Tree Jousting and Other Winter Games

‘Winter memories” in the Philadelphia Inquirer (February 6, 2004).

As the region finds itself in the midst of winter, I am gently reminded that the greatest playground of all sits right outside the foggy windowpane my eyes look through in the February dusk after snow has fallen and play is to be had.

The bulk of my winter games are shared by children today and remembered by the sad lot of us for whom childhood is history.

The memory of that childhood routine is as fresh as a blast of Arctic chill: I look out the window into the dark night and see snowflakes fall by the light of the street lamp. A smile widens across my face. I check back in a few hours and, indeed, the snow is beginning to stick. I spend the night dreaming of those magic numbers that KYW will call early the next morning: 4-4-8.

Numbers rattle by as if at a cattle auction and, just like that, you react to the sound of your number as it you’ve got a winning Lottery ticket. Freedom from the classroom awaits, the front door unlocks . . . and I flee into whiteness.

Over the years, I’ve collected most of the wintertime memories one is likely to have: the countless snowball fights I’ve had with my brothers, and the disturbingly large forts on which we worked so hard to ensure a snowy victory. More often than not, the building of the forts took much more time than the actual snowball fight. There was the cleaning off of cars, the $20 bill for shoveling a neighbor’s sidewalk and driveway. There was the time we filled empty milk jugs with water from the kitchen sink and poured gallon upon gallon onto the driveway until we had our very own skating rink. A similar method of collecting water and creating ice was used to make that cozy and warm igloo in the snow.

All, I am thankful, without a single trek to the emergency room.

There were also the sledding adventures. For me, that meant “Grasshopper Hill” by the Drexelbrook Apartments or the steep incline in front of Monsignor Bonner High School in Drexel Hill. Half a dozen kids would pile on one small orange sled, and perhaps two would make it to the bottom of the hill with the sled. And since boys will be boys, I cannot forget “bowling” for unsuspecting friends who were slowly making their way back up the hill. You would dive on the sled head-first, steer toward the unaware climber, and wham, back down the hill he would go! Even dumber than dumb, I remember standing up on those little red disk sleds and surfing down the hill. This was pre-snowboarding, but it sure was grand.

Again, without a single trek to the emergency room!

Sure, sledding, snowballs, and “skitching” (which requires an icy road, a car pulling away from a stop sign, some thick gloves, and a complete lack of brains) account for many winter memories of one’s youth, but my brothers and I kept a few memories to ourselves.

We called it the “Dolan Winter Olympics,” which was usually held on the night of the first true snowstorm of the season. Donning our winter gear, we ventured into an all-night competition of mad games, brotherly antics, and howling at the moon. There was the “Log Toss,” which was our version of the shot put, in which we used thick chunks of felled tree from the woodpile. And skeet-shooting, only we used a basketball as the skeet and snowballs as our rifles.

The grand event of our winter games was “Tree Jousting.”

Having spent the first few weeks in January collecting discarded Christmas trees, my brothers and I would engage in one-on-one jousts. Starting in their respective corners of the yard, Christmas trees in hand, competitors would charge toward each other with their trees pointed out like arrows. The two trees would meet, and the brother left standing was the victor. Mrs. Dougherty, our supremely kind next-door neighbor, never did petition the courts for involuntary commitment, for which we remain grateful.

And yes – all this without a single trek to the emergency room!

It’s enough to make one hanker for some more rugged competition. Anyone care to join my brothers and me?

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