The Rear End

THE REAR END: A Cold Waste of Time

wheeling into a winter afternoon

Mike Paulus, illustrated by Eva Paulus |

Years ago, my friends and I brought a bike down to the big field outside of our grade school on the west side of town. It was on a Saturday. Late winter. The sun was bright enough to make our eyes ache. We squinted and looked down as we trudged around the snowbanks and across the icy streets.

The sky was clear and blue and the air was thin. It was cold. Hard to breath. The field outside of school was a sheet of glaring white light. We got used to it. Our eyes and our lungs adjusted to the weather. We had bigger things to worry about.

All over town, a thick crust had frozen over the snow. The top few inches had melted and refrozen into a shell. Under the shell, the snow was dry and powdery. The thinnest and smallest of us could walk on the crust without busting though. The rest of us had to struggle across the weird terrain. But it was fun, breaking into the snow shell. If felt different. And after weeks of bleak winter monotony, different was good.

I don’t remember whose idea it was to bring the bike.

In the movies, kids always have big plans. They always have visions of do-it-yourself castles, sprawling treehouses, and massive Rube Goldbergy contraptions. But in my experience, the smaller ideas come first.


Earlier, back home, we’d been playing out in the yard. In our clumsy boots. In the tight snowsuits we were already outgrowing. In our sweaty stocking caps. We’d been smashing through the snow, breaking it with our fists. Or karate-chopping the crust into different shapes and tossing them like Frisbees. Writing our names with well-placed fissures. Writing out swear words, the tame ones we dared to say out loud. 

Eventually, we’d shattered the entire front yard. And it wasn’t enough. But we knew – just a few blocks away, over at the school – there was a huge expanse of pristine, unbroken snow.

We set off, bringing with us the BMX bike my friend had gotten from Shopko just a few summers back. An odd sight this deep into the winter freeze. He rode ahead of us. He never slipped once.

The idea was to use the bike as a leg-powered cutting tool. And that was the extent of our plans. In the movies, kids always have big plans. They always have visions of do-it-yourself castles, sprawling treehouses, and massive Rube Goldbergy contraptions. But in my experience, the smaller ideas come first. And those ideas may or may not lead to a makeshift clubhouse with trapdoors and hidden entrances.

Sometimes the small ideas just stay small. And that’s all you need to fill up an entire afternoon in late February.

Anyway, we got to the field and stumbled out 50 or 60 feet until we found ourselves surrounded by clean, smooth, untouched snow. It was a couple feet deep that year.

We jammed the front tire of the bike into the crust, up past the hub were the spokes all joined together. It stood up on its own like that, like it was diving into a sea of cold sugar.

My friend stood in front of the bike, holding the handle bars, keeping it steady. His little brother, whip-thin and light as a feather, stood up on the pedals and held onto my friend’s shoulders. And then he pedaled. As hard as he could.

And it worked. Right on the first try, it worked. The rear wheel spun like a dull, rubbery circular saw against the crusty snow, grinding through the surface. Pivoting on the front axle, the entire back end of the bike sank down until the pedals hit the snow.

It was fantastic.

So we repositioned the bike three more times until we’d sliced a small, perfect square into the snow. My friend’s brother hopped off the bike, picked up the piece he’d cut out, and held it aloft, up over his head like a giant piece of Wonder Bread.

Then he smashed it across the seat of the bike. Because why not?

Someone suggested we start mass-producing snow squares and use them to build a snow fort. We enthusiastically agreed and got to work. About one snow square later, we enthusiastically abandoned the idea. You see, as ingenious as our new snow-cutting method was, it was also incredibly labor intensive. We’d never heard the phrase “ROI,” but we were smart enough to know we’d be there for days just building the foyer to a snow fort.

So we went back to punching through the snow crust – sans BMX bike – for another hour or so. It was a cold waste of time. And it was enough that day.

In fact, for a very short while, it was all we needed.