Noon — Noise and Dinner — Sports at School — Coasting — Snow-balling — a Certain Memorable Snow-ball Battle
NOON has come. It is even half-past twelve; for the teacher got puzzled with a hard sum, and did not attend to the second reading of the first class so soon as usual by half an hour. It has been hitch, hitch — joggle, joggle — creak, creak, all over the school-room for a considerable time. "You are dismissed," comes at last. The going out of half the school only was a noisy business; but now there is a tenfold thunder, augmented by the windy rush of many petticoats. All the voices of all the tongues now split or rather shatter the air, if I may so speak. There are more various tones than could be indicated by all the epithets ever applied to sound.
The first manual operation is the extracting of certain parcels from pockets, bags, baskets, hat-crowns, and perhaps the capacious cavity formed by the tie of a short open frock. Then what a savory development, — bread, cheese, cakes, pies, sausages, and apples without number! It is voice versus appetite now for the occupancy of the mouth.
The case is soon decided, that is, dinner is dispatched. Then commences what, in view of most of us, is the chief business of the day. Before describing this, however, I would premise a little. The principal allurement and prime happiness of going to school, as it used to be conducted, was the opportunity it afforded for social amusement. Our rural abodes were scattered generally a half or a quarter of a mile apart, and the young could not see each other every day as conveniently as they can in a city or a village. The schooling season was therefore looked forward to as one long series of holidays, or, as Mark Martin once said, as so many thanksgiving days, except the music, the sermon, and the dinner. Mark Martin, let me mention by the way, was the wit of the school. Some of his sayings, that made us laugh at the time, I shall hereafter put down. They may not affect the reader, however, as they did us, for the lack of his peculiar manner which set them off.
Of all the sportive exercises of the winter school, the most exhilarating, indeed intensely delightful, was sliding down hill, or coasting, as it is called. The location of our school was uncommonly favorable for this diversion. Situated as we were on a hill, we could go down like arrows for the eighth of a mile on one side, and half that distance on the other. Almost every boy had his sled. Some of us got our names branded on the vehicle, and prided ourselves in the workmanship or the swiftness of it, as mariners do in that of a ship. We used to personify the dear little speeder with a she and a her, seamanlike also. Take it when a few days of severely cold and clear weather have permitted the road to be worn icy smooth, and the careering little coaster is the most enviable pleasure-rider that was ever eager to set out or sorry to stop. The very tugging up hill back again, is not without its pleasure. The change of posture is agreeable, and also the stir of limb and stretch of muscle for the short time required to return to the starting place. Then there is the looking forward to the glorious down hill again. In all the pleasures of human experience, there is nothing like coasting, for the regular alternation of glowing anticipation and frame-thrilling enjoyment.
Another sport which comes only with the winter, and is enjoyed mostly at school is the chivalrous pastime of snow-balling. Take, for instance, the earliest snow of winter, falling gently and stilly with its feathery flakes, of just the right moisture for easy manipulation. Or when the drifts soften in the mid-winter thaw, or begin to settle beneath the lengthened and sunny days of March, then is the season for the power and glory of a snow-ball fight. The whole school of the martial sex are out of a noon-time, from the veterans of a hundred battles down almost to the freshest recruits of the little front seat. Half against half, unless a certain number agree to "take" all the rest. The oldest are opposed to the oldest in the hostile array, so that the little round, and perhaps hard, missile may not be out of proportion to the age, size, and toughness of the antagonist likely to be hit. The little boys, of course, against the little, with this advantage, that their discharges lose most of their force before reaching the object aimed at. When one is hit, he is not merely wounded; he is a dead man as to this battle. Here, no quarter is asked or given. The balls whistle, the men fall, until all are defunct but one or two individuals, who remain unkilled because there is no enemy left to hurl the fatal ball.
But our conflicts were not always make believes, conducted according to the formal rules of play: these sham-fights sometimes waxed into the very reality of war.
