Monday, March 5, 2012

Snow Lives

A jolly snowman in Clifton’s Burnet Woods, Cincinnati (Feb. 2010)

Dear George,

This has been Cincinnati’s least wintry winter since 1919. We’ve only gotten 4 inches of snow so far, about ten inches less than normal for this time of year (and about fifty inches less than my home town of Menominee). We didn’t get our first real storm of the season till almost New Years. It started as rain, then turned to snow and sleet, and, with temperatures dropping well below freezing, our sidewalks wound up as slick as glass. I couldn’t take the dogs out the back door because I couldn’t stand up on the driveway, so we went out via the front porch and walked on the grass. It was hazardous and unpleasant, though it brought back many memories. Growing up in Michigan’s U.P., snow was a major part of our lives from November to late March every year. And snow was a substantially different experience in childhood and adolescence than in decades that followed. What strikes me is how one’s changing experiences of snow reflect the larger dramatic changes that occur over one’s life span. Here’s what comes to mind.

My mom Doris and I on the Green Bay shore (circa 1940)

When I was a little kid, snow was amazing and a source of endless adventures. We lived on the second floor of a two-story white frame house on Ogden Avenue in Menominee, just west of the Interstate Bridge, and my friend Sally F. lived with her parents on the first floor. When winter snowfalls came, our mothers would take Sally and I over to the Tourist Information Lodge a block away on Ogden Ave., and we’d sled down the steepest hill in the Twin Cities. When you’re four years old, the Tourist Lodge hill is like Mount Everest. Our moms would tow the sleds back up for us each time, but we were in sole charge on the way down. Once we started kindergarten Sally and I would hike the half-mile to Boswell School by ourselves each morning. In the winter we’d be bundled up in snowsuits, boots, mittens, and hats, and sludge our way through the snow and ice. Sally’s dad’s Boiler Works was midway in our journey along Ogden Ave., and we’d stop in to get warmed up by the potbelly stove in the front office. We thought winter was otherworldly.

Ice Shoves, Green Bay, Menominee, MI (postcard, circa 1910)

By our grade school years, snow had become a venue for more autonomous play. Our family had moved to a house on Sheridan Road, just across the street from Green Bay. and the neighborhood kids spent a lot of time outside without much parental supervision. Huge ice shoves would pile up along the bay shore, and we’d climb around on them. Our major activity, though, was snowball fights – or, more aptly, snowball wars. We soon developed rules not to put ice chunks in our snowballs and not to throw directly at one another’s heads. My friends and I would build a snow fort on the curb of Sheridan Road in front of our house, and a couple of older kids from down the block would make a competing fort on the opposite side. Then we’d spend hours building stockpiles of snowballs and lobbing them at one another, usually throwing them simultaneously to increase the probability of hitting an enemy. It was rare that anybody ever hit anybody. At Washington Grade School the teachers prohibited snowballs on the playground. Instead, once five or six inches of snow had fallen, somebody would bring a football to school, and we’d play tackle. One kid would run with the ball, and twenty or thirty other kids would chase him across the snow-covered cinder playground until somebody tackled him. Then the kid who made the tackle would get to run with the ball. I only tackled somebody once – Tommy H., who was the halfback on our grade school football team. Tommy had decided to just run right through me, but somehow he slipped and fell when he hit me. I was very excited then to run with the football myself, but I only got about fifteen feet before somebody brought me down.

Doris with Steve and I at River House (circa 1946)

My siblings Steve, Vicki, Peter on the frozen Menominee at River House (circa 1957)

After the war, when my dad came back from the Pacific, our family moved out of town to my grandfather’s house on the Menominee River, and we all grew up there. Living in the country, winter became a still more momentous part of our lives. The river would freeze over, and we’d make a snow slide for sledding or skiing off the river bank and a skating rink out on the ice. Each year our snowmen would get bigger and more ornate, decorated with top hats, pine cone eyes, carrot noses, and wool scarves. We’d throw snowballs at the trunks of the Norway Pines for target practice, but more often at one another, and we’d try to build igloos on the front lawn (though the ceilings always caved in). As we got older, Steven and I spent hours playing basketball on our snow-packed driveway, stretching an extension cord from inside the garage to a desk lamp tied to a maple tree so we’d have enough light to play after dark. Steve became so skilled he joined the high school varsity basketball team as a freshman. Our dad would tie a rope from our toboggan to the rear bumper of the car and pull us on a bumpy ride up and down Riverside Drive. Our road was so unpopulated that it was one of the last places for the county to plow, and we could always count on at least two snow days from school when we got a good storm.

Main St., Menominee, Michigan (postcard, circa 1913)

At 14 I began working at the family drugstore, and one of my winter duties was shoveling the sidewalk in front of and on the side of the store. With a heavy storm, it was a significant task, and I prided myself on getting up every speck of snow, following up with a broom after I’d finished shoveling. I started driving at 16, and we teenagers necessarily learned to adapt to snowy and icy roads throughout the winter months. I’d drive home from school on Stephenson Ave., and, once I was outside the city limits, I’d start hitting the brakes sharply on the icy road and spinning around in a circle, bouncing off one snowbank and then the other. On one icy night Bob A. and I drove my mom to the O’Hara’s in his car, and we slid off the road near Grant School, tipped over, and wound up with the car on its side in a ditch, all piled on top of one another.

“Winter in Milwaukee” (Milwaukee County Historical Society, mid-1950’s)

I went off to college in 1955, then had my first coop job in the winter of 1957 in Madison, Wisconsin. I visited friends in Milwaukee, where I met Katja who was also working there. I fell in love right away, and the Wisconsin snow took on a dreamy aura. On our first evening out together we went on a long walk in downtown Milwaukee, eating popcorn and looking off the bridge at the Milwaukee River. The snow had begun falling, making the scene still more picturesque, and it was the most romantic moment of my young life to date. At the end of our coop job assignments in early March, Katja came home with me to visit Menominee. It was still snowy and cold, and we walked across the frozen Menominee River to Pig Island, looking with wonder through the ice at the objects on the sand below, including a comatose mud puppy.

Dave, J, Winston in our side yard on Whitfield Ave. (circa 1976)

Then years whisked by, and we were in Cincinnati with a family of our own. We moved from the suburbs to Clifton when our son J was three or four. Being a dad, I got to relive all of those childhood experiences of winter and snow again, but now as a parent caring for, assisting, and playing with his child. It remained a lot of fun, but now from the opposite side. Cincinnati is a city of hills, ideal for sledding in the wintertime. We, with other neighborhood families, would make regular treks to Mt. Storm Park, one of the highest points in the city, and sled down the hill for 200 yards or so. J would ride down, and I’d pull him and the sled back up, just as my mother had done for me thirty years before. We bought our house on Ludlow Avenue in Clifton around 1976, and there we began a tradition of making increasingly bigger snowmen every year to decorate our side yard.

Our House, Ludlow & Whitfield, Feb. 2010

J grew up, went off to college, partnered with K, did med school together, and now they have their own lovely family in New Orleans. My winter routine has changed once again. I walk the sheepdogs a lot, sometimes a hazardous venture on the slick ice, but I don’t go sledding, snowshoeing, or build snowmen. I’ll throw a snowball at the stop sign every now and then, but it’s been a long time since I’ve had an actual snowball fight. My connections to the world of snow are more contemplative and aesthetic. Once there’s a good snowfall, I usually trek over to Burnet Woods with my camera and take photographs of the snow-covered forest. I guess I’m reaching an age where it’s becoming more comfortable to relax by the fireside. But I do owe the world of snow a long, constantly changing history of experiences.



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