Sixth-grade surrealist

During this holiday season we were all treated to displays of Christmas decorations on main streets everywhere. In Berryville, Va., I happened to notice a parking meter somehow done up as the Nehi leg lamp from the motion picture, A Christmas Story. This movie was excerpted from Jean Shepherd’s book, In God We Trust — All Others Pay Cash. This sighting got me to thinking of a winter long ago and my first and only adventure into surrealist art.

If I wasn’t the first to buy a copy of Shepherd’s book when it made its 1960s debut, then I was certainly in the running. Years prior, I had discovered Shepherd’s nightly radio program on New York’s WOR—AM station. His artistic wit, nostalgia and renderings of classic literature and poetry filled an empty space in the life of a lonely boy whose surroundings were changing from a farming community to suburbia. I was caught in that empty void between slinging hay bales and picking up stray golf balls.

The Nehi leg lamp, the Old Man’s furnace wars and “you’ll shoot your eye out, kid” were as familiar as the red Jersey dirt long before the dawn of the first day of 1970 broke over the neighbor’s frozen corn stubble.

On that January morning in 1965, 1 was assigned the task of shoveling the walkway in front of the house. It had snowed all of the previous night so I had a considerable volume to deal with. I would eventually learn to respect and appreciate the common shovel whether it be for moving snow, dirt, sand, gravel or other more pungent organic commodities. At that point in my life, though, I considered a shovel to be an instrument of torture. I had to find a way to escape this sentence of backbreaking toil.

I noticed that the snow was of a consistency perfect for rolling large snowballs. I simply rolled the snow on the walkway into several large snowballs then rolled them off into the yard. After dark, I chanced to notice the long shadows that the snowballs cast in the light from the porch. Beyond the yard, the ground fell sharply to a creek bottom. In the valley below lay a field traversed by our long dirt driveway.

The huge snowballs stood like lonely sentinels against the cold and eternal darkness. To me, the sight of the snowballs and their shadows tugged at something deeper within me — like a Haiku poem. This odd feeling grew and I rolled another huge snowball then another and so on until the yard was full of these monster orbs and their long shadows. It snowed a few more inches and the snow between the snowballs became packed by children playing among them and by adults wandering among them trying to figure out why anyone would just spontaneously do such a thing. I don’t know what they expected to find — perhaps a lathe and a punch press concealed in an igloo structure — something that would justify all this labor.

My nightly “classes” with Jean Shepherd had taught me some of the terminology of the beatnik (no hippies yet) and artist culture. I explained to anyone who asked that these snowballs were an example of “surrealist” sculpture. Perhaps I could have chosen a more appropriate venue than the New Jersey farm country of the 1960s. Indeed, out amongst the farms, we lived the forties in the fifties and the fifties in the sixties until the seventies when the influx of new people brought us up to speed. This was a time when neckties were narrow and minds not much broader.

It snowed again and for a brief period, the roads were impassable. During these snowed-in days, Uncle John walked across a quarter mile of windy, drifted pasture in order to borrow some cigarettes from my dad. Uncle John was a carpenter, an occupation which I respected but my father always referred to him as “just a hammer and nail man.” I’m not sure exactly what he meant by this but Uncle John surely wasn’t a complex individual.

“What da’ hells all this?” he asked when he saw my avant garde snow sculpture.

“It’s surreal,” I explained.

Having no comprehension of the term, Uncle John thought that I was speaking in a mock Italian accent.

“Its-a real, alright,” he bellowed. “Its-a real-a dumb to be doin’ all that work for nothing.”

The roads were cleared and Uncle Paul and Aunt Esther stopped by to visit my parents. Aunt Esther stood gazing at the yard full of mammoth snowballs.

“Its surreal,” I explained.

“Ohhhh — sureeeel,” she bleated. “You’re going to go to New York and be a famous artist some day!”

New York City is where things really happened earning New Jersey the unofficial motto: “If it’s here, there must be something wrong with it.”

“What is wrong with that boy?” I heard her whisper as she turned toward Uncle Paul and the couple walked away.

It snowed again making the snowballs appear like Halloween ghosts without feet. Another, powdery snow fell and collected on the round snowballs creating high peaks. The meaner of my two younger brothers carved fierce, grotesque faces into some of the snowballs. He selected the snowballs that he carved so that our sister, no taller than the snowballs herself, would wander about this labyrinth to be suddenly confronted by one of these monstrosities. She soon refused to enter the front yard until the snowballs melted.

To everyone’s relief, the snowballs eventually melted, as did my adventure into surrealism. Still, I’ll always remember those snowballs and their shadows trailing off into the night. Nowadays, with the help of my silent muses, which include the likes of Jean Shepherd and Mark Twain, I’m able to make a few steady dollars by writing.

Researching a story can lead one into unusual situations but once in a while even stranger circumstances can arise. A few summers ago, I was working with a PBS film crew as a sort of consultant on a documentary about old farm tractors and their owners. We were in a van hurtling down Dillon’s Run Road in Hampshire County. Our objective was to film a field of newly-made round hay bales during the late afternoon “Golden Hour” when the light is low and the shadows long.

The hay bales were arranged eerily like those snowballs of nearly fifty years ago and I felt the same odd feeling. Some things never change though I would describe this scene as pastoral rather than surreal.

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