Seasonal Geography

Behind the school sat the parking lot. Though not terribly large, it was big enough to afford a spot for all the teacher’s cars as well as the massive Catholic Church that backed up to the opposing side of the flat, paved playground. Naturally, the school had a proper playground as well, a chain link fence enclosing a sandy patch of ground, keeping wayward first graders from drifting off into traffic or worse, the carefully manicured garden that belonged to the adjoining nunnery.

The black top was truly the place of big kids. Four square and dodge ball commanded large swaths of pavement, as did noisy games of kickball. Sun faded, red rubber balls flew around like demented bees, rebounding with a satisfying “THOING” as they ricocheted off the back of an unsuspecting head. Scraped knees and hands were part of the bargain and though tears were no doubt shed at such moments, it didn’t keep us from getting right back out there and tempting fate just as soon as the gravel was plucked from wounds and Band-Aids were attached. I can remember with vivid clarity the spot near the school building where workmen had needed to fix some subterranean pipe or some such thing. When their work was finished, the pavement was patched and it’s darker surface was dubbed “the lava pit”. Naturally, it wasn’t a pit at all. It was perfectly flat with hardly a bump of transition from the old black top to the new but we all avoided it and the threat that was often offered up by one kid to another was that he would be dumped in the lava. I’m sure its long since cooled and faded to match the surrounding area.

Though I’m hard pressed to remember any particular moment or game I spent on that huge paved lot, I happily recall what it spawned come the first snowfall. There was only one direction to plow the snow when they needed to clean up after a storm and that made for a truly monstrous snow bank. By mid winter, it loomed not only far over our heads, but over our minds as well. The anticipation of the fun to be had during recess pried more attention from us than the lessons of the day and we bolted for it as soon as we cleared the doors of the school.

I can still hear the shrieking and squealing from kids as they scrambled up the sides of the snow pile only to be shoved back down its slopes, stand up and again and mount a “Once more into the breach” attack on those school mates who held the high ground. As dozens and dozens of my schoolmates scurried over and around the mountain of snow, others busily turned it into swiss cheese. Tunneling through snow banks comes naturally to kids and though the going was slow due to lack of proper tunneling gear, the drive that pressed us on was all consuming. Chains of kids would work doggedly in the snow mines, digging their way to glory. It was like something out of “The Great Escape”.

Naturally, the teachers on recess duty were less than inclined to let their students entomb themselves in a collapsed snow cave. For some odd reason, they had less then one hundred percent confidence in the engineering skills of fourth graders, and so technically, tunneling was forbidden. The way we figured it, if the teachers didn’t know about it, then it was “technically” fair game. We dug like wombats.

I never did see any of our extensive excavations collapse, thank God. If one did, I’m sure that we would have never been able to dig out the victim in time. When you’re nine though, it all seems worth it. One particular memory does come back to me of my time spent on the white mountain. I’m looking up the hill of heavily trodden snow and above me is a classmate, on his belly and busily digging like a mole, mittenfulls of loosened ice and snow are being flung back past his feet and our of the deepening hole. Only his boots are still in the sun. Just over the spot where his head would be on the above is another kid, madly jumping in place, trying for all he’s worth to collapse his friend’s project.

Kids are helpful like that.

snow-cave

As the winter wore on, the pile would grow, new tunnels would be dug and then filled in as fresh plowings were added. One thing we did notice with a sort of head cocked curiosity was how over a period of weeks, tunnels which we had excavated round and perfect, slowly turned into ovals as the ceilings drooped. Eventually, they would become impassable, flattened by the tons of snow over head and too flattened for the smallest spelunker to wiggle through and frankly too creepy to venture into anyway.

By the end of the winter season, the snow had transformed from the white, soft stuff of December to the dirty brown ice chunks of March. The pile was abandoned by all but the most desperate and we amused ourselves by tormenting each other with the cold hardened rubber kickballs and lava pits. It was never cold enough to freeze the lava pit.

The bell would ring and we’d head inside. Coats were hung in the massive cloak closets and mittens set out in haphazard rows on the steam radiators, humidifying the classroom as they dried.

Years after I graduated, a young cousin of mine attended my Alma matter. I was asking him about the happenings there and making a mental list of the things that had remained the same and those that had changed. When I mentioned the snow bank, he replied matter of factly that they weren’t allowed to play on that. Though horrified at the notion, I wasn’t overly surprised. We’ve worked hard to make the lives of our children as safe as we can and to that effort, we have sacrificed a lot of the best parts of play. When I thought about it, I could immediately see why the snow bank had been designated a no man’s land. The games of King of the Mountain with all its forceful shoving and kicking as sappers gleefully undermined the very ground the roughhousers were trying to hold. It was only a matter of time before calamity hit.

