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A Tale of Two Trails

January 21, 2012

So, snow has decided to return. Time for shoveling, bad driving conditions, and packed supermarkets. But a snowfall was not always cause for gloom and doom. In the eyes of a child, a day like today can be glorious.  I remember this as I think back to the snow-filled winter wonderlands of my childhood.

Winter can be a fantastic time for a kid, especially for one like me who lived across the street from a public park. A snowfall, especially a deep one like there so often seemed to be, signaled a day of unparalleled outdoor adventure. A quick breakfast and a hurried mandatory Mom-enforced bundling-up, and out the door I could go into a pristine white paradise.

Memorial Park lay between my house on New Bridge Road and Lincoln Elementary School. It consisted of several baseball fields, a kid’s playground, and a small woods bordering two sides. The path to Lincoln School cut across the side with the playground. This area was the backdrop for two particularly memorable events in the snowy winter of 1955.

Snow in the park on a Saturday morning pretty much meant a snow-angels-making, snowman-building, animal-track-following, getting-soaked-to-the-skin-and-changing-at-least-three-times kind of day. It was one of such snow-covered Saturdays when I went charging into the park to discover quite a bit of unusual activity along the school path. I ran over to investigate, and there, much to my surprise and delight, a snowman building contest was underway. I loved making snowmen, and I was quite good at it for a seven year old, thank you very much, even if I didn’t mind saying so myself.

Well, I dove right in, building my traditional three-tier snowman with speed and precision like I had never done before, stick arms and stone facial features all just so. This was my first contest, and by golly, I was sure that first place trophy would be mine. Unfortunately, two things conspired against me. The first was that the contest had to be entered beforehand, unbeknownst to me, and there was an age limit that I wouldn’t have qualified for even if I had known. The second was the massive galoshed foot of the teenage boy working next to me (constructing what was, in retrospect, a rather magnificent snow sculpture of the Mona Lisa). In the midst of an artistic perusal of his own partly finished sculpture, he stepped back–perhaps for better perspective–and crushed my masterpiece.

I stood in disbelief, lip quivering…how could this have possibly happened? What kind of lout would so disrespect the work of a fellow artist? Then came the tears, exploding forth out of my eyes in the finest example of projectile wailing ever to be seen this side of Dumont, my howls of despair rising from the deepest reserve of my injured little psyche.

The teenager, startled by this emotional explosion, realized that he was the cause and began a desperate and mostly unsuccessful attempt to console me by reconstructing my caved-in snowman, probably fearing some fierce retribution from a nearby parent. Seeing my hopes dashed and not knowing what else to do, I ran home, leaving a trail of tears in my snowy wake.

My mother was not overly impressed with my dilemma. She dispassionately explained to me as she stripped away my drenched snowsuit that I was not really in the contest and would have never had won anyway; not exactly the salve I needed at that moment even though she was right. Some warm milk and cookies were much more helpful, but I swore that next year I would return and snare the triumph I had just been so shamelessly denied.

That, as it turned out, was not to be. The contest was never held again. The trail I left through the white snow, however, was not to be the last.

Several snowfalls later that winter I had gotten off to a particularly early start. A couple of snow angels midway across the empty park seemed to bode well for a good morning’s activities. I got to the playground, still the only one around. The idea of trying out the snow-covered swings and merry-go-round were enticing, but first a quick climb on my personal favorite, the monkey bars. The air of danger was present as soon as the slipperiness of the bars under my gloved hands became apparent, but that didn’t stop me from my attempted ascent. About the fourth rung up, my face brushed lightly against the frigid metal, and I noticed a strange and unexpected sensation….stickiness. I stopped and touched the spot with my glove, expecting to find the remains of some other kid’s gum or lollipop. No, that wasn’t it. Another exploratory brush with my face, and there it was again.

My third pass was a bit closer, and my lower lip stuck to the bar. How strange! Now, this was the mid 1950’s, and A Christmas Story had not yet made movie history, so I had no experience with what was to transpire. I began to pull away, but my lip did not follow. I pulled again, the lip stretching out to a length that would have made a Ubangi tribesman proud. At this point, panic struck. A quick glance around revealed no available help. My mom would expect me to be out here all morning. I was trapped!

So I did what any normal panicked seven year old would do; I yanked my head back and jumped off the monkey bars. Immediately a patch of crimson appeared in the snow at my feet. It took a few seconds to realize that it was my blood, but  when I did, I took off for home. The trail I left was visible this time, spots of red punctuating the footprints across the once fresh coat of snow.

My mother was at the door by the time I got there, so loud was my screaming. She pushed her ever-present dishtowel against my lip as she led me to the basement sink in order to bleed in relative safety and not sully the upstairs floor. She left me for a moment pathetically sobbing and holding the soggy dishtowel to my face. She returned with a clean cloth and bottle of vinegar. The vinegar-soaked cloth replaced the dishtowel, and I accepted it readily despite the intense stinging, assuming my mother was far better versed in the medicinal arts than I.

I don’t remember how long it took for my lip to heal, but I did learn, in spite of my sister’s chuckles and my father’s head shakes, a valuable lesson. Years later when I saw for the first time the scene in A Christmas Story when Flick engaged in his verbal duel with Schwartz, my stomach grew queasy, for I knew where this was going. And when Flick reentered the classroom with his gauze-wrapped tongue, I could only sigh in recognition of the chagrin of my comrade-in-pain.

A good friend recently told me that he read somewhere that nostalgia is the file that removes the rough edges from the good old days. Now that I think about it, this may indeed be the case. Perhaps my romanticized recollection of the winter snow was a bit premature, although after an afternoon of shoveling, I’ll take it.

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