Follow by Email

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

An Epic Snowball Battle

Happy New Year!

Here we are once again, staring at the one-time-a-year opportunity for another ‘do over’ or to use a golfers’ favorite word, a ‘mulligan.’

Even way back in Mesopotamia two thousand years ago, folks like you and me celebrated the chance to make amends for past behavior with new resolutions.(their new year wasn’t our new year, but that’s another story)

Down through the centuries, many life-altering events have occurred on January one. In 1660, Samuel Pepys made his first entry in his famed diary. Another was that in 1897, Brooklyn merged with New York to form the city, New York, and the next year, the Lightship replaced the Whistling Buoy on San Francisco Bay.

Earth-shaking events all, however, they all pale in comparison to that the momentous event that took place on the outskirts of Wheeler, Texas on January 1, 1944.

The Great Snowball Battle for Chapman’s Lake!

There had been several heavy snowfalls that year and ongoing snowball battles were common around our small town. Sneak attacks raged across the courthouse square, on the sidewalks, around the corners of the five and dime.

East of town, Chapman’s Dairy overlooked a ten-acre lake. To us boys, however, it was the Pacific Ocean. The pasture rose gently from the water’s shores to the milking barn about a quarter of a mile distant—a perfect sled run.

Now, Mister Chapman never minded us wild-haired boys traipsing across this pastures as long as we didn’t disturb his milk cows. We always gave the herd a wide birth, one of the no small reasons being there were three or four bovines with short tempers. One was especially temperamental. For some reason, her horns had grown down instead of up, and had to be cut to stay out of her eyes.

We called her ‘Crosseye” as well as a few other names when she chased us.

When the snowfall was extra heavy, the cows seldom strayed down to the pastures. Cows don’t paw at snow to remove it from forage like a horse. They push the snow aside with their noses, and if the snow is extra heavy or icy, their noses become tender and the dumbbells just stand there and starve.

Consequently, ranchers and farmers put out feed around the barn in covered troughs if possible.

That meant we usually had the whole snow-covered pasture to ourselves.

That year after Christmas, Jerry, Tony, Donald, and I were building a snow house when several older kids from the other side of town (six blocks away) showed up to challenge us to a snowball fight at Chapman’s Lake where they had built a fort.

We readily accepted the challenge and agreed to the winner-take-all-prize, next Saturday’s popcorn money, a whole nickel. All we had to do was take their flag down from the fort.

Nothing to it. Or so we thought.

When we arrived, we spotted a red flag waving over the small fort. One of the kids had cut it from his Pa’s discarded longjohns. They said it meant ‘no quarter’. That made no sense to me, but a flag was flag.

Leaving our sleds at the top of the hill, the four of us attacked the fort, but were quickly beaten back. Our leader, Jerry, decided we would attack with our tanks, meaning sleds.

We’d fly past the fort, loose a few snowballs, regroup for another pass. His plan sounded good in theory, but we soon discovered it was full of holes. Sitting on a whizzing sled and throwing snowballs called for a delicate balance none of us had mastered.

I fell off more than I rode; Tony crashed into the fort; Donald caromed off one side of the fort into the lake. Jerry was the only one who managed to ride and throw at the same time.

The battle surged back and forth. Each surge took us closer to the flag. Snowballs zipped through air. I guess all the whooping and hollering reached the herd of milk cows.

That’s the only explanation I have for the garbled bellow that rolled down the hill, jerking all of us around. Our eyes bugged out like stepped-on toad frogs when we spotted Crosseye shaking her head back and forth and charging down the hill in a bovine’s stumbling lope.

Pelting her with snowballs, wee took refuge behind what was left of the fort, but she didn’t hesitate. She went over the top, scattering us and taking down the flag.

When the last piece of snow had settled to the ground, Crosseye stood there in triumph, glaring at eight kids sprinting across the pasture in every direction like frightened prairie hens.

They claimed they won because we didn’t get their flag. We claimed Crosseye was our secret agent and since she took down the flag, we won.

They wouldn’t buy that. In the end, we decided upon another battle at another time, but it never came about.


Well, we moved to Fort Worth five years later. She was still in the herd and still as ornery as ever.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Christmas Magic

If you’ve been out and around much at all the last few weeks, you’ve noticed it. It puts a smile on your face, a lilt in your voice, and a bounce to your step. It usually appears around Thanksgiving and unfortunately, lingers only a few weeks.

