes an inconvenience, rather than a wonderful surprise, a gift that means ... snow day!
Snow days – those glorious unexpected holidays of childhood, when you didn’t have to go to school, but had a whole day gloriously free to play outside!
First, you’d wake up in the morning and look outside to see the world covered in beautiful whiteness. A white stillness so encompassing that even the tire chains on the cars that rolled down the street sounded muffled and almost like sleigh bells.
Then you’d dash downstairs, and while you ate your breakfast, you’d listen to the radio, which your mom had tuned to the local station. As you ate your Lucky Charms or your Frosted Flakes, you’d listen as the announcer tolled off the names of the schools calling in to close. Of course, they’d name every school district in three counties before they finally got to yours. And sometimes, if you were really, really lucky and they didn’t call yours, your mom would decide it was still too dangerous on the roads, and let you stay home. Glory days!
Sometimes, of course, the unthinkable happened and your school wasn’t closed, and your mom decided you had to go, whether you wanted to or not. They you’d sullenly get dressed and go sit in a classroom that smelled of wet wool and steam heat with a bunch of other disappointed kids. Your teacher, who was probably even more disgruntled than you were that she had to come in, was just as sullen as you were, and if she’d been teaching since God was a boy, she didn’t even bother to hide it. All of you would spend most of the day staring enviously out the window at the pristine white world, while fractions and Andrew Jackson at the Battle of New Orleans could both go to h-e-double hockey sticks as far as all of you were concerned.
But if they called your district’s name, it was glorious. Because no one was rushed, you might get a hot breakfast with bacon or, wonder of wonder, pancakes and sausages.
After breakfast, the first thing you did was get dressed in your play clothes. Jeans, flannel shirts, sweaters, heavy socks and long underwear.
Then the real dressing would begin. My parents seemed to operate under the assumption that my brother and I were going on an Arctic expedition, because we both had these heavy L. L. Bean outfits we had to pour over a full layer of clothes. Mine was a sort of dull brown and several sizes too large because you were expected to “grow into it.”
It consisted of a pair of heavy-duty snow pants with elastic and zippers around the ankles and an impossible-to-get-up zipper, topped with a hooded jacket with so many pockets, zippers and flaps that I could have carried supplies to the Russian army. Both were lined with a kind of bulky fabric that looked and felt like a bath mat, and was just about as comfortable. I will say this; that stuff wore like iron, because I wore that jacket from the time I was 10 right up through college, when it finally fell apart on a ski slope in New Hampshire. And yes, I did eventually grow into it.
Then you had your boots. They were rubber, of course, lined with more fuzzy wuzzy bath mat stuff, and these too had industrial strength zippers. They didn’t keep the snow from seeping between the cuffs of the snow pants and the boots, so after about fifteen minutes, your ankles were a nice frostbite red, but hey, I was a kid. I didn’t care. It’s amazing how impervious to extremes of climate kids can be. These days, I’d be freezing if my ankles were cold and wet.
Okay, the next thing you did was get this six-foot-long scarf wrapped around your neck and the lower part of your face, so you couldn’t see anything. Since you already couldn’t move, you could barely put on your mittens, which had idiot clips (that’s what we all called them) that clipped to your coat sleeves so you couldn’t lose them.
Then, if you could move, you were turned out of doors to play. The minute you were out of sight of any grown-up, off came the scarf, then the leggings. Then you could see to run for the sledding hill, which was actually a street behind our house where all the neighborhood kids got together and sledded ourselves silly until some grumpy old killjoy called the cops, who would come out and chase us away, because it was “dangerous” and we were “impeding traffic.”
I’ve always suspected someone, somewhere was just miffed that all these kids, black and white and everything in between, were out there having a good time together. We fixed that person repeatedly, every Halloween, for several years.
After we got kicked off the hill, we’d usually trudge back home, where my brother and I would make a snowman. Sometimes, our mom would come out and work with us, rolling those three big balls, adding stones for a mouth, a carrot for a nose and pine cones for eyes. Then we’d add one of my father’s best hunting caps, branches for arms and admire our work.
Either our snowman would stand out there until it slowly melted away, or the neighborhood bully, a regular Nelson Muntz of a guy, came by with his toady henchman and pushed it over.
Then we’d sled on the neighbor’s slope until we got bored and came in and had lunch. Then we’d watch Popeye cartoons all afternoon. It was, I assure you, perfect bliss, the kind you can only get when you’re too young to realize all the inherent dangers of nature being red in tooth and claw, or my brother chipping a tooth on a particularly risky run, requiring trips to the dentist and my mother being really p.o.’d for a while, until one of us did something even worse.
One snow day morning, I woke up particularly early, put on the Seven Layers of Frostbite Avoidance and went out before anyone else was up yet. I was pretty excited, because it was all just so pretty and I had a whole glorious day off from school. So I tromped around the yard for a while, my boots pulling in and out of the snow, then decided I’d lie down on the little slope in between our house and the street and make snow angels.
No one was up, so no one knew I was out and about. I suppose I could have gotten into some trouble for not letting my evil plan be known. But I wanted to make snow angels.
You know how to make snow angels, I’m sure. You lie down on your back in the snow and roll your arms and legs up and down against the ground, so that when you get up, you’ve left the impression of an angel in the snow.
Well, I made about five or six of them, then came back before anyone was up. Down in the basement, in front of the furnace, I shed all those layers of clothes and hung them to dry as always. Then I went upstairs to eat my Sugar Pops. (How did we survive the cereals of our childhoods? How did our parents survive us, all sugared up?) It didn’t occur to me to tell anyone where I’d been. I had a vague idea it was a no-no to sneak out.
While I was sitting there, a knock came at the door. My mother answered it to a uniformed police officer.
Now, we were not the kind of family where law enforcement officials were frequent visitors, like some people we all know. The officer was probably about 22, and about as green as they come, but to me, at about 10, he looked like something out of the Spanish Inquisition.
“We got a report that someone was lying on the slope in front of your house this morning,” he explained sheepishly to my mother. “Is everything all right?”
Of course, we were, my mother said, doing a quick head count around the breakfast table just to be sure.
I knew who that someone lying there was. It wasn’t the town drunk or some homeless guy. It had been me, out there making snow angels.
And some nosy neighbor had driven past and thought the worst. Instead of stopping to help, they’d dumped the matter into the hands of the police.
I should have spoken up and explained it was me, in my four layers of clothes and my “you’ll grow into it” snowsuit. But I was so cowed by the actual sight of a cop, that I sat there and didn’t say a word. Just sat there with a mouthful of Sugar Pops, staring.
The young cop was satisfied and left. The mystery was never solved. It was in the police blotter in the paper and everything. People had their suspicions, but no one was ever found who would sleep in a snow bank. But to this day, I’ve never told anyone that story. And now, I’m telling you.