I was planning to write a post about Fiona Hill’s very good book, but it’s going to have to wait until after my summer hiatus. Yes. I’m going on hiatus, so there. Meanwhile, I had to write something that would make me laugh. Because, after Uvalde, I haven’t laughed much. I suspect there’s a lot of that going around. So, with no further ado, I bring you reflections on what it was like growing up in the Northeast when we had snow. Quite a bit, sometimes. I have never been one of those “I hate this stuff” people. Reason being I have too many pleasant associations from my childhood and adolescence that the white powder–no, not that white powder–bring. And, resolutely, that’s what I’m going to talk about.
“You didn’t wax eloquent when San Antonio got hammered a few years ago.” No, I did not. That’s because we lost power and heat for nearly a week, and a lot of people died needlessly because of Republican incompetence. Growing up in Philadelphia and its suburbs, I can never–not once–recall losing power, light or heat. Including in the big storm of February 17, 1958, when I stood on the porch of our Haddington residence and watched the power lines flash blue and go snap, crackle and pop. A late winter storm that brought heavy wet snow and really messed things up. Tell you what. Philly (sort of) handled it although 10 guys died shoveling a foot or more of snow. In San Antonio, where I currently reside, they can’t even do rain. You tell me. I blame Lincoln: for holding on to the South.
“All public and parochial schools, closed.” That was the voice of Duncan MacLeod on WCAU-TV in Philadelphia. Very matter of fact, baritone. Man, six words that brought joy to my childish heart. No school. You get to stay home with your grandparents and watch Our Miss Brooks and Queen for a Day on tv. Or Art Linkletter’s “House Party” from some weird place called Studio City in Hollywood, CA. And I didn’t particularly dislike Saint Donato’s, where I was enrolled. So it was just being cozy, around people you adored. You know with hot chocolate and stuff. Being a little kid. That was before AR-15s, you see. But I digress.
Snow in the city was different. For one thing, there was usually less of it; it usually didn’t last as long; and it got dirty in a hurry. Yeah, those cars and trucks and then buses really turned the pristine white into an evil black and gray pile within a day or two. Along with the inevitable slush that all the traffic eventually produced. But the actual snowstorm itself was quite lovely. I can see why Claude Thornhill wrote that beautiful tune “Snowfall” as a celebration of an event. That was pretty much the way I regarded it. Happily. I think hearing that the other day conjured this up for me. Does it all the time.
There were very entertaining aspects to city snow, especially in South Philly, when we were downa house. First, the streets were very narrow, and the homes weren’t originally set up for cars, let alone those 1950s monstrosities with chrome and fins and huge-ass bumpers and stuff. Like a 1958 Buick that Little Pete, my “cousin” had. Freaking thing was an icebreaker, and once it was snowed in, it stayed snowed in. If the city plows made it down Cross Street, they only buried the cars even deeper in the stuff. Like, where were they gonna put it?
Of course, some people had to get out. So they had to shovel the car out, which was a back breaker. And once you did, you had a real problem. That cleared space had a definite positive economic value, but no price, because nobody owned the street, right? Wrong. You never been to South Philly in the winter. If you dig it out, man, it’s yours. My paysans would put a linoleum kitchen chair–Hell, sometimes a table buttressed with brooms–as a ritual of possession. This is mine, cafone. You stay the Hell out. Says who? Dude, you could have been messing with Angelo Bruno’s mother if you tried a stunt like moving it, cause the guys in the outfit lived in the neighborhood. You want to end up seriously hurt–at least? No. Everyone knew better. Even the cops. They never touched that setup. They weren’t crazy.
But there was always, as Clemenza put it in the Godfather, some pain-in-ass innocent bystander. Some tourist who didn’t know how it worked. Oh. My. God. That’s when the fun really got started. Some dope would try moving the chairs and stuff under the baleful gaze of some goombah-grandmother who’d come out in a housecoat and curlers screaming like a banshee with a Philly accent so thick you probably couldn’t understand it. “Hey. Whaddya think you’re doing? Get the Hell OUT of there. That’s OUR Space. My husband (son) (whatever) dug that out. You think you can go just park there?” And if you tried to contest the point, the old witch would probably take off after you with a broom. Or you’d come back to find your car without tires. And nobody saw nothing. The cops wouldn’t even show. That’s how it worked in South Philly. Frontier justice. And while it pains me to admit it, I often think the system worked better than whatever the Hell replaced it. If anything. I don’t remember too many people making mistakes, at least while I was around.
