by Richard Talbot
The Eskimo languages, it is said, have dozens of different words for snow and this is very useful to the Eskimo. Reveal this fact to grownups and they will seem surprised, but tell this same thing to a boy of ten and he will only signal satisfaction at learning that someone has had the good sense to name the different kinds of snow that he is already familiar with. Every boy growing up in Minnesota knows that all snow is not the same. While boys may not know all the different names for these snows, they do know them by sight and all of their different uses.
There is the kind that crunches beneath your boots when the temperature is right; it’s good for snowballs, but is so light that it has only a medium capacity for joy and destruction when aimed at your brother. There is the heavy, wet kind that soaks your mittens through and is a lot better for the same thing. And then there is the dry hard-packed kind that is especially good for cutting into blocks when you need to make a snow fort. This is the kind that has a light layer to the top that gets picked up by the wind and is wistfully swirled about all around in snow devils. It sparkles in the light and gives off the prettiest rainbow luminescence when the angle of the sun is just right.
Young boys know a lot of other things as well, things that military men call tactics and ordnance. Boys know about these things, too, but they don’t know what their proper names are. But know them they do, and they can tell you exactly how far a snowball of a given kind will go when it is launched. How it will behave when it hits its target. How its target will behave when he gets hit. They can anticipate their enemy’s firepower as well, and plan the best escape route once they have launched their joyful weapons of destruction. Boys know a lot about snow, tactics and ordnance.
When I was a boy I loved the winter, but there was one time in particular that was the best of all. That was Christmas vacation. Everything about it was perfect; no school, snowy days and nothing to do.
Christmas vacation had come at last and my older brother David and I were going to take advantage of it. A heavy, moist snowfall the night before had left all the farmland around us white and beautiful. There was something cheery and bright about the morning sunlight as it beckoned us out into the fields that surrounded our home.
David was 14 and I was 10, and smoking was the only capital crime we were ever in constant violation of. We took good measures to escape detection, a small piece of bread was always carried along for eating after we had finished smoking. It would dampen the telltale smell on our breath. We also made sure that we were a full half mile from home before we would light up.
With two cigarettes pinched from our mom, we headed out across the fallow cornfield to our hiding place in the woods beyond. Reaching the far edge of the field we crossed through the barbed wire fence. The fence was too tall to step over. We had to crawl through being careful not to hook our bulky parkas on the prickly barbs. In the summertime, this was easy to do, but in the winter, it was trickier; the shear bulk of our jackets, gloves and caps made it impossible to feel how close the wires were to our backs or chests as we slid through. I invariably made it through without nicking my jacket or trousers, only to have my knit ski mask snagged by the barbed wire plucking it off my head and piercing my scalp.
The snow was deep, moist and fresh. David was in a generous mood that morning and he compressed the lower rung of the wire with his boot as he lifted the next rung up for me with his gloved hand. I passed through easily and stood up to return the favor. Both safe we turned and looked at that vast expanse of hill that spread before us leading down to the ravine below.
Not a gradual slope, this one dropped off sharply, and had a prodigious accumulation of snow from the night before. With the sun at our backs, we trudged this unbroken mantle of sparkling white, blazing a path as we went. Each successive lift of our boots would cause the newly excavated snow to tumble out spilling ahead of us in miniature avalanches that cascaded down the hill.
“This is good packing snow,” I thought to myself. “Great for snow forts but even better for snowballs.” I didn’t know the Eskimo word for it, only its usefulness.
Our descent leveled out after a very short time and we came to the bottom of the ravine by the barren oak trees. In the springtime, the snow would melt and a crystal-clear brook would frisk along over the exposed roots of the trees where we now stood. In winter, these trees stood a respectable distance from the bottom of the hill, giving no threat to a sledder whose run had played out. But always, they gave shelter and it was here that we at last would light up.
It was a windless, sunny morning. All was ready for us to relax and have a smoke, but David stopped things when he announced, “Hey, I gotta go.”
I knew what he meant so I said, “So go.”
“No,” he said. “I gotta go bad.”
I shrugged my shoulders and said, “So? Go.”
We were too far from home to do anything else, and being boys it seemed only natural. I turned my back as he walked away to find a good spot at the base of the hollow oak. As I stood there I shifted my weight back and forth to warm my feet. There was the squeaky crunch of snow packing beneath my boots.
I turned again to look at David and there I beheld a sight rarely seen by any ten-year-old boy; his own brother, not fifteen feet away, with his pants down around his ankles, his body bent with one hand braced against a tree for balance, his skinny white butt hanging out in the wind and his business placing him in the most extreme moment of vulnerability imaginable.
My thoughts began to whirl. I don’t remember consciously reaching down and picking up that handful of snow but I do remember the squeaky crunch that it made as I compressed the sphere forming in my hands. That sound spoke to me and signaled that all was well. I let out a long low sigh and whispered to myself, “Perr-fect.”
