Recent scenes of snow in the news made me think about my first exposure to snow in Germany. Until we arrived in Mannheim, Germany in 1962, we had lived in Georgia and snow was something I had glimpsed for about five minutes one fall.
My first snow
I remember my mother calling us to come outside and see the snow. My brother and I rushed outsside, where we saw large white flakes falling, then hitting the ground and melting immediately.
As I remember, it wasn’t even that cold and in five minutes it was all over. I had experienced snow for the first time I could remember. I was five and in south Georgia, it just didn’t snow there except every few decades when the planets were aligned in a certain way.
A year later we were in Mannheim, Germany in September, and there was snow everywhere, and the road was slippery as my dad drove us around in some sort of impossibly tiny car. We were used to riding in a 57 Chevrolet Bel Aire, and we had no idea such small cars existed, with a stick shift, no less, and dad would make sudden applications of brakes and we would skid a few feet across the housing area roads when there were no other cars in sight, and when my mother was not in the car of course.
In a few weeks the snow melted and we had a week or sow where we could see there was in fact grass in the play area between our apartment building and the one behind us. The two buildings shared a huge sandbox, a giant slide, various playground equipment including monkey bars and we occupied ourselves after school and on the weekends.
One Friday evening just before dark, we saw the gray skies full of giant snowflakes. We watched, hypnotized as flakes the size of quarters slowly fell down and began to cover the sidewalks and the ground. We watched out the windows until supper time, then raced back to look out again after supper. The snowflakes were smaller, but there were more of them and across the street the dark red tile roof was starting to be covered.
We kept watching until it was bedtime. We didn’t have a T.V. as there was no U.S. programming being broadcast in our area in 1962, so it was reading, listening to the radio or looking out the window.
I remember waking up quite early on Saturday morning and looking out on a spectacular sight. Everything was covered by snow.
We were on the third floor and from the living room and the dining room windows, I was able to see quite a bit, and saw that there were some somall figures out with sleds. My heart sank as I realized we didn’t have a sled and would miss out.
Soon, my brother and sister were up and my mother made us at least eat some cereal before supervising us in our getting dressed for the snow.
Getting dressed for the occasion
We first donned “long johns” or better known as thermal underwear, then a couple pairs of socks, our pants, shirt, sweater and outer jacket.
Somehow we managed to pull on our boots and get all the row metal latches to close. I put on my “beanie”, and pulled it down over my ears.
Gloves were the last item . . . we preferred good ‘ol Army issue gloves with wool liners and leather outer gloves.
We made our way down the stairwell and out the front door of the building, adding our footprints to a few that were already there. Sinking into the snow as we walked made our walking a spongey experience at first, but after a few minutes we hardly noticed. We heard the yelps and calls of other kids coming from the common play area. We made our way behind the building where the playground was all bu gone, except for the swings, and other equipment sticking up.
In a matter of minutes we masterd the art of snowball making. At the time I did not realize that we had perfect snowball snow. It was moist snow so the snowball could be shaped and would hold up during it’s brief flight and sting if it hit an exposed part of the body. As bundled up as we were, we did not feel that much.
Working on our defenses
Some of the older kids had taken charge of a fort building effort that was going on beneath the overhead clothes lines. There was a concrete slab beneath the clotheslines, which was covered by about four inches of snow, which served as our foundation. A number of us were dispatched to make large snow boulders to help create a wall on one side that was just starting to take shape.
My first attempt created a small wheel as the snowball I started with started to peel away the snow, exposing the grass of the playground underneat. My second attempt was much better as I mastered the art of rotating the snowball so it would be covered more evenly. I also learned to start the process and move towards the snow fort as the boulder sized snowballs easily weighed as much as me.
More kids showed up from our building and a few from the building behind us and within an hour we had one row of large snowballs defining four walls.
A second row of smaller snowballs were used to bring the walls up to about shoulder height and we filled in the spaces to smooth out the walls on the inside and outside. We did leave some “shelves” inside to hold stacks of snowballs, and word came to us that there was going to be an attack mid-afternoon by some kids a few buildings up and they would take no prisoners.
