Young boys do stupid things. I was no exception. Back then if you had asked, “What was I thinking?” I could only reply that I wasn’t.
In retrospect, my justification was being a city kid in the winter, duly enrolled in the school of hard knocks.
When I heard the distinct “thump” immediately followed by screeching tires, the perpetrator was obvious. There I was, standing plain to see about 60 yards away, the only human nearby. That residential intersection never looked so bleak as on that dark gray overcast midday.
To my 11-year-old self, I pledged that if I got away I would never be in this predicament again.
No one would call me an athlete or a particularly fast runner. But I did possess one skill that would help me evade all pursuers, young or old. And although anyone who could drive a car was certainly older, I had already observed he wasn’t an adult. Which was a worst-case scenario. He was compelled to take this unprovoked attack on his old car more personally than any responsible human. To that driver, this matter was no prank.
It’s true the snowball may have dented the roof of his beat-up car. But it’s also true that it may not have. For it was merely a snowball. Albeit one that was packed tightly and if it was only a few degrees warmer would be more slush than snow. In other words, it was heavy and dense. No light, powdery puffballs on this day.
What we can know for sure is that based upon the loudness of the roof thump, it would have made an unfriendly sound to any driver a few inches beneath it.
Call it a momentary psychic connection or call it imagination and fear, but at the instant of impact, I could feel the driver’s reaction. After brief disorientation, and then a realization of what just happened, a sense of profound disrespect struck him as hard as if he was in a convertible and the object had exploded on his head. For he was a kid himself, even though vested by the state of Michigan with a license to operate a motor vehicle. But any older teenager’s idea of being harassed by a preteen would be manifestly more insulting than to any adult too busy with responsibilities to care about an annoying juvenile.
To this teenage driver, I had declared war.
Death was the only proper response.
Worse yet, the driver would have no appreciation for the skill it had taken to toss a projectile that distance and make it land on the intended target. Even if the thrower considered it unlikely that it might have landed near enough to be noticed at all. Especially, in view of the fact that the weight of the wet snowball required a high trajectory in hope of attaining that distance. It was thrown so high that it was difficult to say where it would ultimately land. But its very height provided increased velocity and punch when it met its end.
For an unathletic kid, this moment should have been admired for the successful convergence of several new firsts. The first time throwing anything so high. The first time trying to hit a target so far away. The first time attempting to hit an accelerating target at the time of release. You see, the car had pulled up to the deserted intersection I had just passed a few moments earlier. It made a left after I made a right. I timed its release just as he rounded the intersection, intuitively calculating its future position relative to the missile launch. If he had gone slower or faster, the Hail Mary would have missed.
But it didn’t.
Resulting in a mixture of pride and dread.
Now, I faced certain doom as a result of my unanticipated success.
Which precipitated my one dependable talent: hopping fences.
As a matter of urban survival, I could outpace others who may have been faster, but who would handle the endless fences in our Detroit neighborhood with a somewhat conventional approach: They would climb the obstacles. Whereas, I would vault over them. Albeit, inelegantly.
Don’t get me wrong. I was rarely able to leap over a fence that was about the height of my nose (or higher) and land on my feet to keep running. But I could nevertheless get on the other side faster.
It came down to technique. A few of them.
The first was simply launching myself over the fence, clearing the top, while somersaulting in midair. If I had the capacity to flip faster, my feet would end up beneath me. But I was no gymnast. In reality, I would land on the back of my shoulders while continuing a natural roll to absorb the tumble and then use the momentum to get up quickly and repeat the same trick on the other side of the yard. (This same action would likely result in my older self being bedridden for a few days).
Of course, there are different styles of fences, with varying heights and diverse construction, requiring custom approaches. If there was anything to grab, such as a top rail or post, such could serve as a pivot point to guide myself over. With just that little bit of support, I might land on my feet, sometimes facing forward and sometimes backward, depending upon how tall it was. If I landed backward, facing the fence, I would spin around and sprint to the next one, merely seconds away.
But if it was a chainlink fence with metal mesh awaiting to entangle young fingers, or if vertical slats extended beyond the top rail, a hands-free somersault was demanded. This posed a greater potential for injury if I didn’t land correctly, but was quite an advantage when I did, which was almost always the case. Other times, particularly while in the learning phase, I’d get the wind knocked out of me and disoriented for a bit, which is OK when you’re not being chased.
Finally, for those backyards with particularly tall fences (some people just need more privacy), a dual-motion technique was required. While running at full speed, I’d launch myself high enough to grab the top rail, with my legs pulled in so that I could simultaneously frog-kick my feet from the middle of the fence and propel myself over.
Contrast these techniques with the standard way most approach a fence — pausing and climbing — you can envision the time saved. No matter how many kids might be blasting through the backyards of countless properties, it would only take a few before I held a firm lead.
So, when I became unexpectedly amazed and terrorized by the results of my impossible snowball arc, I opted for another tried-and-true path of fence-hopping escape.
Suffice to say that the annoyed driver became even more frustrated as he drove up and down the street and around the block, tracking my progress as he spied me. With on-and-off sightings between the houses, he followed me catapulting through backyards as best as he could, keenly aware he would never catch me in that environment. Yet, constantly recalculating where I might emerge into open space so as to intercept and deliver a well-deserved beating.
It was a battle of wits and physical maneuvering.
Sometimes I’d go backward, sometimes laterally, sometimes pausing, but mostly moving forward. Anytime I observed he was predicting my movements, I would change course.
Ultimately, it was not much of a cat and mouse game because I could simply stop when out of sight, forcing him into a continual time-wasting loop of circling the block until giving up.
Which, in fact, is what occurred, since I had a prohibitive advantage unbeknownst to the driver. The block of backyards I was vaulting happened to be the same in which I lived. I knew where all the dogs were. I knew hiding spots. And I certainly knew where I lived. All I needed was to get home without being near my own house whenever he might last catch sight of me.
Once safely inside, I surreptitiously peeked out the window to see his frantic stop-and-go driving, his up-and-down-the-street hunting, and endless around-the-block searching. He clearly didn’t know I was out-of-sight and out-of-reach.
The result: no beating on that day.
Furthermore, that was the last time anyone would ever need to ask, what was I thinking? At least when it came to throwing snowballs at moving vehicles driven by vengeful teenagers.
Having said that, adventurous boys and urban sprawl provide endless opportunities for additional city shenanigans and life lessons in the school of hard knocks.
by George Alger
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