Childhood Winters Ain’t What They used To Be

Winters were busy during my South Deerfield childhood, in the days before smartphones, smart TVs, PlayStation, Xbox and 24/7 cable television. Frankly, we did just fine, thank you, without the modern devices that today keep kids sedentary indoors.

The village itself was much different, too, with much more of a small-town atmosphere, Billy Rotkiewicz’s Frontier Pharmacy at the center, across from the downtown common. He filled prescriptions and held court while his waitressing crew was busy serving ham and eggs and home fries, hamburgers, hotdogs and French fries, ice cream cones, frappes and sundaes. All the latest small-town news and scandal, and even a little prankster mischief passed through the place daily.

There were many winter activities to keep a young boy active. We skated Bloody Brook, skied Boro’s Hill, slid down Gorey’s Hill on toboggans and flying saucers, built forts in the massive snow piles along the western perimeter of the high school parking lot, and played basketball on Phil Bill’s driveway or, better still, along the edges of varsity practices in the high school gym. All of it contributed to good health, fitness and rosy red cheeks.

Skating required clearing frozen Bloody Brook with shovels after each snowstorm. We’d lug our skates and shovels down to the Pleasant Street bridge, clear off an elevated shelf on which to lace up our skates and leave our boots. Eventually, we’d clear a milelong skating lane from Yazwinski Farm to the culverts tunneling under Route 5 & 10 behind Urkiel’s house. This chore was performed by skating in unison with the shovels out in front of us like little snowplows, widening the path as the day progressed.

We loved to horse around under the bridges on North Main Street, Pleasant Street and Conway Road. At the bulbous spots, such as the small ponds above the bridges and the natural little aneurysms here and there, we’d clear out miniature, banked, rectangular hockey rinks with makeshift goals at each end. When the air was cold and the ice was right, it kept us busy and out of mischief. Well, sort of. Mischief was never far away from my gang. Somehow we amused ourselves without handheld contraptions, video games and Comcast.

I don’t know why our favorite sliding place was called Gorey’s Hill. Probably because the Milton and Helen Gorey family lived nearby at the end of Eastern Ave. Actually, the hill abutted Sonny Boron’s backyard across the street from Gorey’s. On a good day, you could ride a toboggan all the way into the ditch carrying Sugarloaf Brook under Cross Street near Bucky Kuzdeba’s driveway. We learned to be careful when the snow was fast and runs reached that ditch. Covered by snow down there was a metal pipe marking a property corner, a hazard that ripped many a nylon parka and even drew occasional ribcage blood over the years.

The top of Gorey’s Hill, south of Frost’s home tucked into a quiet wooded terrace overlooking Cross Street, was just a stone’s throw from the base of the three-season Indian trail we often climbed to the North Sugarloaf cave, sometimes more than once a day. I doubt that townie kids use that trail, the cave or Gorey’s Hill today. Recently, facing that western face of North Sugarloaf from my mother’s driveway, I remarked to my wife that it was hard to imagine once scaling that ancient, embedded vertical footpath with ease. I wouldn’t even attempt it today. Too steep. My old, battered legs ain’t what they used to be.

Just getting to Gorey’s Hill was a project. It involved pulling an eight-foot, Adirondack toboggan and a flying saucer or two on a route from Pleasant Street to North Main Street to Braeburn Road to Graves Street to Cross Street and up the hill. After snowstorms, the path from the base of the hill to the elevated launching pad became easier to travel the more you used it, great exercise any way you cut it. Likely too much work for Computer-Age kids.

I don’t recall why we’d choose on some days to instead ski at Boro’s Hill, a quarter-mile due east of the Bloody Brook Monument. That too was a project. It entailed carrying cumbersome skis, poles and boots while breaking a path through deep snow to the base of the mountain. Once there, the work only increased. We’d pack the slope manually on side-by-side ascensions, short-stepping our way to the top, our skis perpendicular to the ski trail. The short downhill runs were our reward. Then we’d trudge back up to the top sideways, widening the trail as we went. When the skiing surface finally widened to our desires, we’d stop packing and climb to the top facing straight uphill with our skis opened in Vs.

