“Hey, come with us at recess,” an older kid said one winter morning in school. “There’s a big snow drift in the valley.”
Our schoolyard was bordered on one side by a deep ravine. In winter, heavy snow and strong winds formed large snowdrifts along one bank. Those 20-foot drifts of hard packed snow were perfect for building caves. Our parents didn’t think so.
At the time, most one-room country schools had few amenities. Ours was no exception. However, we did have one essential tool that one winter served an important secondary duty. It was a short, narrow shovel used to scoop coal into the horizontal pot-bellied stove that heated our school and to remove ashes.
My older sister, Carol, was the school janitor, and probably came up with the idea. She’s pretty smart, you know.
We used that coal shovel to dig into the snow banks, to make what became a series of interconnected caves. They were huge, or seemed that way. All the kids were proud. The first two caves were dug by the older kids – one by the boys and one by the girls. They fought over possession of that coal shovel but finally took turns, reluctantly. Sharing, evidently, is not top-of-mind among early pubescent youth.
Even our teacher joined in the cave-building project. Mr. Mincheau was happy to do so. He proved that by allowing our morning recesses to run at times almost to lunch, our lunch hours to somehow become two hours, and afternoon recesses occasionally ending just before the time to go home. He had begun his unconventional scholastica interruptus schedule when school opened in the fall, with numerous field trips. The practice carried on into winter. Funny, how that happened.
With everyone assembled at the snow banks, us younger kids at first were obliged to use our mitten-covered hands to scrape at the snow between the two big kids’ caves, in an effort to make our own. We weren’t allowed turns with the coal shovel until they were done.
But we got smart. We found some flat pieces of firewood in the pile of firewood beside the school. These made crude shovels. They were indispensible for digging through the hard packed outer vertical edge of the snow bank, and helpful with removing the grainy snow we found inside.
After a few days of digging away at the snow we actually had a small cave, nestled between the much larger caves made by the big boys on one side and the big girls on the other.
And then one day we lost our cave!
Someone – probably one of the boys – got the idea that our cave would make a perfect link between their cave and the girls’ cave. All it took was one extended lunchtime and our little cave was no more. It became a hallway – okay a crawl space – between the boys’ cave and the girls’ cave. Mind you, it was a classy hallway, complete with an archway that once served as the entrance to our cave.
Right about then, the parents’ group decided on a meeting at the school with the teacher. They’d heard that my sister had been injured during a recess at the snow caves and were asking why. We knew that one of the big boys had fallen through the top of the big girls’ cave down onto my sister knocking the wind out of her.
Some of the older kids said there was a second reason as well: our parents had heard about the shortness of the teaching episodes compared with the elongated nature of our recesses and lunch breaks.
We learned later that Mr. Mincheau was one of those teachers called “six-week wonders”. This meant that as a recent graduate from high school, he’d gone to a place called Normal School for six weeks of teacher education, and then sent out to teach. The objective was to relieve a severe shortage of teachers at the time. Truth be known, in retrospect their work probably was more akin to that of a nanny than a teacher.
All of us kids were happy to be given the afternoon off to accommodate the parent-teacher meeting. Naturally, we headed for our snow caves.
The meeting ended and our parents came looking for their kids. All of us were there, happily playing in the snow caves, a good 10 to 15 feet of snow above our heads forming the ceilings.
Our parents took one look at our wonderful caves and had everyone out of there in seconds, scolding loudly as they sent us scurrying towards refuge in the school.
We had no idea what that was all about.
Some of us couldn’t resist sneaking back out to watch our fathers, with shovels and poles that appeared miraculously from somewhere, systematically destroying our hard-won snow caves. They told us later in hushed tones about the grave danger of so much snow poised above us that could have caved in, burying everyone inhabiting our precious caves.
They were right, of course. But we didn’t want to believe them, even for one minute.
“The Snow Caves” is Copyright 2013 by James Osborne. All Rights Reserved