The Odd Memory
Sometimes memories become clearer as the years pass. Emotions are diluted until they are just a hint of flavor in the pot-pie past. I've been sifting through a lot of memories lately. There are times I can close my eyes and touch, smell, hear, and taste those other times. Memories less clear drift through my mind as nebulous and inconsequential as clouds seen from an airplane window. I think I'm looking for a beginning but I haven't found it yet. Twenty-three years ago seemed a likely point but I'm not sure. Maybe I'll just call it the beginning until something more definite comes to mind.
It started snowing the day before, while we were in school. In February, the heart of winter, there was already a frozen and re-frozen accumulation on the ground, but the streets and sidewalks were clear before this latest storm. It was still snowing the next morning when I woke up to hear my mother say that school was canceled for the day.
Even before my older brother and I sat down to breakfast, my father had already walked down to the train station in case the trains were running late. The trains weren't usually affected by winter storms, but he liked to be careful. He hadn't missed a day of work since he joined the insurance company after his army discharge at the end of World War II.
Jack and I finished eating and bundled up to tackle the snow in the driveway and sidewalks. It was nice living on a corner lot except for having two sidewalks to shovel during winter. Jack said he'd start on the drive and help me with the sidewalk when he finished. I nodded, took my shovel, and cut across the yard to the furthest section of sidewalk. I started about four feet onto Mrs. Keegan's part of the sidewalk. Dad said you should always do a little extra. I thought about that and turned back to do another two feet of her sidewalk. There was maybe 14 inches of snowfall to clear. It wasn't powdery and light, but it wasn't the wet, really heavy stuff that was good for instant snowballs.
I moved steadily along the sidewalk toward the corner. It took about three shovels for each foot I advanced. It felt good – the vibration of the shovel along the concrete and up through my hands and wrists, the swing of the shovel against the heft of the snow, the thud and whack of the shovel blade into the seams in the sidewalk to keep a daydreaming shoveler alert. I heard Jack whistling while he worked. He knew a lot of songs. He was in the high school band and orchestra, and he went dancing with girls. I thought whistling was a waste of breath except for calling dogs.
Jack was the oldest kid in the family. He was seventeen and big, a lot bigger than I was. Most people were bigger than I was. I was nine going on ten-years-old. I was almost five feet tall. Jack was six foot one. I weighed 84 pounds. Jack weighed 170. We got along pretty well, well enough that I didn't think about it much. We pretty much lived in different worlds because of the difference in our ages. I didn't bother him with kid stuff very much and he didn't pick on me very much. If he was around and I needed help, I'd ask and he'd do what he could. I tried to help him with things if I could. A lot of my friends had older brothers and things weren't so good for them. I liked Jack. I didn't understand him – stuff like his music and his enjoyment of school – but I liked him.
I finished the Elm Street section of sidewalk and turned the corner onto the Lincoln Street sidewalk where our driveway came out. I could see Jack. He'd shoveled from the rear and had worked his way up past the house, heading for the street. He stopped shoveling for a minute, wiped his nose on his glove, and waved to me.
"Way to go, Jake," he called over. Jack and Jake, that's us, the Needham boys, John Junior and Jacob.
"Yeah," I yelled back, returning his wave. "It's not too bad this time."
Soon we met at the end of the driveway where the plows had tossed up two feet or more of snow and slush which froze overnight. If Jack was surprised to see the sidewalk done he didn't say anything. We looked at the usual plow mess for a few seconds.
Jack shrugged and said, "I'll chop, you shovel, okay?"
I agreed, so Jack carried the aluminum bladed shovel back down the drive and propped it next to the back door steps where dad kept it during the winter. He found the much-heavier steel-bladed shovel and came back to where I was waiting. He slammed the shovel blade into the frozen sludge until he'd carved out a messy block. He levered the block back out of his way and started carving again. When he finished a narrow path to the street, I started tossing the lose stuff out of the way back into the yard. When he was half finished clearing the end of the driveway, I started scraping where he had finished breaking up the sheet of icy snow that stuck to the pavement.
It didn't take us long to finish. We'd done this before and worked well together. We stood leaning on our shovels, breathing deeply. He looked down the sidewalk.
"Nice job," he said.
