Jerry Nelson: The snow fort

Jerry Nelson
Special to the Farm Forum

As with so many epic ventures, it began with an idea that was so simple it could only be described as pure genius.

I was in third grade, and my classmates and I were trudging back into our school building after the Christmas break. It felt as though we were returning to a gloomy Siberian gulag after an all-too-brief taste of freedom from the school’s rigid schedules and oppressive rules.

Adding to the overarching feeling of unfairness was the fact that a blizzard had howled across the prairie a few days prior. This seemed like a blatant rip-off. In a just universe, the snowstorm would have arrived a couple of days later and would have forced the school to cancel classes. Instead, the blizzard had trapped us at home with our parents and siblings, people whose company had, admittedly, become somewhat tiresome.

During our first recess of the day, we discovered an unexpected wonder. The blizzard had deposited a massive snowdrift on the north side of the schoolhouse. The surface of the drift was as smooth and flawless as polished marble. We scrambled to the top of the mound and discovered that it was also nearly as hard as metamorphic rock.

The south side of the drift was a near-vertical white wall. My pal Ernie kicked at the base of this wall with his five-buckled overshoe. To our amazement, his toe made a small dent.

What happened next was an act of brilliance that a person would be privileged to witness once in a lifetime.

Ernie dashed into the school and soon returned with his clipboard. School authorities had required that we all have clipboards. Up until that very moment, none of us boys had the vaguest idea regarding our clipboards’ purpose.

Ernie stabbed his clipboard into the belly of the drift. He repeated this motion until he had scribed a rectangle in the snow. By repurposing his clipboard into a lever and fulcrum, he was able to prize a perfect alabaster block from the drift.

My male classmates and I gaped at this architectural wonder and declared in unison, “Let’s build a snow fort!”

Additional clipboards were swiftly pressed into service. We labored like maniacs, cutting blocks, following no plan, driven only by the primal urge to construct the best snow fort in the history of mankind.

The construction process took a long time, consuming two days’ worth of recesses. When our redoubt was at last completed, we set about to filling its armory with a copious supply of snowball ammo.

Once our defensive fortification was finished, a critical philosophical question arose: who or what were we defending against?

A heated debate broke out. One highly vocal faction argued that the purpose of our fort was to keep out girls. Females, they said, are a huge bother. They are forever trying to impose their arbitrary rules on the rest of us, such as chewing with your mouth closed or saying, “Excuse me!” when you burp instead of “Pardon my French!”

But then someone posited the theory that moms might also be girls. An animated discussion regarding this topic ensued. In the end, it was decided that the preponderance of evidence supported the viewpoint that moms are technically girls and that all females should thus be feared and respected.

The question remained: what to do with our impenetrable fort and its formidable stockpile of snowballs? Our town was small, so we didn’t have to worry about potential rivalries from crosstown schools.

It was the height of the Cold War, so we decided to use our fort to defend the nation. If Soviet tanks were to suddenly appear at the edge of town and rumble toward our school, we would destroy them with an awe-inspiring hail of snowballs.

We hunkered by the parapets and practiced for the impending invasion. We hurled snowballs at our pretend enemy, making explosion noises with our mouths and shouting, “Take that, you dirty commies!”

We always won these mock battles. It gave us a great deal of satisfaction when our imaginary foes’ heavy armor was stopped in its tracks by our fearsome snowballs. At the end of each battle, which always coincided with the end of recess, we congratulated each other on our victory. We were all heroes.

Our snow fort remained an imposing presence for several weeks. But after one particularly balmy weekend, we discovered that the sun had reduced our glorious ivory citadel into a mishmash of grayish slush.

But by then I had drawn up secret plans for a new fort made of sticks that I was going to build out in our farm’s grove. Plans that I kept on my clipboard.

Jerry Nelson