Moving to Penn Wynne was a different experience, you know, country living (humor). For one thing, it was hilly. For another, it did seemingly get more snow than Haddington, even thought it was only a couple of miles west. And we lived in a house that afforded all sorts of views of storms as they progressed. In the front, you could look out and see a couple of evergreens get slowly buried as it came down. From my room, you could watch the white stuff against a brown shingle background of homes that always made things look worse than they were. The dining room looked out over the back alley, which ran from the top of the hill on Harrogate Road to the bottom. And that was a kid’s dream come true.
I didn’t have a sled, but it seemed as if everyone else did, and sharing was generally no problem. There were some Flexible Flyers that could seat two–and that was truly an experience.
The alley was concrete blocks, worse for wear in some spots, and I’m guessing a 10 degree slope. It was maybe 25-30 feet wide, and bordered by garages, walls, hedges, some individual home driveways, nothing in places but open yard. We got traction by pushing off at the top and by the time you were midway down the hill, you were moving. Of course, people were bouncing off walls and stuff, or plowing into hedges all the time. And who could resist the temptation to drag race, where hysterically yelling kids sometimes took each other out or ended up perpendicular before rolling. Somehow, no one ever got killed or even seriously hurt, but it was hairy. You had to make a sharp left at the bottom of the alley and then peter out to a stop, unless you head-on hit a garage door at the end. which was kind of unpleasant. When 10 or fifteen kids were moving in both directions–flying down and trudging back, there was always the chance of some spectacular wipe out. And if the snow was still coming down, even better. You were flying blind. Little kids have this suicidal impulse which we indulged to the fullest. No wonder you didn’t want to go to school.
There was always some grouch who tried to shovel his part of the alley dry–party pooper–so he could get better traction for his old rear wheel drive. I distinctly remember some guy doing this and a bunch of us, under cover of darkness, making use of some garden hose and soaking the concrete down so as to create a patch of what we now term black ice. Of course, hitting that at top speed on the way down was like jet propulsion. I distinctly recall this guy getting his Chevy Nova getting stuck crosswise in the alley the next morning to the great amusement of the gang, who watched him slip, fall, curse and swear, waving a fist in our direction. Sheesh, no sense of humor.
There were also these snow saucers, kind of aluminum deals, that were really nuts. One time, we built a mountain of snow in one of the yards that was already elevated and bounded by a wall. You know, a ski jump, except we had no idea of the physics involved when you flew down the packed snow and launched directly into a 5 foot drop–which we all assumed would sort of like ABC Wide World of Sports ski-jumping. Yeah, some damn fool actually gave it a shot and flew off the wall, with the saucer detaching from his body as he smacked into the ground. How this kid did not sustain some kind of fatal injury is beyond me, and the entire scene was only made worse by his screaming for help, thereby summoning his father from a nearby house. The old man promptly fell trying to run up the alley to help this idiot. I can’t even begin to describe the mix or horror and mirth with which we observed the ensuing train wreck. If memory serves, we all got a stiff dressing down from our parents and had to cool it until the next storm. Adults were definitely no fun in the winter.
Other tricks. Pour gasoline on snow. Light. Snow burns!!!!! It looks cool as Hell at night until some killjoy calls the fire department. Especially when someone was trying to spell out an obscenity. (I didn’t see nothing). Or crouch at the top of Henley Road behind a stand of trees and pelt passing vehicles–especially bread vans and such–with snowballs. This required skill, like leading a receiver in football, and we usually missed. There was one day, however, when we all hit a Stroman’s Bakery truck simultaneously. Guy nearly rolled the van. Man, that driver was madder than a hornet, but he couldn’t chase 10 delinquents at once, especially when we knew the lay of the land and he was, well, not really in good shape. Thank God he didn’t have a coronary chasing us. Or that his van didn’t somehow slip out of gear, cause it was a long way to the bottom of the hill.
By the time I had entered high school, a much calmer set of pursuits was on offer. At DPS, we had a phone tree, and a guy would call, usually the night before, and tell us there would be no school. I don’t remember who I called, but I usually was thrilled by the sound of Tommy D’s voice when he got me. I’d tell him I loved him. He wasn’t interested. Anyway, this meant sleeping until 8 AM or so which was several hours after my usual hour of awakening. Followed by a nice pot of coffee, and listening to the radio for a bit. Followed by reading a good book, or napping (I should have been practicing trumpet, but I was already losing the work ethic by then). Sometimes in the evening a bunch of kids from Lower Merion High would organize coed snowball fights. That was better than going to a dance or something. Less stylized and definitely less inhibited. Public school kids knew how to party. Occasions of sin, for sure: see if you can, er, make out without getting your lips frozen together. That was a thing.
