Thursday, January 18, 2007

The Great Snow of '60

Mills of the gods

Friday, February 12, 1960 was Lincoln's birthday. It was the year after his sesquecenntinal celebration, although the students in Mrs Harrison's first grade class at Houston's Richmond Elementary School did not know that. They only knew that it was Lincoln's birthday because Mrs Harrison had a special stamp of Lincoln which was stamped on each paper that was turned in by a student that day. What was important that day was the class Valentine Party.

As far as I can recall, that was the first Valentine's Day I was really aware of. I know that it was the first one where I had to make a special Valentine mail box with my name on it, to line up with the other Valentine's boxes with other students names on them. We had cut slots out of the sides of the boxes, which is hard to do with rounded scissors, and pasted red hearts and other decortations ,appropriate for the day, on the boxes. Some of us, especially me, had rather sloppy looking boxes because we , especially me, were never able to properly quantify the amount of paste needed to make construction paper stick to a box without having the paste squirt out from underneath the heart and cake up when it dried.

But Valentine's Day in first grade is not the nerve racking occurrence it becomes in future years. Everyone slips everyone else one Valentine. There is no petty jealousy over someone getting four Valentine's from the girl you like, as begins to happen in about fourth grade. It is a nice, pleasant, although somewhat boring celebration. I remeber that that was the first year I ever saw those little candy hearts with the inscriptions on them (which were written by someone years before and made no sense to the modern seven year old). I also recall Mrs Harrison making us sing a Valentine Day song that I still think of every February.

" Oh how we love St. Valentine's Day,
when our box will be open and all will be gay.
Valentines big,
Valentines small,
Valentines funny, enough for us all.
Oh how we love St. Valentine's Day,
when our box will be open and all will be gay."

It was not much of a song, but then again, it was not much of a holiday.

We got out of school at 1:50 every day, which meant that we ate lunch at about 10:45. My guess is that the Valentine's party probably started about 1:00 or sometime shortly thereafter. It was the usual Richmond Elementary School Party, which meant that it took place at our individual desks. I don't recall a school party in elementary school where we were allowed to roam around the room like you would at a cocktail party. I am sure that we had some kind of punch, we were never allowed sodas of any kind. I seem to recall a pink or red cake and some heart shaped cookies, although since those appear at every Valentine's party, it is possible that I am just assuming those were there.

At any rate, it had been a cold and rainy day. One in which we had not been permitted to go outside at recess. The cloak closet was full of yellow rain coats and hats, even a few rubber boots. The room had that glorious smell of wet rain slickers, gas heat and chalk dust that you might recall from your childhood (if you are at least 45). I recall looking out the window at the rain and noticing that it appeared to look a little different than most rain . Someone, I don't recall who, but probably someone from up north, said that it was snowing outside. This caused excitement that was unprecedented in my short experience at school. People rushed to the window without permission and began to opine as to whether what we were seeing was snow or not. I did not believe that it was snow, having learned the hard way that snow was not something that kids enjoyed in Houston, Texas. The one time I had previously seen snow, I had had one in a series of early childhood ear infections, and had not been allowed out for very long. All other snow rumors in my short life on the planet had died on the vine. The rumor would start at night and I would go to bed hoping to get up to a splendid Currier & Ives scene, only to be disappointed, time and again.

Even Mrs Harrison, the ultimate arbitrator on this occassion, was not sure if it was snowing. But she quickly gained control of the class and got everyone in their seats. Then she decided that Jeff Franks could open one of our windows and stick the top half of his body out to see if it was snowing. Jeff had been in colorado at one time during a winter and was thus thought to be some expert on snow. Franks carefully crawled out the window, with several of us holding onto his legs (to prevent what would have been a two and a half foot fall). He stuck out his arms to feel the precipitation that was falling. After a short investigation, he was pulled back in and pronounced it "snow" . Excitement reigned , followed by pandamonium when the bell rang, dismissing class. To be able to walk home in a snow fall ! 35 seven year olds, all holding their Valentine's boxes, skipped out onto McAvoy street and began the trudge home. On the way, we mixed with other seven and eight year olds, most experiencing their first winter wonderland.

As soon as I got home, I changed into heavier clothes, probably two or three pairs of pants and went out to revel in it. The snow continued all afternoon and into the night. When I woke up the next day the yards of Robindell were covered with blankets of the stuff. A real snowfall. Not a little ice or a little slush, but snow that you could roll up into a snow man. which my neighbor Jennifer Stansbury was doing, and did most of the day. That was when I learned that the joy that you got from a snowman was nor proportional to the work you put into it. But that was Jen-Jen's problem. I hooked up with the "big guys" and began a day of snow ball fights. These, of course, got rowdier and rowdier as the day went on. By about 4:00 p.m. we had tired of throwing snowballs at each other and gone down to the corner to throw snowballs at cars as they drove by. This is my most vivid memory of the great snow of '60. After pelting several cars, rather inefficently, with a few snowballs, we all loaded up at once for a car streaming down Bob White at about 25 miles an hour. In the car was a short middle aged man that looked like anyone's father. He wore black glasses and a Fedora. I assume the car was a sedan made in the mid to late 50s and I am sure that it did not have seat belts. The other thing I remember, and I can understand why some would challange this, but I remember it,was that the idiot had his passenger side window rolled down. I remember that pretty well, because I remember exactly what he looked like as our snowballs entered his car and began colliding with dashboards and seats and his hat. I remember him trying to dodge the things while still holding onto his steering wheel. Even a seven year old knows, when he sees a car careen out of control and finally come to a stop just before plowing into a front yard, when the time has come to run. And I did. But my legs were not very long, and I never ran very fast.

Behind me I heard the incessant pounding of this guy's leather shoes. I can't understand why he did not slip and fall. I remember the shouting and the look of panic on the faces of the six or seven kids who did not run as fast as the older guys ,who had organized the ambush. The I remember the voice of heaven. Belonging of all people to Frieda Roland.

Frieda's two boys, Rick and Mark would have been two of the instigators of the deadly game we had undertaken. Rick, s superior athlete was nowhere to be seen, but my conteporary Mark, much shorter than I was, was pretty close to being collared by the enraged victim. That's when I heard Frieda:

"What is going on here ?" she screamed ( and boy could she scream).But she was not screaming at us, she was screaming at the hapless man in black eye glasses and a cockeyed fedora. He slammed to a halt. In half a second he tore into a rage about what we had done and the danger we had wrought to him and the neighborhood. Frieda let him spew for awhile and then, when he took his first breath, raised her five foot two frame up on her toes and got right in his face and starting letting him have it. By this time various parents had gathered at the scene, all bemused at Frieda's handling of an admittidly delicate situation. "Let me just ask you one thing" she sneered, "don't you have any kids". Of course he had kids, the fellow bellowed and I assume was just about to point out that he did not want them orphaned when Frieda reared up again and spit out, "Well get home and play with them !". Tittters of laughter followed from the so recently pursued children, joined quietly by several parents who now saw that the potential neighborhood incident had totally been defused. In complete defeat, the man with the Fedora uttered not one more word, but retreated to his car where he proceeded to start the engine and go home.

I don't see snow very often. I thought of this story again this week while watching it come down in my back yard. I thought of how irresponsible the children, and frankly Frieda had been in the whole episode. But then I recalled that no one was hurt, not even any property damage, and we did play a little bit more gently for the rest of the day. It was an odd moment for a child, being stood up for by an adult even though you were totally in the wrong. It was very odd, as odd as a Lincoln's Birthday snow in Houston, Texas.

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