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The Nuclear Snowball

A Weapon So Devastatingly Deadly, It Oughta Be TOP SECRET.


Saranac Lake, circa 1975:

Our Pine Street Gang was pretty firmly established by then, ensconced in our family’s home headquarters on Stevenson Lane. There was me, of course. I was about twelve at the time, accompanied by the nine-year-old shadow I could not shake, in the form of my little brother Raymond.

The three Dudley boys lived in a side hill house up the street past the trestle. When we first moved to town, their older sister would sometimes babysit us. She used to bring down her collection of little 45 RPM records to play on our little grey portable record player, songs like “Chevy Van”, “Spiders & Snakes” and “A Horse with No Name”.

The Riley brothers lived down the street, just across the Pine Street Bridge. The older Riley boy tried his hardest not to associate with us too much. On any given day, his younger brother and I were as likely to end up in a fistfight as not.

My classmate Billy lived up on Helen Hill. My best friend at the time, he later died in a car accident.

There were others who came and went, but for the most part, that motley collection of mid-’70’s misfits constituted our Pine Street Gang.

During the summer months we rode bikes, hiked the tracks, built sketchy tree forts, played pick-up team “ghost runner” baseball, pelted all sorts of targets, including each other, with rocks, apples, sling shots and BB-guns. When we got bored with those things, we went down to the river to go swimming and fishing.

Once the snow fell, however, our whole outdoor routine changed. We traded baseball mitts for hockey sticks, three speed bikes for toboggans and sleds, and rocks, apples, sling shots and BB-gun fight ammo for snowballs.

I loved throwing snowballs. Sometimes, before and after school, I would make myself a big pile and throw them at a strike zone target I drew for myself on our old garage’s back side wall. Sometimes I threw them at trees, honing my arm and my aim with my best big league pitcher wind-up.

Sometimes after school and on weekends, we all went sliding across the street from our house on Carpenter’s Hill. It’s all grown up into trees now, but back in the ’70’s, Carpenter’s Hill was quite the neighborhood sliding hill. We’d spend days on end over there, having sled races, building snow ramps, bombing down the hill to see who could get the most air, all the while using each other for snowball fight moving target practice. Except for the one time a girl I had a crush on named Karen instead threw frozen horse manure. Hit me right over my left eye. I ended up with five stitches, a tetanus shot, and a scar I still have.

We played Stevenson Lane street hockey. Our neighbors up the street, Wamsganz’s on Stevenson Lane, Hicksons on Pine Street, built and sprayed their own private hockey rinks. We were allowed to use their rinks, but they had rules, and the price of admission was steep. If we wanted to skate or play hockey on those rinks, we had to shovel them off first. So, for the most part, we played in the street with a tennis ball, or a wadded-up newspaper wrapped tight in Dad’s electric tape. We could make our own set of street hockey rules and village plows cleared Stevenson Lane free of charge.

The one time we managed to get our hands on a real puck, somebody slap shotted it through my mom’s back porch window. Might’a been me. Might’a not. Mom warrants are serious business, and eternal, so I still ain’t sayin’.

1975 was a mostly innocent (Okay- not mostly. Okay-Okay, maybe guilty as sin.) pre-paper route time, but my little brother and I still had responsibilities. After we moved into our house, Dad bought our first snow-blower. It was a big green and yellow John Deere. He was the only one allowed to touch it. It had a ripcord. Dad called it cold “blooded”. It was a struggle to start. It always took Dad lots of ripcord pulls and words I wasn’t supposed to repeat or to tell Mom that I ever heard Dad utter.

When it got cold out, Dad would wheel that big yellow and green John Deere snowblower through our front door and keep it stored in our dining room. One of my most vivid memories of growing up in Saranac Lake as a kid is me being seated at the dining room table sharing one of Mom’s fancy dinners with our parents’ myriad guests. During Saranac Lake’s winter months (which was basically always), Dad’s John Deere snowblower would be seated next to me inside the front door, on its own mat, like some snow dripping guest of honor, its pungent oil/gas cologne complimenting the aroma of Mom’s scrumptious cooking.

Dad was gone an awful lot for his job, frequently overnight, on the road to his offices in Albany and Warrensburg. So, despite the new snowblower, after school and on weekends, my brother and I had 1 Stevenson Lane driveway, sidewalk and porch snow shoveling responsibilities. We even each had our own assigned shovels.