By noon our fort was in great shape and if not for my mother calling us in for lunch, we would have stayed out all day.
A quick break
It took us a while to get out of our clothes and we put the steam radiators in the bathroom and our bedroom to use drying and warming our gloves, socks and pants. I had no idea my water soaked gloves were so cold and warm water in the sink felt like a thousand needles as my fingers thawed and as circulation returned.
We ate a quick sandwich and gave my mother a quick update and we looked down upon the fort from the dining room window as some of our fellow fort builders continued on.
We dressed again, and my mom suggested we put a pair of kitchen rubber gloves over the wool glove liners, and then put the leather gloves on on top so our hands could stay dry. Moms are so smart about the practical things in life.
The playground noise had picked up considerably and we rejoined the fort building crew, sensing the excitement in the air and knowing the best was yet to come.
The fort was complete, with only a small doorway to come inside the fort and piles of snowball “ammunition” along all the walls and in cubby holes in the wall.
One of our advance scouts ran up to the group of older kids who served as our commanding officers, reporting breathlessly that he had spotted a group of kids gathering on the other side of the building.
We made a last ditch effort to furiously make some more snowballs, and suddenly a small group burst around the building yelling and throwing snowballs at any heads that popped up over the edge of the wall.
The defenders of the fort fired back. We were some twenty five kids strong so were were equally matched.
The attackers were definitely at the disadvantage. They could carry a few snowballs and run towards us, but we could plaster them with a flurry of snowballs and force them to turn back and take up a position just out of range. They would then kneel and make little stacks of snowballs, then coordinate another attack. Eventually they changed their tactics and attacked us from two sides.
They also resorted to playing dirty, using pools of water which had formed where the rain spouts stopped just above the round, dipping their snowballs into the water to make ice balls. Iceballs were bad, very bad, and fell into the category of potential eyesight loss activities our moms reminded us about from time to time. We continued to defend the fort and tried to dodge the ice balls and snowballs.
While we had a fort to hide behind, we were at a disadvantage as we had spent most of the day building the fort and by mid-afternoon we were getting tired. Our attackers just had to walk over a couple of blocks, make some snowballs and attack us, then retreat whenever they wanted. It seemed they could keep up their attacks for hours and we had to defend our precious fort at all costs.
A tactical mistake
We soon realized that we had no bathroom facilities in our fort and everyone was getting uncomfortable. One kid made a run for our building towards the center basement door and was pelted with snowballs, but finally made it by covering his face and ducking his head down.
We took on wave after wave of attacks, with small groups of attackers getting nearer and nearer, then they were at the wall. We stared in disbelieve as they tried to push in a middle section of one wall and in their next wave, and, despite being pelted by a wall of snowballs, they finally succeeded in breaching the wall and the snowball equivalent of hand to hand combat ensued.
I can’t remember who actually won the battle, but the attackers left and our splendid fort would need some serious repairs. By this time it was late afternoon and we were all tired and in dire need of a bathroom break.
We left our boots in the stairwell and managed to get out of our clothes in record time, and made it to the bathroom without an accident. Mom suggested we go ahead and get our baths, and dinner was ready by the time we were finished. We put our gloves and clothes back on the radiators to dry again and I remember telling my mom that her earlier glove suggestion worked perfectly. We had dry hands the whole afternoon.
After dinner we sat down in the living room, and waited for our favorite radio programs to come on. Gunsmoke was one of my favorites, but X Minus One was even better. I found myself falling asleep several times during the programs as all the day’s activities finally took their toll.
Who knew that having fun with snow could be so tiring? Or that the next day we would be so sore from all the fort building, but not too sore to rebuild our fort and and to stage a counter attack against our nameless foes.
This would be the first of many adventures in the snow of Germany. We lived in Mannheim for four years, from 1962 to 1966, and each year looked forward to the snow. And more importantly, the snow fights!
Editor’s Note: This story first appeared in Military Brats Online in 2010.