November meant snow back then, filling winter’s cup from Thanksgiving on, spilling over one day into the next, and the next after that, till the first flakes of November lay buried under layers thick as the great heaps of wet winter clothing discarded by the kitchen door at the end of every winter day. Remember all the snow we had back in South Holland, Illinois, nineteen sixty-five? It is snowing still!
And it is Thanksgiving weekend, and we are all outside once more in the white-washed evening of a long ago snow with big plans for the long weekend under big flakes the size of dimes. Big-eyed Terry “The Turtle”, Jeff and his brother Robby (two heads of burning red hair), and Bobby Bankowski (Banksy to us) are all here, and we’re gathered at the top of Drexel Avenue, right behind St. Jude’s Catholic school, looking up into the furious snow, waiting till the two nuns from St. Jude’s completed their evening walk, heads down against the wind, black-coned sweep of salvation and fear down one end of Drexel and up the other side. No hockey or snowball fights until they passed.
“Happy Thanksgiving, Mother St. James. Evening Mother St. Thomas,” we called out.
“Good afternooooon!” Turtle boomed with a bow, our own greeting shattered to giggles and muffled laughs to the passing nuns.
Heavy brows and glasses signaled a warning to be thankful for all our blessings from Mother St. James, but the pleasant soft face of Mother St. Thomas fading in the sizzle of five o’clock snow, and the endless glow of Christmas lights strung this very weekend from house to house to house, scattered us on our way on loosely laced skates to the middle of Drexel Avenue for hockey. Hockey! Manhole covers for goals, Northland hockey sticks, black electrical tape around the blade. We skated out in the street back then. Or tried to. So much snow packed down unevenly and iced over already each late November afternoon that skating was like climbing over broken glass and spilled ice cubes. Still, we bumped and glided along the middle of Drexel on snowy Thanksgiving weekends, our thanks for the long holiday weekend with no homework, plenty of snow, and escape from the wimpled scowl of Mother St. James buried somewhere in our hollers, whistles, and yells.
Free for four days! Full of our eight year-old selves and looking for trouble, we raced to the street. Jeff let the puck fly first with a great slap shot that was all sound and no aim. It ended our game before it began. End-over-end, the puck bounced and slid over the thick-iced street, picking up speed as it shot way past the goal and headed straight down the middle of Drexel into the caravan of tired and hungry oncoming Christmas shopping parents.
“I got it! I got it!” Robby shouted, and off he went, all elbows, ankles and hockey stick, and Drexel all to himself for a quick eerie minute. But the puck wanted no part of being caught, lengthening its lead over the young skater. Robby kept on, going faster than he knew how to handle, just as Mr. Kelly’s great green station wagon turned onto Drexel, and Robby sped into its path. The Kelly wagon lights caught Robby instantly. Mr. Kelly must’ve slammed on the breaks for the wagon’s turn never straightened out. Slipping on the ungrippable packed snow-ice, the car seemed to come alive, lumbering and slithering every which way to avoid the terrified hero in its path. Robby’s skates hit the curb and it took the white ground right out from under him, as the station wagon spun through the falling snow, missing Robby by the length of his Northland Bobby Hull replica, before ending up on the Palmer’s lawn and scattering us back off the street for the rest of the long weekend, the whole scary dance conducted in a soundless white five minute frenzy. By morning, the mishap would be untraceable, the strange, sickly tire tracks from road to lawn, like our hockey games of so many years ago, would be forever gone.
Along with the snow back then came the wind, great November blasts howling around every corner of the house, whipping the snow into great sweeping drifts from the grass right on up to the roof, the wind playing with the crest, forever shifting its tippy-top in my memory, as we gathered by the drifts, falling back into one, pushing each other backwards, to be caught by the open hand of the deep snow. We’d sink down below the surface where the sound of the wind flew like snowflakes above us but never down into our cave of quiet white where only the sifty! sifty! sounds of our leggings rubbing against each other reached our ears. What great forts! we decided, and we would start snowball fights just for the pleasure of retreating deep into the drifts. Back and forth the loosely packed snowballs flew, hastily formed comets with tails of fine white powder falling away with our every heave.
We choose no sides, just aimed at each other, looking for the closest hit, when Jeff found Robby once, unprotected for a moment, and hit him square in the face, raising an instant red welt on his younger brother’s cheek and an angry hot-teared charge back upon himself. The two rolled and fought in the snow, mittened punches aiming for each other’s face while the rest of us crowded around, yelling, taking sides, shouting encouragement into the thin bright air. Jeff eventually got up, leaving his brother crying, defeated, and angry in the snow. Turtle then tackled Jeff and we all piled on, the base of the drift now ruined with the scars and ugly ruts of our brawl surely visible to Mother St. James any moment now. Our panicky hands tried to smooth it all out to avoid her scowl and weekend homework as punishment, but only the next night’s snow could renew the innocence with yet another round of pure white powder.
