The Great Snowman Building Competition: A Neighborhood Tradition

By Jeffery Cohen

At the sight of the first snowflakes floating down from gray skies, we began to pray for more. We went to bed with our fingers crossed as feathery white flakes coated the ground and trees. If we got lucky, there would be six inches on the ground by morning. At day’s first light, snow drifts were so high we couldn’t even open our front doors.

There was a standing tradition in my neighborhood. On the first good snowfall of the season every kid on the block entered our annual snowman building competition. It began early in the morning and ended in late afternoon. Then we’d gather together in front of the post office and walk from house to house evaluating each other’s efforts. Scoring in Olympic style, we’d raise the number of fingers our competitors deserved. No one ever scored higher than a seven. When the judging was complete, a hat was passed around and everyone dropped a buck in for the winner.

There were always beginners – kids who rolled up balls of snow, leaned a tattered broom alongside and called it a snowman, but the real contest was left up to us, the snow connoisseurs. This particular year, competition was going to be rough. Danny, my neighbor, had grown six inches over the summer, giving him a height advantage. His entry would rise up well over everyone else’s.

“Billy the Kid” from down the block depended on tradition. Tucked away in his closet behind a shoe box of baseball cards was a green paper shopping bag he called the “snowman kit.” It contained chunks of coal, a corn cob pipe and a big red button he’d filched from his mother’s winter coat. But the coup de grace was a beat up old silk top hat that gathered dust all year long. Now, every kid knew about Billy’s kit because he’d shoved it under their noses all summer long with a veiled threat.

“I can’t wait until it snows!” Billy shot a freckled grin as he slipped the oversized hat on and danced a chilly jig. The black shiny coal bounced against the walls of the bag with a dull, threatening rattle. Yeah, he was gonna be tough to beat.

The Lakewood twins should have had an advantage – double the manpower, double the win, with the double good Lakewood twins. But the sisters spent so much time arguing, they got less done than anyone else.

Around the corner was the sickly kid, Andy, who missed so much school that we hardly knew what he looked like. He’d had polio or something, and dragged one foot pretty badly. He was one we didn’t have to worry about. He’d be lucky if he could make his way out to the street to drop off his dollar.

Jackie Hall decided to break all rules. With an unprecedented move, he would forgo the snowman body completely, instead building one huge head – a bust of Abraham Lincoln, larger than the one at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC. No lie, Honest Abe.

Hoping to fly under the radar, when anyone asked me, I’d say I hadn’t given it much thought. The fact was, it was all I thought about as soon as winter scratched her icy finger over the fallen leaves of autumn. I spent hours drawing up plans on blue-lined notebook paper and collected a stack of crumpled up fan magazine to guide me. This year, I’d sculpt a life-size statue of the king himself – Elvis Presley, gyrating around a wailing guitar. I was already counting the prize money.

Minutes before nine, kids began to burrow through three-foot-high drifts to stake out their claims. Shovels of every size and shape began flinging waves of frozen white. Buckets and bushel baskets were filled and dumped. We packed, shaped and carved with everything from garbage can tops and garden rakes to soup ladles that we snuck out of our mother’s kitchens.

By midday, the block was a giant snow machine, each of us grinding out our frosty contribution while icy chips erupted like crystal fountains. We sucked in the frigid cold air then spit it out in gray clouds of vapor rising above our heads. The sound of fresh snow being crunched by black buckled boots echoed around the block. Wet mittens and soaking socks didn’t even slow us down. When our moms tried to coax us in with promises of hot chocolate or warnings of certain pneumonia, we simply waved them off with our own promises. “We’ll be in…as soon as we’re done.”

Nearing three o’clock, most of the grunt work was done. Plans were completed, last minute changes decided on. Now, like artisans of old, we lovingly etched fine details into the ice with screwdrivers, forks and spoons. Fine powder was scraped and chiseled away with the same respect sculptors of ancient Rome paid to Carrara marble. Finally… we were finished.

The tour began uneventfully. The youngsters had plenty to learn. Some had been helped by their fathers which didn’t sit well in the judging, and so after the first five houses, the highest score was a three. As we trudged down the street, the age of the competitors and the size of their entries grew. Danny, as expected, used his extra height to create a six footer, which everyone saw as the leading contender until they glanced across the street. At the top of a wooden step ladder that they had dragged out of their garage, the twins balanced a paper cone they’d fashioned into a dunce cap on top of a crude replica of their school principal. This made their entry eight feet tall. Not much for style, but it was clearly the tallest and picked up a score of five to tie Danny.