Seems I recall giving Yazwinski’s Hill a try or two for a change of scenery, but Boro’s was taller, steeper and wider. Remember, those were the days before the Kelleher Drive and Captain Lathrop Drive developments. Back then, open land interrupted by slim tree lines extended all the way from Hillside Road to Graves Street. Although there’s still a fair amount of open land on that fertile plain today, it has shrunk considerably, not nearly as much as the open land of my childhood between Eastern Avenue and the Little League Field at the base of Mt. Sugarloaf.

Building snow forts also required physical labor. We used shovels and gardening tools to hollow out snow banks into a series of igloo-like chambers connected by short tunnels we’d crawl through. Where was my claustrophobia back then? We’d dig out a door at each end, openings we were extra careful to hide when we left them unoccupied. We’d do so by filling in the openings with large snowballs we’d smooth with our hands before kicking loose snow over the patches and roughing them up to hide any discernable manmade lines. We didn’t want to expos our secret hideouts to vandalism by kids passing through from other neighborhoods. It worked. Never were our snow forts discovered and destroyed. Eventually they’d just disappear with snowmelt as the winter waned. Fun while it lasted. These days, we rarely get enough snow accumulation for such forts, no matter what the climate-change deniers tell you.

Lastly, of course, there was basketball, our winter mainstay, especially for those of us who lived near the high school. Maybe we were pests, but the coaches running varsity practice put up with us shooting baskets at side hoops away from the action. The boys’ coaches were less tolerant than legendary girls’ coach, Vi Goodnow, who gave us far more sideline liberty. That, I never forgot. Thus, I remained loyal to Vi to the bitter end, when I was covering her teams as sports editor of the local newspaper. She deserved respect as the force behind western Massachusetts girls’ athletics as we know it today. Yes, the lady from Buckland wearing the plaid, pleated skirt was a pioneer – a dedicated trailblazer who hated to lose and seldom did in the early days, before men started coaching girls’ teams to level the playing field a bit.

Shooting baskets along the edges was only a small part of our basketball routine during my grammar school years. With the statute of limitations long ago passed, I can now admit we soon learned how to spring open the double doors on the northeast side of the gym. All it took was a quick, powerful outward pull on the two exterior door handles in the middle to spring the doors open. Bingo! Free reign to the gyms. For such clandestine efforts, we rarely dared to occupy the big gym with fold-up bleachers because we could be seen from outside. Instead, we played in what we called the small gym, which became secondary in the late 1950s. Located in the basement of the original, two-story Deerfield High School building, it was far from regulation size but more than sufficient for neighborhood boys seeking an indoor winter court. If we heard someone enter the building, we’d scurry to grab our basketballs and loose clothes and flee up the stairs and out the front doors facing North Main Street. Never once did we get caught. Slippery little devils, we lived nearby, had refuges, knew every escape route and could move fast.

On pleasant winter evenings after school, we had permission to use the garage hoop above Mr. and Mrs. A. Phillips Bill’s North Main Street driveway. I feel privileged to have known Phil Bill, an eccentric math prodigy who by age 18 had graduated from Dartmouth College and was teaching math at Deerfield Academy. Teacher by day, he morphed at night into a gin-fueled human computer for the Gordon E. Ainsworth & Associates surveying company. Wife Kay was a homemaker known to high school students as a substitute teacher.

Usually, six of us would play rotating, two-on-two games to 20 until suppertime, when Mrs. Bill would often approach us from the side door to tell us it was time to wrap it up. Mr. Bill was working and getting a little cranky. We’d finish our last game and head home for supper. By the time I was in junior high school, my parents had bought the house next door to the Bills, where my 91-year-old mother lives today, isolated in this lonely pandemic.

Today’s South Deerfield village is a far different place with a larger cast of characters. There’s no devilish Billy Rotkiewicz stirring things up at Frontier Pharmacy, no “Pistol Pete” Kuchieski patrolling the streets, no skating on Bloody Brook, sliding on Gorey’s Hill or skiing on Boro’s Hill, no basketball high-school-gym break-ins, and no Tanqueray-soaked human computers getting cranky while on suppertime overload.

Current residents have no time to ponder what they’re missing. Not now, anyway. Too busy frantically searching for that PS5 everyone has to have and cannot find anywhere – a fruitless pursuit that’s driving them crazy.

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