I heard on the news that a Wisconsin town has a law against throwing snowballs. I found this alarming. I could not have imagined being a Badger State boy without throwing snowballs.

Before you can throw a snowball, you must make it, but that is not as simple as it might seem to those who lack a depth of experience in snowball-throwing. Of course, you want a tight round missile that fits easily in your hand, but snow varies in the snowball-making department. The snow needs some moisture for the stuff to make a ball that will cling together as it goes through the air. Generally, the colder the temperature, the less moisture. It may seem counter-intuitive if you have not had years of experience in making snowballs, but it can be too cold to make good snowballs. When it was really frigid, desperate measures were needed if the snow was going to be balled. Gloves or mittens had to be taken off (mittens keep the hands warmer, but gloves are better for throwing, and I almost always wore gloves) and the snow molded with bare hands so that body temperature could melt a little of the snow to get the needed moisture. Of course, in this kind of cold, you did not want to have those gloves off for very long, so snowball fights were short. (We did go out to play in single-digit temperatures. Many years later, when I took my small child out in twenty-degree weather, other New York City parents acted is if I were committing an act of child abuse. I guess they thought that in colder climes kids were kept indoors for three or four months. Now that would have been child abuse.)

Now let’s get to the technical terms. When the conditions were right to pack the snow into a good ball, we would say the snow was “packy.” (Or maybe it was “packie.” Until I wrote this, I have never seen the word written out.) We may not have been like those fabled Inuits, but we did have more words for snow and other winter weather than I hear now. For example, we had a word for one sort of specially dreaded puddle. Snow was quickly and completely removed from the sidewalks after a snow ended. Unless more snow was forecast, we could walk to school and elsewhere without boots, galoshes, or rubbers, a word which got snickers in our early teen-age years although we did not really comprehend the alternative meaning. There could be puddles from snow melt, but the depths were less than the soles of our shoes and not a problem. Conditions, however, often differed at the crosswalks. There runoff from salted streets was often deeper. We learned to gauge which puddles to jump over and which could be stepped in. But we all sometimes made mistakes and stepped into a deeper puddle than our otherwise discerning eyes had gauged it to be. Most often the mistake was not too bad, but every so often the puddle was deep enough that the cold, icy, salty, dirty gutter water came over the tops of our shoes and flooded our feet, with the prospect of an uncomfortable time at school. When this happened, you got a “soaker.”

When the snow was packy, even as a kindergartener I was into the backyard to make snowballs. I had seen older kids in snowball fights, and I had learned early on that just as success in colonial times was oft determined by how quickly a musket could be reloaded, a snowball contest could depend on how quickly you could make the ammunition. There was a fine line here. You wanted the snowball packed tightly both so it would fly true through the air and to make a good impact on its target, but if you spent too much time cupping the snow together, you would be bombarded by an opponent who made them quicker. On the other hand, if you rushed too much and the snow was not balled tightly enough, it fell apart as it was thrown—the equivalent of a musket’s all flash and no ball.

(continued January 24)

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