Saturday, July 9, 2011

The Snowball Fight

     It may be just the way that everything seemed larger when I was younger, but I remember that it used to snow a lot more than it does now. Where we lived, a few miles west of Lake Michigan, it would start to snow right after Thanksgiving, and there would be snow on the ground until St. Patrick’s Day. During the holidays, there would be two feet or more in the front yard.
     As with the size of things, time seemed more drawn out then. Christmas breaks seemed almost endless, especially as I approached my teen years. With the excitement of Christmas Day behind us and the New Year looming, we would counter the boredom of being cooped up inside by going out to play in the snow. The proximity of Lake Michigan kept the climate humid and contributed to what we called the “packing” quality of the snow. It was excellent for making snowballs, and we obliged it by making and throwing snowballs all winter long. We would throw snowballs at each other, at street signs, and at passing cars and buses. We would make a game out of seeing how many times we could hit a bus as it passed, with extra points awarded for getting a snowball through an open window.
     On one of those Christmas break days, in 1970, I was wandering around the neighborhood with my friend John from across the street. It had snowed heavily the night before and there were at least three feet of heavy, wet snow on the ground. I knew it was wet and heavy because I had already shoveled it off our driveway and sidewalks. Up the street, John and I noticed that our friend Dave, who lived next to John, and another neighborhood kid, Robbie, were dragging Christmas trees toward us. This was back when everybody had live trees, which would dry out and become fire hazards if they were not taken down right after Christmas. It was the city’s practice to collect the trees from people’s curbs and mulch them into fertilizer, which they would then sell back to the people. It helped to ease the guilt over wasting all those evergreen trees.
     Dave and Robbie had decided they would have some fun with the Christmas trees before they were collected. They were dragging every tree in the neighborhood into Dave’s front yard. When we asked them why, Robbie said they were going to use them to build a fort, like a giant teepee made of trees. John and I thought this was the most ridiculous thing we had ever heard and said so. Robbie’s pale face turned crimson but I couldn’t tell if it was from embarrassment or anger. John was something of a bully in those days and he saw an opening. He walked over to the few trees that were leaning together and shoved them over. Now there was no question that Robbie was angry. He sputtered that we should leave him alone and seemed to be on the verge of crying. Dave looked like he was trying to work up the nerve to order us out of his yard. John kicked at the trees and teased Robbie: “What are you going to do about it, you cry baby?” This infuriated Robbie, and he started moving toward John through the deep snow, like he was going to try to hit him or wrestle him to the ground. John laughed mockingly as he dodged out of Robbie’s grasp. I had been packing a snowball during this entire exchange and it was now as hard as a rock. When Robbie made another lunge for John, I threw it with all my might. The snowball hit Robbie squarely in the back of the head with a sickening crack. He went facedown into the snow like he had been shot. He didn’t move for several seconds, and I worried that he was badly injured or possibly dead. But then he emitted a horrible wailing sound and struggled to his hands and knees. I was so relieved to see that I hadn’t killed him that I started laughing uncontrollably.
     Robbie got to his feet and turned to face me. He was covered in snow. It was melting off his bright red face and mixing with tears as he cried hysterically. I tried to sympathize with how much his head must have been hurting, but it didn’t stop my idiot laughing. Robbie lumbered toward me, and I was sure he intended to kill me. I backed away through the deep snow and then turned to run across the street to the safety of home. But Robbie was a big kid, and he had rage working for him. He caught me in my front yard and tackled me into the snow. Before I could struggle away, he sat on my back and shoved my face violently into the snow. I couldn’t breathe. I tried to get away but I couldn’t move. My vision was fading and I could feel myself losing consciousness. Adrenaline took over and my body did a super push-up, throwing Robbie off my back and bringing me back to my feet. Robbie looked astonished as I turned to face him, my arm fully cocked. He never saw the roundhouse punch that hit him squarely in the temple. Again, he went down like he had been shot, this time on his back. I stood over him, my hand on fire, not believing what had just happened. Robbie lay on his back, blubbering and in obvious pain, his arms and legs spread like he was making snow angels.
     I was overwhelmed by a terrible sense of shame at what I had done and turned to walk away. I went quietly into my house and downstairs to the basement rec room. I sat in the dark replaying the fight in my mind and trying to wish it away. The phone rang and I could feel the blood drain out of my body. I heard footsteps approaching upstairs. My mother stopped at the top of the stairs and said, “Are you down there? Robbie’s mother is on the phone, and she is very unhappy. What did you do?” I didn’t answer her right away. How could I explain that in the short time I had been outside playing in the snow, I had almost killed a person and then almost been killed by that same person? I opened my mouth to say something but heard her steps retreating back to the phone. I sat in the dark and watched the light fade from the day.

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