And going out to Devon by bus, there was at least one year when the snow was so persistent that we missed about a week of class. That was the year I started to read Dante’s Inferno. And that pretty much ruined me for most everything else. If you think Dante is cool at 16, you are a weird kid for sure. So I probably owe my career to a lost week in January 1967 (maybe February) when it snowed us in but good. And I learned to drive in it too. Which, let me tell you, intimidates South Texans even more than a Liberal Democrat. You steer into a fishtail, dude? They think it’s like leaning into a punch. Very entertaining to watch them do it wrong. You really do that?
You don’t know me. I never grew up. Ask anyone. Back in a few weeks for more fun and less enlightenment. Si Dios quiere.
10 thoughts on “Snow Daze”
We had toboggans, my brother and I. I think the Radio Flyers were a bit rich for my parents. Devon’s snow code was 672? (In our “era” (mid-late 1970’s), the school closings were announced using numerical codes. We listened to KYW.)
As for Dante: One of my favorites of all time. I got to know the Inferno in 6th grade, so you know I’m weird. Wrote my senior paper in Marty Bowen’s class on the Inferno. Looking back on this, it was not a particularly insightful term paper, but it was really long; but Marty was never really a great English teacher and certainly, not as good as he thought he was. Then, I took a class on the Inferno in college, with the renowned Charles Singleton (who crafted one of the great translations of all time). I still have my final (in a blue book!) – talk about weird!
Have a great summer hiatus. Looking forward to your return. If you’re in the NYC area, give us a shout.
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Devon had a phone tree in my era. But some nitwit always missed the memo, thereby dooming 5 or 6 guys to trying to figure out what was going on. And it was still like nowhere in the late 1960s, so you didn’t want to have to get there in the snow. I put a few ex-girlfriends in various circles of Hell. Use your imagination.
1. You got me laughing out loud (I needed that), reading about the black ice stunt and the ski jump.
2. We had those aluminum saucer things. Because they were cheaper than sleds. And not nearly as much fun.
3. That 1958 storm: we moved into our Newtown Square house in early March, so warm that the moving guys were in t-shirts. And before we got to know the neighbors, along came the storm. And a 3-day power outage. It was much more rural in Newtown Square then than it was where you were. The snow drifts were higher than me.
4. I learned to drive on ice. Taught by a Haverford Township cop who worked part-time at the gas station where I worked. He put me in a four-wheel drive Jeep, no power steering, no power breaks. His theory: if you can do this you can drive anywhere. Next step: dump truck with air brakes. Did fine. Qualified to drive police cars as we shuttled the from the police station to the gas station for service, and back again. Warning: “Mess with the lights or the siren and you’ll be sitting in our new jail.” 🙂
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Bring you here, God forbid. Teach them to drive on wet roads
I neglected to mention that the Jeep thing was on black ice, in the gas station. Living dangerously. And the spell checker changed brakes to breaks. Ugh.
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Yo Bro, You have a memory like an elephant. I can remember the broad strokes but not sure I could bring out the detail you have.
And Dante’s inferno changed your life? At 16? WTF. At one level I can see it. Of course it is great literature. On another level, I read to be entertained not transformed. Mostly, I still do.
The classics were painful for me to read i.e. Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Mayor of Casterbridge, Silas Marner, Picture of Dorian Gray, anything by Dickens, just too damn painful, except for The Scarlet Letter. That one struck a chord. I mean we were 16.
You clearly were developing an inner life that was ahead of the moment in time. Good for you for finding inspiration where I just read it to get through it.
This was your most fun essay yet. So happy you had it in you to share.
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Me and Dante and the Music. Perfect. LOL
We lost power in Broomall in the ‘58 blizzard. It was a great time for me. At night we huddled around the fireplace with all the living room furniture making a closed half circle in front of the fire. Warm and cozy, blankets, mom and dad. Almost seems like a life high point.
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I know. I think a lot of us feel the same way.
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HORROR AND MIRTH would make a great title for the collection I keep urging you to write, Richard.