I looked back up the drive.
"Nice job," I said to him.
We grinned at each other.
"Tell mom I'll be down the hill. Okay? I hear the guys getting ready for a war." We always had our snow wars down the hill on Elm Street.
"Sure," Jack said, reaching for my shovel. "Don't kill anybody."
Twenty minutes later we were having a tremendous snowball fight. There were eight or nine of us from the neighborhood between the ages of 8 and 11. The action was fast, furious, and mostly inaccurate. Making snowballs and throwing them as fast as we could, there were few direct hits unless one side charged the other. When a charge took place the mayhem was universal but short-lived.
I threw a snowball at Tony Morelli but he ducked out of the way. The snowball continued on its trajectory and smacked into Jenny Murphy's head. Jenny was 15, a ninth grader, and she didn't look very happy. Neither did her two girlfriends. Well, what did they expect walking through a war zone?
"Sorry," I yelled to them.
Nope. They were not amused, particularly Jenny. They stopped and walked back toward me. I looked around for support but my comrades in arms seemed to have quietly slipped away to a safe distance. The three girls were bigger than I was so I did the smart thing and started to run. I hadn't gone more than three or four steps when a shove in the back had me face down in the snow.
I struggled to my hands and knees, spitting out a mouthful of snow and trying to wipe my face. Maybe I should have stayed down, but I got to my feet. Jenny's friends, now to either side of me, grabbed my parka at the shoulders. One of them reached down and grabbed a handful of snow and shoved it inside my jacket down the back of my shirt.
"Hey, it was an accident, okay?" I tried to explain.
"Sure it was, you little dumbshit," said Jenny.
The other two were jerking my jacket around to make the snow slide down my back.
"Hey, cut it out I didn't mean it. We were having a snowball fight. It was an accident"
"You pipsqueak asshole. All you jerks think every girl is a target. I'm going to teach you that just ain't so." She slapped my face with a mittened hand while her friends held me there. I raised my hands to stop another slap but she reached down and got two handfuls of snow and threw the snow in my face. I was scared but I was starting to get angry too.
Jenny spotted a patch of yellow snow with dog tracks around it. She took a handful of it and grabbed me by the front of the jacket. "Open up," she demanded.
It was automatic, requiring not an instant's thought. As Jenny leaned toward me, my left hand shot up from its position near my chest and clenched into a fist just before it connected with her nose.
"Eeeyowww!" she cried. She dropped the piss-soaked snow and fell to her knees, bringing her mittens up to comfort her nose. I could see it was bleeding a lot. Her friends let go of me and ran to her. "You little bastard," she moaned into her mittens.
I backed away while keeping an eye on the three girls. Then I turned and ran up the hill through the back yard and into my house.
That's how it began, I think.
I read an article a couple of years ago about the differences between the really top athletes and the rest of the world's population. The author said the true superstars are wired differently. Their tendons, ligaments, and muscles are put together to provide a lot more leverage and efficiency than most people have. I think I'm like that. I'm not a natural athlete though. I don't have superior vision, reflexes, or timing, but I'm stronger than most people. I'm scrawny looking but I'm strong as hell.
My dad used to scratch his head about it when we were fooling around. Jack used to laugh and say I didn't know my own strength. My mom used to mention it when I'd help her with something around the house. I didn't understand what they meant but maybe I started to get the first glimmer when I broke Jenny Murphy's nose during that snowball fight.
My mother was pretty upset when I got home and told her what had happened. She was angry with me for hitting a girl, but she was shocked and angry that the girl had tried to make me eat urine-soaked snow. When my father got home that night he got the grown up story from mom and then he asked me to tell the whole thing again. When I finished telling him what happened, he pinched his chin for a minute while his eyes went away. Then he looked at me and asked if there was anyone else there. I listed all the guys from the neighborhood that had been in the snowball war.
Dad sat down at the telephone bench, looked in the phone book for a minute, and then dialed a number. "Hello, Art. This is John Needham. My boy, Jake, got in a scuffle today and I'm trying to find out what happened. Tony wasn't involved but he might have seen what went on ... he did? ... okay ... please tell him he's not in any trouble ... I'd just like to hear it from him ... Thanks, Art."
True Story /