Snow falls on pigs
By Jack Cashill
After Christmas dinner, at home here in Kansas City, I lead my own little coalition of the willing on a post-prandial nature hike through the neighborhood. As with all such coalitions, the tougher the sledding, the fewer the volunteers.
Four Christmases ago, on a single digit day in an unusually frigid winter, my coalition had shrunk to two, myself and a friend’s nine year-old daughter, Julia. Gamely, and well bundled, the two of us set out. When our teeny coalition reached Loose Park, I saw something that I had not seen before in Kansas City, certainly not this early in the season.
The pond had so thoroughly frozen that kids were able to play hockey on it. They had cleared the snow, set up a single net, and were flailing away. “Wow,” said Julia, “that’s cool.” She was impressed.
I was not. I had fallen prematurely into the selective memory trap that awaits all geeezers-to-be. “Julia,” I said, “when I was a kid the lakes were always frozen in the winter. That’s where we did all our ice skating.” True, I grew up in a city that was, if anything, slightly warmer in the winter than Kansas City. But my winters were colder than those today and, of course, much snowier too.
I still think of that snow. In my Joycean reverie, it is always night when I revisit it., I watch the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the sole streetlight in the stream that ran through the center of my world, Pig Tails Alley.
Even as a kid, I knew I was blessed to have such an alley. It ran unseen from adult eyes behind the rotting fences and ramshackle garages of my long and sloping neighborhood block. We called it “Pigs.” It was uniquely ours.
On snowy nights—and,remember, it always snowed back then—my little pre-teen homies and I would retreat to Pigs with our sleds and thermoses and do the kind of death-defying sledding that would have horrified parents or even passers-by.
But that was the beauty of Pigs. Anything could happen there because no one could see what did happen.
It was our own private Cambodia.
In my mind’s eye I watch the snow falling on every part of Pigs and on all those who lived it with me, falling softly upon me and my brother Bob, on broken-home Bobby who lived a few doors down, on Bobby down the street and his retarded older brother George, on Earl, the colored kid and my fellow Dodger fan, on big Roger and his whiny little brother Norman, on Donato the Italian immigrant kid, on pretty boy Paul, on the Irish immigrant kids Sean and his weird little brother with the unpronounceable name, and on Richie, our leader, and even on Ronnie, his psychopathic little bully of a brother who, all too predictably, would one day join the mob before dying of AIDS.
This was a block rich in little of anything but kids. Our “Pigs gang”—we had no real name—was but one of four on the block. We ruled the the middle, the part where Pigs sloped most steeply. Only rarely did anyone dare think of sledding here. Once feisty little Artie and his disgraceful (they allowed girls) ragtag gang tried. We captured Artie, tied him to a fence post for at least an afternoon, and finally rewarded his defiance by making him one of us.
The apartment gang at the south corner tried every now and then to move in as well. They had their own psychopath for a leader, a kid named Bruce, who owned that ultimate of childhood credentials—he put a kid’s eye out with a stick. We knew this to be true because the kid, a little wimp called glass-eyed Teddy, remained in the gang. Where else could he go? We didn’t want him, even if he could pop the glass eye out of his head on request and gross out even psychopath Ronnie.
We sometimes settled things with rock fights, a phenomenon that I and all the other sane kids dreaded. But for Ronnie and Bruce, bring it on. Bruce already had one eye notched on his belt. He was looking for number two. Ronnie was looking for his first. The rest of us were mostly just looking for cover, a feat complicated by the fact that we couldn’t appear to be.
When it came to rock fights, our gang had its own frightening WMD--big, retarded, fearless George. His great talent was that he didn’t know you weren’t supposed to get hit. He was our Goliath, and they had no David. No one messed with us much.
You could hit George with a rock or two, but even Bruce understood that you dared not insult him. To insult George was to turn his usually benign little brother Bobbie into Ronnie on angel dust. The 7-11’s once made this mistake. They were an older gang of scary, coin-pitching, pill-popping, hard-core greasers who inhabited the corner at the north end of Pigs. They wore tight iridescent pants, pointy leather shoes and, their piece de resistance, corduroy jackets with a pair of dice on the back. Their mission in life was not unlike that of Cerberus, the multi-headed flesh-eating monster that guarded the gates of Hades--to make life hell for everyone who passed by, even George.
I do not recall what Bobby did to provoke them, but I do remember the 7-11’s pursuing him and George up Pigs in full fury, the first and only time they came after us on our turf. But on this day, it really was snowing. Their jackets restrained them, and their shoes denied them traction. From fences and rooftops, we engaged them in a snowball guerilla war that if they are not studying at the War College in Leavenworth, they ought to be. The 7-11’s finally fled in disgrace. To preserve the truce,we avoided their corner for the next few years.
Today, all the snow that falls on Pigs falls in my memory. Pigs has ceased to be. By the time I was a senior in high school all my friends, save for the always feisty Artie, had fled our crumbling block with their parents on their sad unsung diaspora. The city was collapsing around us.
The last time I saw Pigs intact was a night right after the riots when the smoke was still in the air as was the scary rumble of armored vehicles heading back to the armory a block away. If nothing else, the riots had slowed the highway crew that would soon demolish my house and cut the heart out of Pigs. We were on Artie’s third floor back porch, high above the Wonder Bar below, knocking back a beer or two, and talking about Pigs. And as we did, we always came back to the snow, the seemingly eternal snow, and there were no better times, ever.
In truth, it didn’t always snow in Pigs. Nor were the lakes always frozen. Right after saying that to Julia, it dawned on me that the lakes of my childhood always seemed frozen because the only time our parents took us to a lake in winter was when they were. Why else go? You can’t ice skate on water. Likewise, it always snowed in Pigs at night because only when it snowed were we allowed out on winter nights.
As I write this Thanksgiving morning, the snow is general all over Kansas City. It has fallen upon every yard of every child, and every one of them will wonder fifty years hence why it no longer snows like it used to.