It is as warm as the smiling sun overhead, as solid as the ground at our feet, and as satisfying as a warm fire on a frigid night.

I call it the Christmas Magic.

Okay, so that’s corny, as in lame, but you can’t deny that in the last few weeks, most folks seem to be just a tad bit more jolly, a tiny bit more patient, and a teeny bit more cheerful.

That magic is intangible, beyond one’s touch, but, mysteriously, still as palpable as Aunt May’s homemade rum and bourbon fruitcake.

Caught up in the joyful ambiance of Christmas, I, as many, wish that intangible wisp of enchantment could last year around.

The pragmatic side of our psyches insist it’s only natural that after the first of the year to wake up with the disturbing feeling that something is missing. And no, I’m not talking about the hole in our bank accounts.

We’ve just spent days and weeks in anticipation of Christmas Day and then New Years. And because we were so anticipating the gaiety and cheerfulness of the holidays, once they are behind us, there comes a natural let down.

But there is no reason for that Christmas magic that fills the Season of Giving to fade away just because the calendar changes.

As I crept up the ladder of age, I came to realize why my father and mother always replied ‘I don’t need a thing,’ when asked what they wanted for Christmas.

Sound familiar.

At my age, I don’t need anything thing. I get a kick out of seeing the delight sparkle in the eyes of those to whom I’ve given what I could afford.

If you’ll look around, you’ll see that despite the problems we face, usually our blessings outweigh them. Might not seem like it at the moment, but Santa Claus is with us year around, or can be if we make the effort.

Don’t think so?

Recently, I read a delightful article in Newsweek Online of a mother’s concern that her seven-year-old would learn there was no Santa Claus.

Over the years, being the loving parent she obviously is, she had enhanced the magic of Christmas for her son by encouraging him to help with the decorations, add to the crèche, bake cookies, and yes, even spread reindeer food in the snow to light the way for Santa.

Can’t you just imagine the excitement coursing through that little guy’s veins? At the end of the article, she expressed relief that he had managed this Christmas still believing in old Saint Nick, but she had the feeling that sometime before next year, he would learn the truth.

She ended the article with the observation that despite what he might learn, as long as he believes, he will enjoy that special magic year around.

Perhaps that is where so many of us go wrong. Somewhere along the way we stop believing in Santa Claus just because those beliefs fly in the face of logic. I have a couple good friends who have reached the four score and ten mark who believe in Santa Claus, and I kid you not, nowhere will you find a couple jollier or more cheerful gentlemen. They brim with the anticipation of life and the excitement of each passing day.

F.P. Church said it much better than I in his response to Virginia O’Hanlon when she queried the New York Sun on the existence of Santa Claus. ‘Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy.”

There was not a soul in the world who could say that Santa did not exist if they witnessed the sparkle in the eyes and the broad grin on the faces of my two youngest grandsons, Keegan and Mikey, as they hop on their scooters or fire up their space rockets on Christmas morning.

That same excitement is no different in homes around the world. It’s just that during the Christmas holidays the love for one’s fellow man is even more pronounced.

But if you look, if you pay attention, you’ll see proof of Santa’s existence throughout the year. Perhaps it isn’t as noticeable among the stories of mayhem and murder, but it exists.

You’ll never convince that single mother there’s no Santa Claus after her son was given a new wheelchair by the Shriner’s to replace his dilapidated one. And what about the little girl who won a raffle at school and put aside her own wish for a beautiful little doll so she could instead select a hand-sewn blanket she knew her invalid mother admired?

No Santa Claus?

In Minneapolis, a parent was hit with unexpected car repair bills just before the holidays, wiping out the family’s Christmas budget. When she went to pick up the vehicle, a stranger had paid the bill. You think that family doubts the existence of Santa Claus?

And who is it that drops a $1700. gold Kruggerrand in the Salvation Army’s pot every year? Who is it paying off Wal Mart and K Mart layaways around the country?

No one can tell me that the spirit of Christmas is not alive throughout the year. It’s just that in the midst of our hustle and bustle, it sometimes takes a back seat, but it is always there, waiting to be dusted off.

