I was eleven years old in 1952. It was winter. Eight inches of new snow covered the ground. My year-younger neighbor Joe and I were bundled up in layers of top and bottom wear and sporting caps with earflaps tied under our chins and buckle galoshes over shoes. Around eight p.m., the two of us finished building a snow fort facing Main Street in St. Peters. We didn’t have to go in until nine. An hour to kill. It would have been cool if George and Willie had been outside. They could have built a fort on the other side of the street from us. We could have lobbed snow cannon-balls at each other. But there was no one to wage war with. We competed to see who could make the tallest cloud of fog breath. That was a stupid game. An idea light bulb clicked on: Sneak to the back of George’s house and throw snowballs at the kitchen window.
“Yeah, then we can bomb Willie’s house.” Good ideas deserve to be amplified. “Then we cross the street and run back home,” I suggested.
Joe grinned, and we set to making snowballs. “At each house, you throw four, and I’ll throw four,” Joe said. “Make eight.”
Arithmetic was a right handy skill to possess. “I’m using my cap to carry my ammo,” I said. But when I loaded the cap, it could only hold four.
“Little snowballs,” Joe decreed.
As we packed smaller caliber rounds, Joe wondered if Willie or George, or maybe both, would come after us. The plan to sneak away might not work. We stacked the large balls in a pyramid inside our fort. If Willie and George chased us, we were prepared to defend ourselves. We were, after all, Boy Scouts.
With my cap loaded and my ears beginning to tingle, I wanted to get on with the mission and get my head covered.
“These new balls are awfully small,” Joe said. “They might not even hear them hit. I’m bringing a couple big ones.”
I had been thinking going small had been a good idea. One of those big suckers might break a window. Before I could say anything, down past my house, a set of headlights swung off the highway and onto the ramp to Main Street. We looked at each other. We grinned. We hunkered behind the wall of the fort. We waited.
After a bit, Joe peeked over the wall. “It’s going real slow.”
I peeked. The street hadn’t been plowed and only one set of ruts showed. A passenger car inched toward us.
“Slow as he’s going, we’ll get ‘im good,” I said, warm suddenly with the flush of impending combat sprung from ambush.
The car tires crunched the snow and spun a little making zzzz zz, zzz zz sounds. Joe peered over the fort, ducked back down, and giggled. Then I did.
“Wait, wait,” Joe said.
“I’m oldest,” I matter-of-factly pointed out. “I say when.”
“Well, say it then.”
And I did, and we started winging snowballs. I threw the big ones and the little ones. At one point I fired balls with both hands. The left threw worse than a girl, but I was caught up some in the heat of battle.
The balls pelted the car with poofs and splats. The car skidded to a stop. The door opened.
We lit out.
“You little rats,” a man hollered. It was Emil Fenstermacher, a farmer from east of town. I glanced back. He stood in the street with the car door open. “I’m coming back by here in fifteen minutes.” Joe and I were running, but his words ran faster. “If one snowball comes within a hundred feet a my car, I will run you twerps down and paddle your asses red with a two-by-four. Then, Joe Snyder, I will tell your dad. He’ll whup you all over again.”
We ran past the side of Joe’s house, through the backyard, climbed the chain-link fence, splashed through the slush at the bottom of the ditch, stomped up the embankment and raced across the highway without looking, and stopped in the ditch on the other side and checked behind us.
He hadn’t chased us.
We were breathing hard. It was work running in all the clothes we wore.
“He knows who you are,” I pointed out to my buddy.
“Yeah. Next time we build the fort in your front yard.”
Preview from tomorrow's Part II.
The Sunday before the Grand Jury decision was announced, Deacon Larry delivered the homily at our church. At one point he invited us to ask ourselves if we had done enough for the people of Ferguson.