Such cleansing snow didn’t always come at night, though. Sometimes it started in the middle of the day. One heavy gray afternoon during a Thanksgiving weekend like all the others, we wandered all the way out to the dark and brooding Sibley trees, at the far grassy open end of Drexel Avenue. The trees were full of snow and mystery in November: a lost hunting knife to be found on the crunchy woodland floor, a broken blue robin’s egg long out of season. If you were eight years old, you marveled that you and your friends made it all the way to the trees and had some time alone, to sit on the big log where the fourteen year-olds sneaked their cigarettes, or to go see what every kid in the neighborhood knew as Drexel’s most famous landmark: blood rock.
We first saw it that long weekend, before the nun’s cane out to walk. We sat on the old log in the middle of the tangle of black-boned trees breathing in the deep sense of quiet belonging we always felt. It started to snow then, and we sat and listened to the empty sound of snow falling through forbidden trees, while we peered through the heavy trunks and saw the same snow filling the grass, fogging the air, the last houses of the street barely visible, marked only by their Christmas lights on outside trees, around windows and along eaves. We waited for dark, and that’s when Banksy told us what his brother Jackie had said happened here with a kid named Gordy.
Gordy laughed in a rolling, goofy kind of way when things weren’t funny. Once, at the trees, he started his laugh while he slipped his dirty fingers into his blue-jean-hip pocket and pulled out something not even the big kids had ever seen up close. A bullet! All the big kids hovered close to look at it. Some even touched it. It was smooth, Jackie had said, sleek, hard. One kid got scared and told Gordy to put it away. Gordy laughed and took the bullet over by the big flat rock near the fallen log. He placed it on its side, picked up a rock about the size of Robby’s softball we used all summer, then raised the rock with both hands over his head, and dropped it as hard as he could.
Everyone scrambled. Gordy kept laughing. The rock didn’t catch it at first, so Gordy picked it up and tried again and again, till finally the rock caught the bullet and it exploded, and the shot split the frozen terror-silence in the trees. For a terrible second, Jackie had said, it was like you felt all alone out there. No one knew where the bullet would go, but he swore in the instant of the explosion that there were a couple of fast, clicking sounds, and Jackie said he knew that bullet ricocheted somewhere. Everybody was behind a tree, or on the ground, except Gordy, who had never moved. After the silence, the heads peeked out. Jackie said he saw Gordy flinch and grab his ankle as everyone got up and ran, leaving Gordy and his scary laughing behind. Maybe it was nothing, but over on the rock near Gordy, everyone says you can still see a dark and rusty, single, round drop of blood, the size of a dime.
For a moment, we forgot all about the snow and the newly strung Christmas lights drawn out by the thickening white darkness outside the confines of the Sibley trees. Inside, we were like one. We held our breath together at the thought of Gordy’s howling, crazy laugh. We rose then walked together toward the wonderfully evil rock where Gordy had stood. Was it true? Was Jackie right? We crouched over where we instinctively knew it must be: the flat little patch in front of the log. Our left hands reached out and began to brush the cleansing snow away. Slowly at first, then faster, faster, almost manic-like, we brushed every flake away down to the cold, gray throne of evil, and Turtle shouted first, “Look!”
We all stepped back, as if on command, strangely moved by its presence. Certainly, our hearts pounded, beat out the same rhythm together, marking us as one, as I always hoped we would be, as I always remembered we were. In the silence we took a slow look around at each other. Was there a Gordy among us? Who would it be?
“I’m getting outta here!” came a cry from what seemed like our collective voice. And we did. With yells of war-whoop intensity, we ran from the Sibley trees, from the spirit of growing up, and what it might do to us, piling up on every branch above.
We burst into the open, eyes fully fixed on the distant Christmas lights, running madly now, through the blinding snow toward the welcome, the familiar, the glorious colored lights. What joy approached: multicolored trees, straight-as-a-line-of-soldiers-colored lights endlessly strung along the eaves of our houses, connecting them all, it seemed, and blurring joyously into a mixture of soft-white-cotton-blue-yellow-red-green haze, as the snow fell harder, the distant black triangle of nuns braced against the cold, and the lights misted into the air. Oh, the first weekend of Christmas lights in the snow! Cup your hands around one deep blue bulb and hold the total expanse of sky in your palms; watch a red ghost spread breathlessly beneath the frosty, white, glistening crystals of everything that was young and to be thankful for. Try a green one, perhaps a yellow. They all come together when you cross your eyes, and I did. Oh, I did! All the way home, the dots of lights smeared into my forever November memory and the snowy dark air. A thousand dimes.