As long as the human heart is filled with understanding and compassion, there will always be a Santa Claus, three hundred and sixty-five days a year.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Christmas on the Farm

If you’ve ever passed through or spent time up in the Texas Panhandle during the winter, you know just how cold the weather can be.

The eastern Panhandle is rolling sand hills; the west is prairie land flat as a wet leaf. And I’m here to tell you that neither conformation does in now way inhibit the wind howling down from Santa Claus at the North Pole.

Of course, we kids always looked forward to the first snow, but the initial thrill quickly wore off. Slugging through ankle deep mud to feed the animals and milk the cows has a way of throwing and ice-covered blanket over any degree of excitement.

Growing up, we lived next door to my aunt and her husband. He had a couple cows. He milked them in the morning, and with Dad overseas, my job was to milk them in the evening. It was a tedious enough task when the weather was nice, but during the winter, the snow and rain and mud put a quick end to a fifth grade boy’s delight over a fresh snowfall.

I was never one to complain when one of the cows started drying up. Now, I don’t remember actually muttering the words, but I probably added a footnote to my prayers at night to assist the old cows in drying up.

Even spraying cats with warm milk couldn’t detract from the cold slithering up my coat or pant legs as I squatted at the old bovine’s side.

About the only thing colder than milking cows in the middle of the winter was utilizing the two-holer out back. That’s a cold beyond description. Even the spiders and snakes left.

Fortunately, baths were taken in a washtub in the kitchen in front of the stove with the oven door open and the burners going full blast.

Come February or March, I was ready for Mister Winter to move on back north.

Luckily for us, our relationship with the two-holer only lasted during of the war for upon Dad’s return, he built us a house with all the facilities a couple lots over.

Usually, we spent Christmas on my maternal grandparents’ farm out by Lubbock. That part of Texas was sometimes given the moniker ‘Great Plains’ or ‘Staked Plains’, because it was so flat.

Those Christmases have always held a special spot in my memory. We’d spend a week or so at Mama’s for Mom’s family was fairly large, three sisters and four brothers. Not all could make it the same time, instead trickling in over a few days.

You get eight couples and their kids together, and very soon bodies are poking out every window of a three-room clapboard house.

We usually made the trip with my aunt and her husband. Both self-employed, they could take off when they wanted. Dad always had to work, so he’d drive on out the night before Christmas Eve

Since the adults took up most of the space inside, we boys played outside despite the cold. From time to time, we’d scoot inside to warm up and dry out.

Naturally fireworks, then as now, were part of the Christmas celebration, and we cousins would save up for an ample supply. Now, firecrackers on a farm were a big no-no because of the animals, so we had to wander off down to the local creek some half-mile away to set them off.

Roman candles were another matter for they weren’t as noisy as a string of Black Cats. Other than a hissing whoosh and a low decibel pop, the Roman candle served as an ideal weapon when we waged battle with each other.

Now, cousins in our family were sort of stratified, I suppose you could say. Each strata was about four or five years older than the next group, which meant the younger ones were prime objects for unabashed bullying.

The one who gave Ed and me the most trouble was Dooley. His name was Henry, Henry Shoop, but he had been stuck with the nickname Dooley as long as I could remember.

Anyway, one winter, Dooley cornered me and Ed out in the barn, which was a cavernous structure with a dozen or more stalls, two or three lofts, and no telling how many tack rooms and feed rooms.

And oh yes, in the winter, the floor turned to squishy mud from not only the weather but the afterthoughts of the bovines loitering about out of the frigid cold.

That day, Dooley was chasing us with a shovel full of afterthoughts he had scooped up with the intent of dumping it on us.

Even though he was five years our senior, the cumbersome load plus the slippery footing sent him sliding into a pile of afterthoughts himself.

That gave us time to scamper across the farmyard to the well house where we’d cached our supply of fireworks in a milk can.

Just as we pulled out our Roman candles, Dooley yanked the door open. Before he could move, we touched matches to the candles.

He stumbled back, fell over his own feet, then jumped up, but not before we sizzled his rear end with a couple balls. Laughing like lunatics, we chased him all the way to the house.


You bet. He finally caught us without our equalizers, carrying out his initial intent, to toss us in the afterthoughts.

The women made us strip down to our longjohns on the porch in the cold so we wouldn’t smell up the house. I swore to get even with Dooley, even though I knew I would pay for any revenge.