David heard this and looked over at me. His eyes widened dramatically. He jutted out his jaw and growled ominously, “Ricky…”
I wanted to laugh but dared not. All the calculations had been made in my fevered brain and now nothing could be left to chance, not even the time it took to laugh out loud. A deft flick of my wrist and the newly-formed sphere was turned 90 degrees over and 180 degrees back. I compressed it once in my mittens and now it was perfect.
“Easy, boy,” I thought. “Don’t squeeze too hard. This one has got to shatter into a million pieces and fall into his pants.”
My arm started up into the air. Now David’s eyes narrowed into tiny slits. His voice dropped a full octave and his words came frighteningly steady and evenly paced:
That was what I was hoping he would do—nothing. He was all mine and nothing could stop me now. Like a tape on fast forward I thought of all the times he had gotten me, like the times he tortured me for no good reason or the time he was holding me down and I was screaming and he spit in my mouth and all those other times he plain old ditched me when Mom said I could go along with him.
But that was all behind me now. The only thing ahead was revenge, victory, and escape. Without turning to look back over my shoulder I knew the escape path I would use; the deep one, the one of least resistance, the one carved out by my brother’s own boots. In a flash all the details of this attack were laid out there before me. The barbed wire at the fence? Not a problem. My lead on him will be so great that he’ll still be picking chunks of snow out of his underwear by the time I’m that far away; the cornfield to cross, the safe harbor of my mother’s waiting arms, it was all there before me.
“Yes,” I thought. “Yess.”
The worst he could do to me was wash my face in snow or maybe even brain me but heck, he’d been doing that twice a week for the last five years anyway. My decision was made and everything from here on out began to happen without my consciously willing it so.
My arm continued to rise, my elbow as high as my ear, my wrist cocking back. I could see he wasn’t even finished yet. In fact, he was right in the middle of it. He never took his eyes off me, his scowling stare pretended it had the power to stop me. In a trance, the calculations were flowing into my brain: “Wind? None. Snowball? Ready.”
“Yes,” I thought. “Yes, this is perfect—perfect!”
My wrist was fully cocked and my arm was coiled back. I pivoted on my right foot and stepped forward on my left.
His evil-eye gambit had failed. He was defenseless. He could see I was determined and he was nowhere, joyfully nowhere near being finished.
“Fire in the hole. Pull!” I squeaked.
His eyes widened and he seemed unwillingly resigned to his fate. I actually felt sorry for him but I got over it quickly as my sphere flew true and hit its mark, his left cheek, shattering into a million pieces filling his shorts with icy debris. I had never seen anything so beautiful in all my life.
“Yes!” I thought. “But what’s this? He’s pulling up his pants. They’re full of snow. How can he do that? Oh-oh, but wait—he’s making a snowball!”
A snowball? I could not believe my eyes. He was taking the time to craft a snowball out of the very object that only a moment before had been seen steaming out of sight below the snowline.
He couldn’t be?
In all the history of kid warfare nothing like this had ever been seen before. All the rules of engagement were suddenly cast aside. He was a lunatic run amuck. Panic set in. Every nerve in my body was firing at once.
“RUN! RUN—RUN!” my brain was screaming. But I could not move. It was as if my feet were frozen to the ground. I was now the quarry, and my brother was using the kid equivalent of nuclear weapons; no place to run, no place to hide.
My panic loosened its grip and blood began to return to my brain. An instant later, the pent-up storehouse of adrenaline in me was released all at once. Coordination was gone. Both feet tried to move at once. Cocooned in Parka and snow pants, I was like a man in a dream who could run but could not flee. I began to run directly up the slope, abandoning the longer trail that moments before my brother’s boots had so usefully cleared.
Clawing my way through the air, screaming, knee-high in snow, I battled my way up the hill. Desperately I wanted to see how fast he was gaining on me, but I dared not look. The slightest fraction of a second lost in casting a glance over my shoulder now might cost me—but what? I dared not think. It was too horrible to imagine.
Onward I scrambled. The passing seconds seemed an eternity fraught with dread, filled with panic. I had to know, how far behind me was he? Was there a chance? Was he close? I had to look. I looked.
The sun was suddenly blotted out and all the world went brown. Blinded I fell forward pawing at my eyes. Writhing in kid agony, I burrowed deep into the snow bank trying to cleanse from my face the warm, smelly mess. I myself, was packing more snow into my own collar than my brother had ever done to me before.
A moment later, I could see again. My brother’s shadow fell upon me and blocked out the sun. My screams for pity fell on cold, deaf ears. Without saying a word he stepped over me, satisfied, and trudged up the hill toward home. I lay alone in that snow bank crying and scouring my face. My cheeks were frozen and red. My cries at last, subsided to whimpers. Caked with snow I got to my feet and slowly started home.
There was nothing I could do about this. Nothing but take it. At first, I thought I’d tell on him, but what would that get me? My father would have questions: “Well, how did the snowball come to have shit in it?”
And then there would be that part about me hitting him in the butt with the snowball and he’d probably say, “Well, it looks like you got what you deserved.”
I crossed the frozen cornfield back toward home, rubbing my cheeks and crying to myself, “It’s just no fair—that’s all. It’s just no fair.”
Copyright Richard Talbot October 11, 1993.