When I was in my mid-20s, I asked Santa for a house, but got a shirt instead. Apparently, Santa didn’t care what I wanted, so I stopped believing in him. I’ve become so cynical these past few years I’m starting to have doubts about the Easter Bunny, too.
So far the only one who’s delivered the goods is Old Man Winter. Last year, I asked him for lots of snow and the geezer came through. Our town got 55 inches of snow, instead of our usual 25. Of course, there’s no pleasing some people. You’d be amazed how upset some folks were, bellyaching about having to shovel a little snow. Like my wife, for instance, even though I had given her a new shovel for Christmas.
This year, I’m giving Santa the chance to redeem himself so have asked him for a white Christmas. There’s nothing worse than waking up on Christmas morning and seeing dead brown grass instead of snow. Well, maybe cancer is worse, but just barely. It depends on the kind of cancer. I had skin cancer last year and not having snow for Christmas was definitely worse than my skin cancer, which the doctor fixed in five minutes. Yes, I’m a cancer survivor, but I prefer not to talk about it. No sense getting people all depressed.
Where was I? Oh, yes, snow for Christmas. Twelve inches, please. I’m a pastor and have to work on Christmas Eve, so if the snow could start falling in the late afternoon of the 24th and get me a day off work, that would be even better. Then I’d apologize to Santa Claus for ever doubting him. Twelve inches of snow, then a cold snap so it won’t melt for at least two months. Thirty, maybe 40 below zero, so it would be too cold for school and my wife could stay home and carry in firewood for our woodstove. Thanks to me, she’s in tremendous shape for a woman in her 50s.
As wonderful as snow is, it’s odd that it leads to the worst thing ever, which is slush. Slush is even worse than dead brown grass at Christmas. Dead brown grass doesn’t spill over the tops of your shoes and soak your socks.
The best thing about snow is the stillness. I guess what I’m really asking Santa for is peace and quiet. When it snows people stay home, except for our town’s snowplow driver, Ray Whitaker, who passes by in the moon hours, his amber strobe casting shadows across our bedroom wall. We live on the north edge of town, the Welcome to Danville sign is in our side yard. Ray plows the street up to the sign, then puts his truck in reverse. I can hear the beeper on his truck as he backs up a half block, turns around, and heads into town.
For the 14 years my dad served on the town board, he took doughnuts to Ray the morning after every snowfall, but would always bring one home to me. Whenever it snows, I think of doughnuts. Dad no longer drives, so now I’m the doughnut man. Ray has the streets clear by 6 a.m., so I drive to Kroger, buy a box of doughnuts, and take them to Ray, who is at the town garage, brushing the snow off his truck before pulling it into the bay. If it snows on Christmas Eve this year, Ray will have to do without doughnuts since Kroger is closed on Christmas morning. My wife will make him blueberry coffee cake instead.
Ray complains whenever it snows, but it’s all a show. Like most men, he loves an adventure, and there are few things as exciting as being out in a heavy snow. Sometimes I’ll even take Ray doughnuts before the streets are cleared, just for the thrill of it. There are three hills between our house and town, so I have to get a good head of steam up before hitting each hill. Even so, my tires spin, as does my mind, to silent winters past.
There are things I liked as a kid that in my adult years I no longer enjoy, but my enthusiasm for snow has continued undiminished. My Grandpa Hank told me I wouldn’t like snow when I got to be his age. My grandfather was wrong about a number of things, but this was his biggest misjudgment.
I liked snow as a kid because it got me out of school. The cancellations would be announced on WGRT, our town’s radio station. Sometimes WGRT wouldn’t even wait for official word. They would predict the closing the night before, working themselves into a frenzy. My siblings and I would take their prophecies as gospel truth, put on our coats, and go for a walk around the block in the snow. I remember how the snow lit the night, and the smothered quiet, and the feel of snow landing on my exposed neck and running in rivulets to the collar of my long underwear. When we got home, Mom would make us hot chocolate, not the stuff in a packet with the pebble-hard marshmallows you dump into hot water, but the real kind with milk and cocoa and sugar. I would stay up late, sitting at my bedroom window, watching the snow fall, backlit by the street light. Cleo Walker would drive past in the snowplow, the strobe casting and retracting its yellow light against the houses. Cleo was a nice man, but it was hard to feel kindly toward a man working to get us back to school.
There were two sledding hills in our town. One of them was at the park but would be closed whenever a kid rammed into the basketball post at the bottom of the hill and cracked his head open. It was always the same kid, Donny Millardo, who had a permanent crease in his forehead from hitting the post.
The other hill was in our backyard. Kids from all over town would descend on our backyard. I went through 12 years of school without ever getting beat up. All the bullies wanted to stay on my good side so they could sled on our hill. Snow was my salvation. If our yard had been flat, I wouldn’t have lived past junior high.
The only thing I didn’t like about snow were the rubber boots my mother made me wear when the first flake hit the ground in mid-November. They had eight buckles, which iced over and froze shut. I couldn’t unlatch them until the spring thaw. There were five children in our family and I fell toward the end, so I wore hand-me-down boots from my brother Doug, who had the smallest feet in the state of Indiana. I would pull the boots on over my shoes, straining and grunting and stomping until the heel of my shoe cleared the back of the boot. I wore them all winter, even slept and showered in them, lest I snap a bone pulling them back on.
This was back in the day before good gloves. When I was a kid, only one kind of glove had been invented: the brown jersey glove. They were made of a special kind of cotton that absorbed 10 times their weight in water and within five minutes would freeze into an icy claw. I continue to like snow because it gets me out of work. On the days it snows, I shovel my driveway, clean my walks, spread salt, then drive over to my parents’ house and do it all over again. If I really want to avoid work, I shovel out my brother’s house, my sister’s house, and my neighbor’s house. Then I drive to the grocery store and buy doughnuts for the town workers plowing the streets. A good snow can occupy me for eight or more hours, by which time it’s too late to go to work. I can enjoy an entire day off from work and look virtuous doing it, even though I’m playing hooky.
We don’t seem to get as much snow as we did when I was a kid. It wasn’t uncommon, when I was five or six years old, for snow to be up past my knees. I can’t remember the last time that happened. Now it only reaches the top of my boots. I’m no weather expert, but I suspect this has something to do with global warming.
Still, to waken in the morning and see the glint and dazzle of snow upon the ground was, and remains, a deep and wondrous joy. I’m not sure what it was that turned my grandfather against snow, but I hope whatever it was never happens to me.