That night, Dad handed me the answer. He had to go back to Wheeler and I was to go with him. We’d leave early, before everyone got up. Mom and my brother would come the next day.

That night while Dooley slept on the pallet next to mine, I dumped a cup of afterthoughts in his boot.

Sometime later, Dad awakened me, and we left. I giggled all the way home.

According to Mom, Dooley pulled his boot on, then jerked his foot out and tracked the stuff all over the house before the women ran him outside.

I pleaded innocent. Mom and Dad knew I was lying, but when I saw them grin at each other, I realized they knew the truth. I kept expecting some kind of punishment, but it never came.

Until that summer. That’s when I ran into Dooley once again.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Panhandle Winters

Last few days, we’ve had some nippy weather, at least to my way of thinking. Now, I know if you’re from Minnesota, North Dakota, or any of the northern most states, these past few days were probably short sleeve and flip-flop weather.

When I came down the gulf coast forty years ago, it would have been short sleeve for me also. Weather is quite a bit nippier up in Fort Worth, and a heck of a lot colder up in the Texas Panhandle.

How well I remember those Panhandle winters. And how glad I am they’re just memories.

Seems like beginning in October and lasting through March or April, it was bitter cold with the wind howling and blowing snow or rain or both with chunks of ice tossed in just to keep you on your toes.

In our little town, only the courthouse square and the two main highways crossing at one corner of the square were paved. All the other streets were dirt, which mean come the first really wet weather, Mister Mud showed up, gouging ruts in the road almost a foot deep.

One good thing about the ruts was that they kept you from slipping and sliding off the road. The bad thing about them was it was next to impossible to pull out of them to get into your driveway.

For us youngsters who walked everywhere, the water-filled ruts were a no win situation. If you waded them, water poured down your galoshes. If you jumped them, you buried up to your knees in mud.

And speaking of galoshes, which are rubber boots over shoes, they were an exercise in futility for seldom a day passed that we didn’t inadvertently yank a stocking foot from both shoe and boot and plant it squarely in the mud.

That was sure a sloppy mess to cram back into your shoe, but you had no choice. Even I wasn’t dumb enough to run around barefoot.

Early in the year, like idiots, all we school kids looked forward to the first snow, watching it stick against the school windows and slowly cover the ground.

Sometimes if it appeared to be thickening, the school sent the buses home earlier for the majority of the routes were over—you guessed it, dirt roads.

The rest of us, the walkers, were usually released some minutes later, and we tore screaming and shouting into the falling snow like wild heathens.

Sometimes, if the show was really heavy, I went over to Mama and Papa Conwell just across the street. Papa would take me home. Other times, a handful of us boys would carry on a running snowball fight the whole mile back to our neighborhood.

Like all kids, we build snowmen, forts, and stockpiled snowballs.

Such battles were common at recess in our small school, which sat next door to the high school. Usually sixth graders and we fifth graders stayed away from the high school crowd.

One particular day, however, the opportunity for sweet revenge came my way.

The high school boys were locked in a snowball battle with the school superintendent, who had paddled me once or twice (with more delight than I figured he should gain from administering my punishment). I was far off to one side, but I hatched a devious little plan to get back at him. I put together a solid snowball and sneaked around behind him. He was so occupied with the high school boys, he never saw me.

Stealthily, I crept closer and closer. Finally, all I could see was his broad back. Now I had him. I savored my revenge! I drew back, and at that moment, he jumped aside, dodging a well-thrown snowball.

Guess who didn’t dodge?

It caught me right between the eyes.

I bawled and squalled. He laughed and led me to his office where he turned be over to his secretary who dried my tears.

When the kids in my class heard about my misfortune, they laughed. It went on for a week. That was how long it took my black eye to finally go away.

Often we had snow on the ground for several days.

To be honest, snowball fights are entertaining for just so long, and after a few days, boredom takes over.

One winter, Jerry, Donald, and I set out to build us a small cabin where we boys could gather and while away the days.

Finding no material for a cabin, we decided to build it out of the bales of hay my uncle had under tarp. Don’t laugh. A small cave under a stay of hay can be pretty snug especially if you build a small fire for warmth like we did.

What we didn’t realize was—well, that’s another long story, better saved until we have more space.