When my brother and I were boys we used to stand up on the hill by Mark Riley’s house and wait for cars to come by so we could bombard them with snowballs. The spot we stood was perfect because we could see the cars from a long way off. We were much higher than the road and the drivers wouldn’t notice us until a beautifully arched snowball would loft down with a satisfying thump on the hood or better on the windshield or best, though rarely, through the open driver’s window. We lined up our snowballs in front of us so that we could get off several rounds per car like those Zen archers you read about that can launch a dozen arrows before the first one reaches ground. In our minds we were Zen archers, our snowballs following one after another as if the first drew the others in its slipstream.
Our spot was perfect in another way too. You could run from there into the deep and complicated woods behind the Riley’s house and then dart off onto half a dozen paths that were made for small boys to dart off onto. We knew where to meet up at and where to circle around to come out of the woods, sauntering as if we were out for a stroll and not involved in any snowball throwing that might be going on the neighborhood.
Cars would often stop when we whacked them and we would peal off for the woods shouting and sometimes an irate old fart would get out and try to run up the slick hill in leather shoes and fall on a knee in the snow before giving up and cursing all the way back to his Ford. Sometimes when that happened we would slip back out from the woods where we had been watching and launch another volley at the retreating figure and the sitting duck car throbbing at curbside.
There was really only one problem with our set up. While we could see the cars coming from a distance, we were too high off the road to see who was in the car and so with every volley launched there was the delicious risk that it wouldn’t be some forty year old fart, but a carload of jocks from the high school who would slither to a stop and then four doors would fly open in unison and a carfull of whooping high school guys would tear up the hill after us and we’d run for woods shouting, “Oh Shit! Oh Shit!” as we stumbled over each other on the suddenly treacherous ground. And then the pack would be right behind us and those stomping swearing whooping sounds seemed as close as if we were wearing them on our backs.
Sometimes we would get away and then the sheer joy of life would surge through us as we reunited in the little clearing in the woods and talked about how close the escape had been and how we had bewildered them once we reached the woods and slipped down trails made for crafty boys and not for meaty high school guys with their big shoulders and black high top sneakers.
Other times they would get us and that would usually turn out the same: you’d feel their bellowing breathing on your neck just before an iron hand would grab the hood of your winter jacket and your feet would fly out from under you and then a massive presence would be all over you. They would fling you into the snow and a hand the size of a catcher’s mitt would be on the back of your head, no way you could prevent it, and that hand would push your face down into the snow and twist it so that your face would be rubbed over the ground.
They would go at for a while and it was even hard to shout for mercy or to get any beneficial effect from crying cause the snow would be in your snotty nose and mouth and slipping in that surprising way down your front collar onto your bare boy’s chest below. Sometimes they would kick you or give you a few random punches, but that was usually it. The point of it was that pitiful sight we made as we sat up and turned to see who had done it to us: our faces red and packed with pockets of snow, our knit hats knocked cock-eyed on our heads so that tufts of winter hair shot up in all the wrong directions, those stupid long scarves we wore trailing off in the snow like the tails of broken kites.
Years later, when my brother and I were in our twenties and done with college, we would go out to my folks and drive past that hill where we used to throw our snowballs. The hill didn’t look so big as it used to look and the Riley’s woods were nothing more than a threadbare clump of apple trees. But we’d grown up and had our minds on the complicated lives were starting to live and we didn’t even notice.
Except one day. It was a freezing Christmas afternoon and we were dressed for dinner with the folks. It had snowed the day before. The roads had been cleared but the lawns throughout my parents’ neighborhood were covered with white. We were late for dinner. We knew that mother would be unhappy cause she had been up early cooking and we had proved that we weren’t any more considerate than we had ever been. We were anxious to get there.
We were coming down Hunter’s Lane. My brother was driving. And all at once there were two thwaps on the front windshield. A snowball attack, no possible doubt. Direct hits.
My brother skidded to a stop. Up on the hill we could see the boys scattering in the frozen afternoon light. I looked at my brother. It was freezing outside. We had a place to get to. I had on a pair of black loafers and a tie and sport coat. He looked at me. We didn’t say anything. We didn’t want to get out of that car. We looked at each other for a long time. And then he sighed. “We’ve got to do it,” he said.
I said, “we’ve got no choice.”
And we flung open the doors of the car in unison and tore ass up the hill whooping in the direction that the snowballs came from.