At last, Billy used his snowman kit, and though his entry bore a remarkable resemblance to the famous “Frosty,” it lacked originality and scored a disappointing four. Jackie spent most of the day chipping away at an enormous ball of snow in an attempt to summon up the sixteenth President’s face but in the end, the gamble didn’t pay off. All he wound up with was a great big snowball with a beard. It scored a measly three.

At my house, wet, crumpled drawings bleeding ink into the snow, mixed with spent pages of fan magazines lay scattered across my front yard.

“What’s that supposed to be?” someone yelled.

“Elvis Presley and his guitar,” I answered without hesitation.

“Looks more like Don Ho and his ukulele!” someone screamed, and everyone howled so loudly they were barely able to give me my four points.

The next two houses turned out to be real contenders. Amy Johnson shaped a delicate faun. Small, but realistic. She completed her entry by spearing two live roses that she’d “borrowed” from a flower arrangement in her mother’s living room into the snow next to the baby deer. She took the lead with a six.

Shorty Sheldon’s entry was an average snowman, but he dressed it in a winter coat he’d outgrown. A pair of sunglasses clung to the blank white face, which was topped off by an earmuff hat. A mittened hand extended out to the side with the thumb up, hitching a ride. The other arm cradled a sign that read “Florida.” One look and everyone knew the “hitchhiker” had pulled into the lead. Seven big points!

We pretty much figured that the contest was over as we rounded the corner and rambled up to the picket fence that surrounded Andy’s yard. All of the giggling and poking stopped dead. A great silence fell over the group. Some squinted to adjust their vision. Others rubbed their eyes in disbelief. There we stood, our mouths hanging open, as a three ring circus created in snow unfolded before us.

The first thing that caught my eye was an elephant, his trunk snaking high in the air, greeting a floppy-eared monkey who crashed cymbals together while dancing on the pachyderm’s back. A bearded lady played patty-cake with a stiff-collared clown, while a juggler atop a ball balanced a broom on his nose. There were slinky seals playing horns, and a lion tamer half buried inside the open jaws of the king of beasts. Each snowman was so finely formed, so lifelike that you could almost smell peanuts and hear a calliope in the background. And there at the center, like the ringmaster, Andy moved at a feverish pace, scraping and smoothing, as he pulled his body from figure to figure.

A pair of heavily gloved hands next to me began to slap together in a dull clap. Then a second and a third joined until every kid in the neighborhood exploded with wild applause. It went on for minutes before someone took off his hat and we began dropping our dollars in. But before it reached the end of the line, each kid dug down deeper and emptied every coin he had into that hat until it was filled to the brim. I straddled the fence and presented the prize to Andy. He had no words. Neither did I. We both just smiled and nodded to each other.

Later that month, Andy was taken to the hospital and he had a pretty rough time of it. He didn’t return home until the following fall. The first heavy snowstorm of winter brought everyone out as usual – everyone but Andy. The doctors said he was too weak to go outdoors. The “Great Snowman Building Competition” went on as usual. At the end of the day, the judging almost complete, we turned the corner and lined up in front of Andy’s picket fence. There, pristine drifts of untouched white snow glistened, but no one could forget what stood there just a year ago. One by one, we began to clap. The applause continued until the blue curtain on the second floor was pulled back, and Andy peaked out. Gloves flew off as every kid waved their hands above their heads showing ten fingers. I’d like to believe that Andy smiled that day, even though we couldn’t really see through the frost of his window.

In the spring he was rushed to the hospital again, but this time there was no coming back. Andy slipped away while the snow was still melting on the ground.

There are so many things that we forget from our childhood – friend’s names we can barely remember. Times and places seem to evaporate or get buried as the years pile on. But I do know this. There is not one of us who lived on that block who will ever forget Andy and the white crystal circus that he gave us that winter in the “Great Snowman Building Competition.”

About this writer

  • Jeffery Cohen

    Jeffery Cohen

    Freelance writer and newspaper columnist, Jeffery Cohen, has written for Sasee, Lifetime and Read, Learn, Write. He’s won awards in Women-On-Writing Contest, Vocabula’s Well Written Contest, National League of American Pen Women’s’ Keats Competition, Southern California Genealogy Competition, and Writer’s Weekly writing contest.

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