The school was about equally divided between the East and the West ends of the district. From time immemorial there had come down a rivalry between the two parties in respect to physical activity and strength. At the close of the school in the afternoon, and at the parting of the scholars on their different ways toward home, there were almost always a few farewells in the form of a sudden trip-up, a dab of snow, or an icy-ball almost as tenderly soft and agreeable of contact as that mellow thing — a stone. These valedictories were as courteously reciprocated from the other side.
These slight skirmishes would sometimes grow into a general battle, when the arm was not careful to proportion the force just so as to touch and no more, as in a noon-day game.
One battle I recollect, which is worthy of being commemorated in a book, at least a book about boyhood, like this. It is as fresh before my mind's eye as if it were but yesterday.
It had gently but steadily snowed all one December night, and almost all the next day. Owing to the weather, there were no girls excepting Capt. Clark's two, and no very small boys, at school. The scholars had been unusually playful through the day, and had taken liberties which would not have been tolerated in the full school.
When we were dismissed at night, the snow had done falling, and the ammunition of just the right moisture lay in exhaustless abundance on the ground, all as level as a floor; for there had been no wind to distribute unequally the gifts of the impartial clouds. The first boy that sprang from the threshold caught up a quart of the spotless but viscid material, and whitewashed the face of the next one at the door, who happened to belong to the rival side. This was a signal for general action. As fast as the troops poured out, they rushed to the conflict. We had not the coolness deliberately to arrange ourselves in battle-order, line against line; but each aimed at each as he could, no matter whom, how, or where, provided that he belonged to the "other End." We did not round the snow into shape, but hurled and dashed it in large masses, as we happened to snatch or scoop it up. As the combatants in gunpowder war are hidden from each other by clouds of their own raising, so also our warriors clouded themselves from sight. And there were other obstacles to vision besides the discharges in the air; for one, or both of the eyes of us all were glued up and sealed in darkness by the damp, sticky matter. The nasal and auditory cavities too were temporarily closed. And here and there a mouth, opening after a little breath, received the same snowy visitation.
At length, from putting snow into each other, we took to putting each other into the snow. Not by the formal and deliberate wrestle, but pell-mell, hurly-burly, as foot, hand, or head could find an advantage. The combatants were covered with the clinging element. It was as if their woolen habiliments had turned back to their original white. So completely were we all besmeared by the same material, that we could not tell friend from foe in the blind encounter. No matter for this; we were now crazed with fun; and we were ready to carry it to the utmost extent that time and space and snow would admit. Just opposite the school-house door, the hill descended very steeply from the road for about ten rods. The stone wall just here was quite low, and completely covered with snow even before this last fall. The two stoutest champions of the fray had been snowing it into each other like storm-spirits from the two opposite poles. At length, as if their snow-bolts were exhausted, they seized each other for the tug of muscle with muscle. They had unconsciously worked themselves to the precipitous brink. Another stout fellow caught a glimpse of their position, gave a rush and a push, and both Arctic and Antarctic went tumbling heels hindmost down the steep declivity, until they were stopped by the new-fallen snow in which they were completely buried; and one with his nose downward as if he had voluntarily dived into his own grave. This was a signal for a general push-off, and the performer of the sudden exploit was the first to be gathered to his victims below. In five minutes, all were in the same predicament but one, who, not finding himself attacked, wiped the plaster from his eyes, and saw himself the lone hero of the field. He gave a victorious shout; then, not liking solitude for a playmate, he made a dauntless leap after the rest, who were now thickly rising from their snowy burial to life, action, and fun anew. Now the game is to put each other down, down, to the bottom of the hill. There is pulling, pushing, pitching, and whirling, every species of manual attack, except the pugilistic thump and knock-down. One long lubber has fallen exactly parallel with the bottom; and, before he can recover himself, two others are rolling him down like a senseless log, until the lumberers themselves are pitched head first over their timber by other hands still behind them. But at length we are all at the bottom of the hill, and indeed at the bottom of our strength. Which End, the East or the West, had the day, could not be determined. In one sense it belonged to neither, for it was night. We now found ourselves in a plight not particularly comfortable to ourselves, nor likely to be very agreeable to the domestic guardians we must now meet. But the battle has been described, and that is enough: there is no glory in the suffering that succeeds.