I must have forgotten about the brutal winters, when I moved back to Minnesota last autumn. Forgetting was no accident, however. Having left for warmer parts three years earlier, I gave my big brother my snow blower and Goodwill received my shovels, boots and gloves, all in the attempt to distance myself from the layers of white stuff… and the memories that went with it.
By any Gopher’s point of view, the winter of 2010-2011 was been remarkably mild. In fact, it was well into February before I was confronted with the choice of shoveling the driveway or just trying my luck backing up through it, fast and furious. Truth is, I tried the latter and should not have. I backed up fine, whipped the car around with high school driver precision, slammed the Jetta into first and sat there spinning. And spinning—going nowhere. My three—nearly four—year run of no shoveling came to a slippery end. I got out of the car, trudged back to the garage (in my tennis shoes… no snow boots anymore!) and grabbed a poor excuse for a shovel (a garden spade). I plodded out and began the task of excavating my car.
The snow that fell the prior evening was a special kind of powder that a northerner usually only sees early in the season or right at the end: Very wet and very heavy. As I lugged spade after spade full of snow to the edge of the road, memories of previous winters flooded through my mind.
Growing up in southeast Minnesota, I have plenty of great winter memories: Tobogganing with my big brother (he carries the scars of mild frost bite on his cheeks to this day), hunting rabbits with the neighbors, building tunnels and forts with my buddies, shoveling the walk at our home and the parking lot at our store, playing king of the hill on huge mountains of plowed snow and snowball fights. In our little town of less than 2,000, snowball fights sometimes reached epic proportions.
Being a person who has no genuine military experience, one of the great days of my life revolves around one of these battles of hurled snow. It occurred in the winter of 1977.
I was an eighth-grader in a parochial school. Since the school only provided instruction to second through eighth grades, that meant, I—along with my fellow classmates—were the “kings of the school.” We weren’t bullies, but rather, we were just the guys standing on the brink of graduating. In spring, we would leave the safe enclave of our small Catholic school and enter the mainstream of students at the much larger public schools. Whereas we would fade into the masses the following August when we entered public school, for this one year, we were the top dogs.
The title of Top Dog has its drawbacks. Anyone who isn’t a top dog, wants to topple the top dogs. The atmosphere at St. Mary’s Grade School was no different. Though there were only eight boys in my class, we held a firm grasp to our title, dominating the tables at lunch and the playground at recess. That is, until one snowy day in the winter of 1977.
NEW RULES FOR COMBAT
Prior to 1977, St. Mary’s Grade School in Caledonia, Minn., did not allow the throwing of snowballs. I am not sure what convinced the teachers, and in particular, our principal, Alice Giblin, to relax that rule. But they did. During the winter of 1976-77, students could throw snowballs if they stayed south of the trees in back of the school. “South of the trees” meant a large grass area covering about an acre or so, with a ball diamond in each corner. Classmates—even entire classes—could play without interference from other kids or classes.
Several inches of wet, heavy snow (similar to what I had to just shoveled) fell the night before the day that would become known as the “Great Snow Battle of 1977.” Our janitor, Bill Gavin, had pushed up great mountains of snow just west of the tree line, further separating the field from the school playground.
After my buddies and I finished our lunch, we hurried outside. The snow mountain ridgeline was dotted with little kids—second-graders, third-graders and even a few from the fourth. With a battle cry that would have curled the toes of Yankees defending Cemetery Ridge against Picket’s charge, we few, we brave few, stormed the hill. In moments, we had swept it clean of the little kids. We surveyed our conquest as we watched the survivors group together. We could see they were trying to decide whether a counter attack was feasible.
Our victory remained uncontested for just a few moments, when the seventh grade boys emerged from the gymnasium where we all ate our hot lunches. I don’t think they even discussed it. Within the flash of a moment, they launched a dogged assault… running nearly 100 yards before ascending the hill to crash against our defenses.
Truly, he who holds the high ground, commands the field. Though outnumbered two to one, we eight eighth-graders threw back the attackers. Within just a couple of minutes of hand-to-hand combat, we were taunting the assailants as they picked themselves up and brushed off the wet snow.
A CHANGE OF TACTICS
After the seventh-graders regrouped, they did not posture themselves for a renewed attack. Rather, they gathered around the three toughest guys in their class: Dave Bauer, a farm kid who was strong and agile from years of farm labor; Danny Meyer, a city kid who grew up near the ball park and spent his summers playing baseball and swimming, and Steve Buege, another city kid who may not have been as tough as the other two, but he was smart—almost shrewd.
What could they be discussing? Why the huddle?
With a yell, the kids broke free from the circle and unleashed a barrage of snowballs at the eight of us. They had been packing them inside their huddle and now utilized their “artillery” to soften the position before renewing the assault.
It worked—to a degree. The new weapon certainly caught us off guard, but we regrouped, dug in our heels and awaited the attack… but it never came. Instead, a flurry of whistles and yells erupted from the teachers who were on the playground to supervise the kids. “NO SNOWBALLS NORTH OF THE TREES!” But, the escalation had occurred. It didn’t matter what the teachers yelled. Our playground warfare just stepped to a new level.
RECRUITMENT AND DEPLOYMENT
Like any breech of military protocol between two governments, the moments following the “illegal” attack were filled with much bravado and verbal posturing. “MEET US IN THE FIELD!” was answered with, “OH YEAH? WHAT FOR?” “We will show you who rules the school!” was met with the inevitable, “Oh yeah, you and what army?” The gauntlets were off.
The seventh-graders took their time moving to the farthest corner of the big open, snow-covered play field. I don’t think any of us noticed, but they were talking to the younger kids as they went.
