A Cold Winter's Playground

surviving one of Wisconsin’s most hostile environments

Mike Paulus, illustrated by Joe Maurer

One of the dumbest things I’ve ever done was trying to shove my chubby little snowsuit-clad grade school body through a hastily dug tunnel in a snowbank while my friends laid on top and yelled at me.

My friends weren’t being mean or taunting me, they were just screaming completely inane phrases we all found hilarious, as grade school kids tend to do at recess time. Non-stop. For 30 minutes. I believe they yelled “Watch for falling snow!” as they shoved loose snow off the snowbank, creating a kind of waterfall effect at the mouth of the tunnel.

As a result, no one could hear my screams of agony.

And by “agony” I mean to say “extreme annoyance tempered with a twinge of panic.” I was stuck. And I was calling for help, or at the very least, I was calling for everyone to just shut up for a second while I try to get out.

In other words, we kids had access to the freaking Himalayan Mountains at every recess. ’Twas a lofty winter wonderland allowing wee-yet-hearty mountaineers access to amazing views of the surrounding territories.

They eventually stopped yelling and climbed down off the snowbank to watch me shimmy out backwards, never completing my journey to the other side. I was all sweaty and red-faced and very much pissed off at my friends’ complete lack of concern over the fact that I just about died right there on the playground during a disastrous snow tunnel collapse – as I’m sure that tunnel was mere moments away from falling to pieces, sealing me into an icy tomb, nothing but a pair bright blue moon boots jutting from the snowy rubble.

Sure, the tunnel was only about three feet long and a few feet high, and in the event of total tunnel failure I probably could have just stood up, pushing right through the “rubble,” but where’s the drama in that? I could’ve suffocated, guys.

As it turns out, the tunnel was pretty solid. Minutes later I myself was laying on top of it, screaming, “Watch for falling snow!” like a coked-up baby walrus while my buddies crawled right through.

All of this took place during a chilly recess hour in December. My old grade school had a giant parking lot/playground running right up to the building. The snow plowers would push the snow away from the building and onto the adjacent field, forming large piles. In other words, we kids had access to the freaking Himalayan Mountains at every recess. ’Twas a lofty winter wonderland allowing wee-yet-hearty mountaineers access to amazing views of the surrounding territories. If you made the arduous journey to the top of the snow heap, you were seriously high – a good five maybe six feet off the ground. And you, my friend, were awesome.

Thinking back, it’s a wonder we had any time at all for playground-based snow-mountaineering. Between the crazy amount of time it took to get all your snow gear on before heading out, and the insane amount of time it took to peel it all off and stow it away afterwards, we probably only had about 5 minutes of actual recess. It’s an extremely well-documented (and scientific) fact that Wisconsin grade school children spend a cumulative 1.5 years getting winter outerwear on and off. A staggering .85 years of that time is spent on wet snow pants alone.

During the snow-less months, we used to walk right across that big field on our way to and from school. But in the wintertime, you had a tough decision to make. Should you take the long way, down the boring ol’ sidewalk and all the way around the big field? Or do you risk traveling the more direct route, straight across the frosty tundra? Sure, traversing the field offered a shorter distance, but the snow was often up to you knees, turning your “walk” into a desperate, sweaty trudge.

Some of the more naive kids – the ones who had seen too few winters and too many stroller rides to the park – took the field route, assuming the crusty snow could support their weight. Sure, they might break through once or twice, but it was still the faster path, right?

Wrong. What the hapless young students failed to realize was that once you break though the snow’s crystal outer shell, all is lost. One foot goes through and you’re in up to your knee. And as you try to step out of the hole, you shift all of your weight to your other foot, causing it to pierce the shell, as well. Now you’ve got two feet in and no hope for rescue. You must begin the slow slog to the other side. By the time you reach the playground, your belly is crumbly and empty as your body has sucked every ounce of delicious energy from that morning’s Pop-Tart breakfast. Your legs burn from exertion. As you reach the playground, the kids are already lining up at the doors to file in. And guess what? The Himalayan snowbanks I so artfully described earlier now tower before you, offering you the hardest, most soul-destroying part of the journey for last. As the winter winds howl around you, a lonely tear rolls down your cheek. It freezes.

People, as dumb as I was to climb into that tunnel that one day, I only traversed the field one, maybe two times before opting for the boring ol’ sidewalk. After all, this is the mighty Wisconsin Winter we’re talking about. And to survive, you gotta be smart.