Sunday, February 12, 2012

Winter Un-Whined

A few weeks ago, I wrote at some length about my dislike for winter.  At the time, I noted how effortless it is for me, and many people I think, to slip into whining mode.  I personally find it easier to dwell on the negatives to emphasize the positives.  And it seems that our culture agrees.  Turn on the TV, and you’ll find it brimming with cynicism, condescension, and general gloominess.  This programming wouldn’t be so prevalent if it weren’t for one fact: it sells.

This is actually me, circa 1972.  My attitude toward shoveling hasn't changed much since then.

You’d think these would be halcyon days for someone like me with a longtime reputation as a sarcastic wiseass.  And I suppose they would be if my cynicism was a part of me that I was comfortable embracing. 

But I’m not.  Not really.  I’ve got a pessimist’s head, but an optimist’s spirit.  Admittedly, I let the cynical me have his way more often than I am proud of, but in this post, I am not going to.  I am going to write a counterpoint to my posting of a few weeks ago, and tell you about some upsides of winter, at least as they used to be.

I grew up the oldest child in a largish family in a smallish house, and many were the days when we kids were tossed outside to play and get out from underfoot.  This was before video games and DVDs, so when stuck inside my brothers and I could become bored and whiney nuisances in very short order.  Fortunately, there were lots of other kids living in our neighborhood, and their parents also subscribed to the “you kids go outside and play before I lose my mind” theory of child management.  Unless the temperature was well below zero or a hurricane of at least category three was sweeping through the area, there was typically a gaggle of kids in my neighborhood with some crazy plot brewing.  This was especially true during the snowy winter months.

Across the street from the house where I grew up is a large hill. It’s short but steep, and was the ideal spot for death-defying sledding.  Bear in mind that I was a kid while “The Dukes of Hazzard” was popular on TV.  Consequently, we not only wanted to go down that hill as fast as possible, but we also had a yearning desire to literally fly on our sleds.  Every winter we spent at least a third of our time there making and remaking snow ramps, sometimes at least four feet high, and another third coming up with outlandish and often dangerous stunts that all centered around the idea of hitting those ramps at top speed and going airborne.  There were many times when you would crash spectacularly and literally lie there seeing stars for a minute.  Then you’d somehow get to your feet, march up the steep hill, and do it all again.  We did this dozens of times in a single afternoon, for days and weeks on end.  Thank goodness young bodies are flexible and resilient, because ours were routinely put to the test on that hill.  Our sleds were not as flexible and resilient as we were however.  To this day, you can still find shards of plastic on that hill left behind from destroyed sleds.

As kids, we were constantly looking to get high.  Specifically, we wanted to be high up on a roof or in a tall tree.  The further off the ground we were, the happier we were.  Entire afternoons could be spent plotting ways to get onto a particular garage roof or into the higher branches of a tree in our neighborhood without benefit of a ladder.  Using a “borrowed” ladder was a possibility I suppose, but it would have been both too easy and too obvious.  The neighborhood adults tended not to be in favor of children on their rooftops, so a ladder would have no doubt raised their suspicions.

In the winter, tall banks of snow made it easier for us to get off the ground.  Oftentimes, they were high enough that we merely had to walk up them, give each other a boost, and there we were on a roof.  Of course one poor sap had to stay on the ground, because there was no one left to boost him.  Fortunately, there was one kid among us who was strong but not terribly fond of heights, and in return for giving us boosts, we didn’t razz him for being a chicken. 

Once we got onto the roof, there was only one thing to do after admiring the view, and that’s jump off of course. 

Most structures in northern climes are built with high, steeply pitched roofs to allow the large amounts of snow we get to come off easily.  In some cases, it was close to a 15 to 20 foot drop from near the peak.  Of course by the time jumping season came around, there was plenty of snow to cushion us.  The key to jumping off a tall roof into deep snow is to never, ever stick your landing.  Newcomers to the sport often learn this truth the hard way, and find themselves buried up to their armpits in snow, at the mercy of their friends to help them out of it.  And we usually did, after letting them squirm for a while.  As with many things in life it seems, bending your knees and being flexible were important.  Once you got the hang of it, backflips and somersaults soon followed.

In hindsight, it’s a miracle none of us were killed.  At the time, the danger barely crossed our minds.  Some of you might be thinking that nothing ever crossed our minds.

During particularly severe winters, which many of them were, the snow banks could become enormous.  While we kids would pitch a fit and carry on forever if we were asked by our parents to shovel a walkway or brush snow off the car, we thought nothing of digging into mountains of ice and snow for days on end, often with plastic shovels or our bare hands, constructing snow tunnels and forts.  By midwinter, the snow was pretty packed, and tunnels dug into them were pretty secure.  The coolest thing was when you could actually build a side tunnel off one that already existed.  We considered them “escape tunnels”, though we never really specified from what we would be escaping. 

The winter when I was about ten, we had riddled the largest snow bank in the yard with so many tunnels that we really couldn’t build any more without risking the integrity of what we already had.  Bored, we got the idea that throwing snow from them at passing cars would be fun.  Our tunnels were not easily visible from the street, though we had some small portholes that allowed us to see vehicles coming.  It was easy to see a car coming, decide if it was a worthy target, and fire away if it was.  We didn’t pack the snowballs very hard.  We didn’t want to do any real damage.   
In retrospect, it was an interesting sociological experiment, as we decided which vehicles to nail and which to spare.  Mrs. Johnson, the older lady who always had a bowl of candy close by when we around, was spared by unanimous vote.  Mr. Anderson on the other hand, a grumpy math teacher at the local high school, got bombed.  There was also a kind of unspoken understanding that we would not hit the vehicles of our own family members.

Needless to say, our snow sniper days did not last long.  Two days, and we were busted.  We made the mistake of hitting the truck of a man who lived up the street for a second time, a man whom my father had known since grade school.  He stopped his truck, then pulled into our driveway and caught us red-handed.  My father got an earful over the phone from him that night.  Our geese were cooked, and it was all I could do to convince my father not to have the plow guy totally dismantle our tunnel structure.

It was not all action and adventure in the winters of my youth, however.  One of the things I remember most fondly were the quiet times during a snowstorm, when I was either waiting for my friends to arrive or just after they had left.  I liked to lay flat on my back in the deep snow, while snowflakes fell onto my face.  It could get so quiet during a snowstorm.  Most people laid low during these times, and few vehicles were on the roads.  The newly fallen blanket of snow muffled most sounds that were made.  I remember listening to the sound of my own heartbeat and the barely audible taps of tiny snowflakes hitting my face and clothing.  Sometimes the wind would blow through the evergreen woods nearby, making a unique hissing sound that I associate to this day with those quiet moments in the snow.  Occasionally, a brave little chickadee would venture out into the snow from the woods nearby looking for some seeds in my mother’s birdfeeder.  In a snowstorm like that, you could hear the flap of their small wings as the passed by.  Curious by nature, it was not unheard of for a chickadee to land close to me if I stayed still enough.  I’d slowly turn my head to look at it, and it would cock its head at me as if I’d lost my mind.  I never had one land on me, but always wished one would.

So, no, I admit it, winter is not all bad.  It’s all in the perspective you take.  My days of flying through the air in plastic sleds and jumping off rooftops into snow banks are behind me (unless I want to take some medical leave from work), but there’s nothing stopping me from bundling up during the next snowstorm and flopping down in the snow to experience the beauty of it all.  Maybe the winters wouldn’t seem so long for me if I just took more time to listen to snowflakes falling and socialize with a chickadee or two.

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