Still, I felt sorry for the kids who came after me. I picture them huddled in bunches on the ice covered parking lot in the afternoon sun, looking with longing at the virginal white peaks of snow piled to the height of a two storey house. A wintertime playground that might as well be on the moon. What a loss. Still, I’m glad for the memory and gladder that none of my friends disappeared into the depths we plumbed. There might have been a few scrapes and black eyes from overly excited mountain kings but all in all, I’d say those were worth it. Being a kid can be dangerous sometimes, but the memory of my afternoons spent on out seasonal mountain were worth the peril.

Outside, It’s snowing to beat the band right now. Tomorrow the snow banks will be impressive. I wonder how my digging skills have held up over the years? Only one way to find out!

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Click, click, click… Bang!

Today Action Girl asked me a question that lead to another question that led to a show tune. The show was “Oliver”. The tune was “Wouldn’t it be Loverly”. The questions that got us there aren’t terribly important, but the fact that I could summon up small facts about this moldy oldie made Action Girl give me a look that said, “And you know this… why?”. I love knowing obscure and mostly useless facts, and Action Girl knows this, but my ability to pull up character names and individual scenes from a Dickens’ classic come musical was a bit extreme, even for me. The reason I know so much about Oliver, is that I was in a limited, off Broadway production of it. Very off Broadway, in fact. It went for three nights only at St. Joseph’s primary school. Admission was, I believe, free or perhaps a dollar. I was in 5th grade and I got the roll of “Fagin’s boy #6” and “Bystander”. I also had another crucial roll. I was a prop provider.

I won’t go through the whole story. You may or may not know it so I’ll just skim through the characters and setting.

Setting: Victorian era London
Hero: Oliver (duh!)
Anti-hero and father figure: Fagin
Evil Bastard: Bill Sikes
Heroin: Nancy

So to cut right to the chase, right at the end of the story after being dragged through so much merriment and mirth like most of Dickens’s writing, Bill Sikes (the evil bastard) is hell bent on killing Oliver for various reasons possibly including stolen… cakes, or jewels or… something. My memory fails me here. It’s not really important. The scene however, I recall. Bill, mad with bastardness, lunges at Oliver with a knife and Nancy, who has been the only really nice person in the story other than Oliver himself, leaps in his path to shield our favorite little street urchin. Nancy skillfully blocks about 5 inches of rubber stage knife with her chest at the moment the police come on the scene and shoot the murderer as he turns to face them. Oliver escapes and becomes Prime Minister… or possibly a super hero.

The run down of of the props needed for the scene goes something like, “Bobby uniform? Check. Rubber knife? Check. Fake gun? Hmmm.” Keep in mind, this is all taking place at a small Catholic school and having a cap gun, if not actively forbidden, was defiantly frowned upon. Even at this age though, I had a thing for firearms. I would never have brought a toy gun to school but this was my chance to save the day! I didn’t have a cap gun that looked like something a 1850’s bobby might have, but I did have a fairly realistic snub nosed .38! I loved it! It looked like the real thing and best of all, it had a cylinder that actually rotated. It took those special caps that looked like little, red plastic cups and fit over a metal bit in the cylinder. It didn’t fit the Dickensian era exactly, but it was the one that would be used for our play. I was so proud.
38-snub.jpgcaps.jpg

Back in the dressing room (actually the second grade classroom), they would have the P.A. speaker on and switched to the microphones in the auditorium. As various “actors” got ready for different scenes, we could all listen to the play for our cues and hear how it was going. By the time the final scenes were being played out, most of us were in the dressing room listening and waiting for our chance to go take a bow with all the others. I was listing for my cap gun. Finally, I heard Nancy’s shriek, the police barge in and then nothing… more nothing… BANG! Then stifled laughter from bemused parents. I didn’t know what happened but I knew something unplanned for had transpired.

After our bows and grateful applause, I found out what the deal was. A very unhappy school mate who played the bobby came up to me and reported that there was something wrong with my “stupid gun”. Apparently the cylinder had gotten off time with the alignment of the hammer and it wouldn’t hit the cap. What the audience had witnessed was the murder of Nancy, right on schedule followed buy the police breaking down the door and pulling their gun. Sikes recoils and… click. The bobby advances, aims and… click. He advances again, Sikes is now prone on the floor and… BANG! What the audience saw was in essence, Sikes getting a cap popped in his head Dirty Harry style. Rather changes the flavor of the story a bit. It took a while to live down, but I was still proud of my cap gun. She might not be 100% reliable in a fire fight, but if you need to whack a bad guy, she did the trick. You might just need to get closer than you planned. It also helps if he’s armed with a rubber knife.

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