Looking from our elevated vantage point, we could see more kids than just the seventh-grade boys were gathering in the corner of the field. At that moment, a kid from the fifth grade… I don’t remember who, but he wore a blue parka with brown fur-edged hood and had black horn-rimmed glasses… yelled, “They are getting the little kids to join them!”
This was unheard of. Sure, one class may battle another in softball, football or basketball on the playground, but never did one class recruit allegiances with other classes. But as we looked out over the white field, we witnessed it. Soon, all the third-graders joined the seventh in the corner. These were joined by the fourth and soon thereafter, the sixth.
I took control of the situation… I sent my buddy, Jed, over to the fifth-graders. “Get them to join us against the seventh!” I ordered. The second-graders, in their youthful obliviousness, didn’t realize they were about to be pressed into serving us in combat.
As Jed rallied the fifth-graders to our hill, I saw something I never saw before in any snowball fight: Deployment of troops. The seventh took up a line of battle in the middle of the big field, flanked by the sixth- and the fourth-graders. At the head of each group was one of the three tough seventh-graders: David Bauer at the head of his own class, Danny Meyer heading up the sixth-graders and Steve Buege leading the fourth. In all, they fielded about 50 combatants. To defend our ridge, we had about 24 throwing arms (one couldn’t count on the second-graders to throw with any accuracy or force).
Perhaps it was an opportunity to learn an early lesson in military maneuver, but in retrospect, I failed to recognize it. I thought the best way to defend our prize ridge of snow was to leave it and deploy 50 yards from its base. I divided the fifth-graders, putting roughly half on either flank of my group of eight eighth-graders. The second-graders were behind us, tasked with making snowballs and running them up to the battle lines.
Just as my small band took up their positions, the seventh-graders, along with their allies the fourth and sixth, opened fire with a long-range barrage. The arc of the trajectory allowed us to dodge each snowball as it slammed home within our lines. We replied with yells and taunts, allowing the second-graders to make more ammo for the impending defense we were sure to require.
I heard David yell to his commander of the fourth-graders, “Attack them… Charge at them!” And with that, about 20 kids, each carrying at least two snowballs broke into a run directly at our left flank. We few eighth-graders in the center of the line could direct some fire at the attackers, but the fifth-graders on our left would have to withstand the attack because just as we unleashed our first volley, we felt the impact of snowballs coming in from the enemy’s center line. David’s seventh stiffened their launch with multiple volleys. We had to pull back.
The second-graders, though diligent in their manufacture and supply of snowballs, did not comprehend what was happening as we eighth-graders withdrew hastily past them. We yelled at them to run and grabbed some by the collars to save, but others, perhaps too young to decide what to do, just stood watching us. Soon, David’s seventh overran the little manufacturers and immediately pressed the prisoners into service supplying snowballs for them!
The remnants of my scattered forces gathered along the tree line. We could feel the stern gaze of the playground monitors who, with brass whistles between their lips, drew and held deep breaths, prepared for any infraction of snowball throwing should one of us cross that line, “north of the trees.”
Pinned against the trees, my boys kept throwing—many with keen accuracy—as we held off the seventh’s attack. Their allies, the fourth, seemed to have lost interest, or maybe were just confused, as they began to throw snowballs at their newest allies, the second-graders who had been captured and pressed into service.
My force was reduced to the eight eighth-graders and just a handful of fifth-graders who managed to rally with us. Feeling rather Custer-like, I ordered, “Concentrate on Bauer, Meyer and Buege!” Our only chance, I thought, was to demoralize the leaders. My ranks unleashed a flurry of snowballs, many finding their prize targets peppering them with explosions of wet snow. Hearing the staccato of snowballs thuds energized me! This last-ditch defense was going to work!
My memory of the following seconds is gray… I think I heard, “Get Graf!” or maybe even, “Use the ice,” but I am not sure. All I can remember is being carried by four of my boys towards the school, and a concerned teacher looking over me who said, “We need to get him inside.” At that moment, I didn’t care what had happened to me. I struggled to look back at the tree line to see how the battle devolved. As they carried me through the double doors, I remember seeing a last volley, delivered, point-blank, at my few remaining warriors. The field was lost. Seventh-graders stood atop the snow hill, and second-graders lined up at the foot of their teacher—their noon recess, like mine, was over.
Sure it sounds cliché, but I “never knew what hit me.” Whatever it was—a hard-packed snowball, an ice chunk or even one of the dirtiest weapons sometimes employed on the playground, a snowball packed with either a pine cone or a piece of asphalt, had hit me, full-center, in the right eye. My glasses were twisted over the top of my head and the area around the eye swelled shut.
Sitting in the classroom with the teacher daubing my face with a towel, my four “stretcher bearers” discussed the battle with enthusiasm of victorious warriors. I knew we had lost the battle, but their smiles and heated recounts reflected the joy of victors. As the remaining three eighth-graders joined us (their recess—and that of all the other kids—had ended), they, too, launched into graphic accounts of their own deeds and the moment when “Graf got hit in the head.” As the noon break turned into afternoon classes and finally, the end of the day bell, the stories had escalated to near legend status.
When everyone left their classrooms at the end of the day to mingle in lines for busses or to walk home, there was no animosity displayed. Just big smiles, lots of laughs and friendly jibes. Dave Bauer, smiling that big, charismatic farmer smile that only he could muster, said, “That was a helluva a snowball fight Graf. Wanna do it again tomorrow?”
It’s hard to believe 35 years have passed since that snow battle. Shoveling the heavy, wet snow with a garden spade, though, conjured images of that day. The only true casualty on the winter day in 1977 was my ego. That small wound, however, healed almost immediately. In the place of any scar, it left very fond memories of a day when an entire small school fought each other with the tenacity of soldiers only to come together after the battle with smiles and laughter.
Cherish the memories,
Editor, Military Trader and Military Vehicles Magazine