That wasn’t my only snow shoveling gig. I also shoveled the Saranac Lake Free Library sidewalks before school. My first paycheck. I had to keep track of my hours. I think they paid me about a quarter an hour. It took me about fifteen minutes to shovel that sidewalk. I hated that job. I had to get up extra early to shovel it before school and never made any money. Sometimes my paychecks for a whole week’s worth of Saranac Lake Free Library shoveling didn’t even add up to a dollar.

Mom got me that job through her status as a part-time librarian. At least I got paid something for that effort. We were supposed to get a weekly allowance for our work efforts at home too, but I think that all was an ingenious Mom scam, because by the time allowance day came, I was usually in the hole to my mom due to her assessing a mom made-up thing she called “demerits”. I think our weekly allowance at that point was a quarter. Each mom assessed transgression “demerit” subtracted five cents. With Mom as judge, jury and accountant, it was pretty hard for a young Adirondack Outlaw like me to get through a whole week in the black.

When we weren’t busy snow shoveling, sled jumping Carpenter’s Hill, or playing tennis ball street hockey, another winter focus of our Pine Street gang was building snowball fight snow forts. We built them in our side yard, by the house, right on top of where my mom had her garden. There’s a big garage there now. Dad had it built in the ’80’s when he tore our old garage down.

When Dad was home and manning his snowblower, he would direct all the blown driveway snow there. When he wasn’t home and we shoveled the driveway, my brother and I worked extra hard to pile as much more as we could. We would divide up into teams and build two massive snow forts, about ten yards apart from each other, each complete with its own set of hollowed out snow igloos, tunnels, and heavily fortified front and side walls.

Despite the fact that our family never had a snowmobile (Dad hated them), my brother and I each had snowmobile suits. They were bulky, but warm. Mine was olive green. My little brother’s was purple. We wore heavy hunting socks with plastic bread bags over them inside our boots to keep our feet dry. We wore my mom’s hand knitted mittens, hooded face masks and scarves. On weekends and holidays, oblivious to temperature and winter weather, we’d be out there all day, each with our assigned shovel, digging.

There’s an art to building snow igloos and tunnels. We experienced many structural failures and collapses, learning by trail and error, the hard way. The rest of our Pine Street gang would frequently come over and help. We’d all pile in the house at lunch time for bologna & mustard, peanut butter & jelly, or tuna fish sandwiches, a big glass of Kool Aide, and some of Mom’s home baked cookies, which everybody loved.

Beyond the many structural failures and tunnel collapses we experienced during snow fort construction, there was a far mor dreaded problem. Our snow forts were built on top of Mom’s garden. She grew all sorts of vegetables there, most of which I liked eating. While I did not like the mutant albino carrot abomination called parsnips, unlike my little brother, who would cry when Mom put most anything but corn, stewed tomatoes or peas on the table for supper, I liked most everything else, including broccoli and Brussels sprouts.

Mom harvested broccoli & Brussels sprouts from her garden well into late fall, sometimes even beyond the first several hard frosts. As a result, while the rest of the garden got tilled and turned over, those plants stood until they got buried beneath the season’s first snow. Woe be to the igloo or tunnel builder who encountered one of those plants. There is no smell quite like that of being squeezed into the tight confines of a snow tunnel and running face first into the frozen green squishy oozing remains of a rotting Brussels sprouts plant. Trust me when I say this. It’s a life altering experience.

When these encounters occurred, which was quite frequently, there was no other option. After emergency extraction and resuscitation of the stench bombed digger, that tunnel or igloo got filled back in, and we started another one.

When our snow forts were finished, each team would build a stockpile of snowballs for an epic Pine Street gang snowball fight. Some of us had pretty good arms. No quarter was given. We took no prisoners. Those snowball fight wars could frequently be quite intense. The ultimate objective was complete and total destruction of the other team’s fort.

One night after we completed our forts, we divided up into teams for a snowball war, as we always did. Sometime during the heat of battle, when things were touch and go and our team’s fort was in peril, I reached for my secret game changing weapon. I took aim and fired. “Splat!” I heard an anguished yell. “Man down!” Direct hit. I lobbed another snowball grenade. Same result. Soon, the other team waved the white flag of surrender. They were all rolling around in the snow, yelling “MEDIC!!”, trying desperately to stem the flow from the mortal wounds my top-secret snowball weapons had inflicted.

Unbeknownst to anyone else, that afternoon I had loaded several snowballs with the oozing green stench powered plant remnants of one of Mom’s rotten Brussels Sprouts.

Adirondack Outlaws are daunting snowball fight opponents. They’ve had years of practice honing their arms and their aim, and come armed with all types of ammo, up to and including rotten Brussels Sprouts filled nuclear snowballs.


Until Our Trails Cross Again: