“The aging process has you firmly in its grasp if you never get the urge to throw a snowball.” Doug Larson
In the beginning, there were snowball fights after every storm, even though they presently are illegal in eight towns in Rhode Island, including nearby Newport and Jamestown. Not illegal here in Portsmouth, however, our town has a long history of dissent and rebellion against unjust laws and was founded in 1638 by Anne Hutchinson and others who wanted freedom from the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Portsmouth was the site of the largest Revolutionary War[i] battle in Rhode Island. After the French Navy assisting in the effort to free Newport from the occupying British Army were scattered by a huge two-day storm and limped back to Boston to regroup and repair, the colonials were forced to withdraw.
The British occupying Newport attempted to overwhelm the Colonial Army retreating from Aquidneck Island. A series of bloody, but ultimately indecisive skirmishes with the British and their Hessian mercenaries were fought on August 29, 1778, on nearby Turkey Hill and behind stone walls that still exist on Quaker Hill where our home is now. Some mornings I’m struck with the realization that desperate men fought and died right here to help defend our freedom. After successfully holding off the attacks, General Greene’s troops were then able to evacuate in an orderly manner and without further loss back to the mainland in North Tiverton. But I digress.
Snowball fights in Portsmouth have so far escaped the oversight of the town ordinances, however, I think there is a state law on the books that prohibits throwing snowballs at a moving car, an offense which is punishable by up to a year in prison. I have not heard of it ever being enforced. Late last week two approximately five-year-old boys recklessly broke the law, but we declined to charge them. We were driving on Wapping Road to get to our walk along Second Beach and view the aftermath of the morning snowstorm when the two miscreants jumped up on the old stone wall behind which they had been hiding and accompanied by loud, wild war cries, let fly. Fortunately, we survived intact as the missiles fell about fifty feet short of their intended target.
Rita warned me about the attack after we had passed by them. I might have pursued the villains, but she talked me out of it. I wanted to tell them that leading the moving car properly was the key to success. Throw ahead of it and let the car run into the trajectory of a well-timed strike. As I remember when we often threw at cars and trucks as kids, at least half the thrill was being chased by our victims after we pummeled their vehicles. The second key to success throwing snowballs at cars is not to do it from your parent’s yard and flee as soon as the brake lights go bright. I should have stopped and conducted some much-needed advance training.
We spent many determined hours building snow forts preparing for battle in the plowed embankments of our street while growing up in Massachusetts when snows were more frequent and deeper. Elaborate ramparts, observation, and attack towers and after a big storm, we could burrow some escape tunnels. If one of our architectural wonders caught my father’s eye, occasionally he would help after he got home from work and finish hardening the citadel with buckets of water to ice it up solidly. Construction was followed by many hours of snowball fights until the early winter sunsets overtook us and mothers called us home. Most frequently our retreats under cover of darkness were as indecisive as the Battle of Rhode Island and we withdrew in an orderly manner, tired, wet, and cold, but without further damage.
A second big thrill of our winter was sliding down Killer Hill on sleds both manufactured and improvised. The hill never killed any of us to my knowledge, but one naïve young friend broke his leg after we dared him to try it in a barely controllable flying saucer. Teddy struck the big oak tree at the bottom of the hill smack on at about two hundred miles an hour. Or so it seemed. As we ran down to help him, we were terrified that by challenging hapless Teddy, we had justified the name of the hill.
We never outgrow our primal impulse for snowball fights. One favorite was a memorable encounter at the UMass Amherst. The grand evening began as we slid down one of the steep slopes on campus on sturdy plastic trays purloined from the cafeteria. Well before social media crowd sourcing, a big storm drew two large rival men’s dormitories out into the cold with very little provocation. We clashed in a major battle after the six-inch heavy, wet, snowstorm provided like a godsend the makings for perfect snowballs – must have been at least a hundred guys on a side.
One splinter company broke off and tried an ill-advised assault on a sizeable women’s dorm. The besieged occupants wisely stayed behind their stout red brick walls. Laughing and pointing at the pitiful attackers, they could be seen in sweatshirts and bathrobes through the windows strategizing their defense. The attacking force was easily repelled with wastepaper buckets of ice-cold water, poured like boiling, flaming oil from the parapets upon the hordes.
Eventually, campus police sent a couple of troopers in a patrol car to break up the conflict. The cops remained safely in their mobile unit when two hundred snowballs released on a count of three buried their car. Since there was little risk of a riot breaking out, they drove back to their warm office shaking their fists and laughing. Cold hands, undone papers due in the morning, and the late hour quelled the ardor of the combatants, and we retired back to our rooms to nurse our wounds and fire up the illegal hotplates to make hot chocolate and coffee. I learned it is very difficult to evade a hundred snowballs thrown in unison.
“Every man should lose a battle when he is young, so he doesn’t lose a war when he is old.” George R Martin
Illustration by: Michel Capitaine du Chesnoy, A.d.C. du Général LaFayette, Public Domain, Wikipedia