I don't remember a whole lot about Christmas the year we got our rowboat; like what gifts I got or if we did anything special during the holidays. I do know we had a big, elaborately decorated Douglas Fir tree in front of the living room picture window, that my mom baked thousands of cookies to share with friends and neighbors, that she sang along with the constantly playing Christmas records and that the house smelled like pine trees and bayberry candles. I know because it was like that every year. I also remember that on that Christmas Day I found a tiny orange and white kitten.
I’m pretty sure my dad got it somewhere when he was out in the car that morning because, soon after he got back and was sitting in the recliner chair watching TV, he hollered to me. "Jackie! I heard something at the door. You better go take a look."
It was cold out. It wasn’t a white Christmas. It was mostly gray and brown, but there had been fleeting snow flurries all morning and a dusting of it swirled along the pavement in the chilling breeze. My brother Dan and I were busy in our room playing with whatever we got for Christmas. I figured it was just the wind or something and didn’t want to go look. My dad hollered again so I went to the living room and opened the front door. I remember the wintry air blowing in through the cracks around the storm door and seeing that it was flurrying again. "There's nobody there," I said.
"Well, I heard something," my dad said. "Look around outside."
I was just in my socks, but opened the storm door and stepped out onto the straw welcome mat, then onto the cold cement porch. I poked my head around the corner to look along the front of the house and there, right next to the bush where the borough guy read our water meter, was a little orange and white kitten. When he saw me he meowed and ran over to me. He was cold, too, so I picked him up and brought him inside.
"It’s a kitten,” I told my dad as I closed the door. “What should we do with it?”
He didn’t even look over at me but from the side I could tell he was grinning. “I don’t know. Look in the paper, see if anybody lost one, I guess.”
I did, and I kept looking in the lost and found sections of both newspapers we got until school started again in January. Sometimes I felt really sad for the people who had to put in the paper that they lost their pets. I knew how I’d feel if it was ours. But, nobody advertised for an orange and white kitten with a funny little, high pitched meow so, after a while, it was ours.
He wasn’t little for too long. By summer he was pretty much grown-up. Cats aren’t as much fun as pets as dogs are, but they’re not as much trouble, either. We fed him and let him go in and out when he wanted to. We hardly knew he was around, except when he brought home dead birds and my mom yelled at him. But mostly, like most of them are, he was just the cat that lived with us.
There was one sad thing about him, though. He only got to live one year. I call him My Cat of Christmas Day because the next December he got sick. We didn’t know what was wrong with him and I made my mom take him up to our vet up on Broad Street, even though it was early Christmas Morning. Dr. Cavanaugh was still in his robe and slippers when we got there. I was older and Christmas wasn’t the same as it used to be, but my cat being at the hospital sick, exactly one year after I found him, made me feel even less in the Christmas spirit.
When I called the vet's the next morning, the day after Christmas, they told me that my orange and white, one year old cat had died during the night. I was already a teenager and in junior high, but I still cried. I felt sad about him for a long time and never forgot him.
Meanwhile, our rowboat was sitting out in the backyard up on cinder blocks. We couldn’t leave it in the creek for the winter. It was leaking a lot worse after we stole it back from Ka--- because we'd flipped it over fifty times trying to get it home across the cornfield and then my dad dragged it down the street for half a mile behind the car. It would just be sitting there in the Licking Run, sunk and stuck in the ice all winter. Dead-eye’s rope was getting frayed so when the creek melted it would probably break and our rowboat would wash away. Besides, when the creek did freeze solid we liked to shovel it off and play ice hockey with sticks and a rock. The sunken rowboat would be right in the middle of our 'rink.'
We couldn’t put a big rowboat just anywhere. My mom called it an eye-sore. She didn’t want the neighbors or people walking down the sidewalk at the school to see it. We had to drag it around back and put it next to the shed. My dad didn’t want it to kill the grass by sitting on it all winter so, we had to flip it over and put it up on cinder blocks we borrowed from Mr. Etter. It was still real heavy. It was just me and Dan and Ezzie so it was tough to get it set up right. Even then, my dad grumbled and made us reposition it when he saw where it was.
The first few times it snowed, I went out and shoveled it off, but after the big storm, I didn’t bother anymore. I was still having trouble with Math and German so I wasn’t allowed to do much on weekdays till my homework was done, and it got dark real early. On weekends we maybe went out to the skating pond at Memorial Park or played hockey on our creek, or even over at the Tohickon sometimes. There isn’t much you can do with a rowboat when the creeks are covered with ice, so I kind of lost interest in it.
It was the year after they put in new monkey bars and swing sets at the school and made the playground in the back twice as big. When it snowed they’d plow off the macadam from up past the cafeteria doors near the basketball courts toward the kindergarten end of the playground. At the edge of the grassy hill that sloped down to the strip of woods along the Licking Run big piles of snow got heaped up. It was right across the school field from our house, less than a hundred yards away. After the big storm, it looked like a ridge of mountains and was perfect for sledding, building snow forts and playing king of the mountain.
One day, after it had melted some—the macadam was bare except for some areas of thin, loose ice where the snow had melted and refrozen a couple times—I was over at the school with some other guys. The mountains of snow weren’t as tall as they had been. Kids had been sledding and crawling all over them for a while by then, but they were still big.
There were a bunch of us: all of the Wilsons, including their little brother who was only second grade, and a couple of other guys from over on Elm St. It wasn’t ‘my gang’, but we all knew each other, or at least who everybody was. I was the biggest one there but didn’t pick on kids so we could play together okay.
Because we had some little kids, we didn’t play king of the mountain rough. We had rules: no snowball throwing, no rough tackling and no punching or choking. Just because I was the biggest, didn’t mean I got to be king of the mountain every time, either. We made teams and, to be fair, my team was smaller and I took Little Wilson. Everybody got wet, but nobody got hurt.
We’d been playing for a while when Big Wilson yelled, “Look!” and pointed over toward the basketball courts. Walking across the playground, coming from over by the Tohickon was Brian Ka---. I hadn’t seen much of him since the time he yelled at me for stealing back our rowboat after he’d stolen it from us. Everybody stopped in their tracks and watched.
Ka--- was wearing rubber hip boots and a brown Russian style, fur lined hat with flaps on the sides and front. He was coming right for us. We all were afraid of him. He’d bullied or been mean to every one of us at some time or other. “What are we playing, king of the mountain?” he asked.
At first nobody said anything, just stood there staring at him. Then, Little Wilson, who didn’t realize how dangerous the situation was, said, “Yeah.”
“Great!” Ka--- said. “I’m playing too, and I’ll be the king. You guys have to try to knock me off the hill.”
We knew he'd be rough and didn’t want to play it with him, but, we didn’t have a choice. He threatened to beat us up if we quit or tried go home. Nobody, including me, was brave enough to not do what he said. He grabbed Big Wilson and shook him, said he was going to punch him in the stomach unless he played king of the mountain.
Ka--- made new rules: first, he was always king of the mountain; second, throwing snowballs was okay; third, no throwing ice. As we expected, he was real rough. He tried to hit us in the face with snowballs when we charged the hill. I did manage to knock him down once, but he kneed me in the side and threw me down. He picked up one of the Elm St. guys and slammed him down, knocking the wind out of him.
After we’d been playing for a while, Little Wilson, who was no good at making snowballs and too small to attack the hill, picked a piece of ice and threw it at Ka---. It didn't hit him, but he saw it fly by. He yelled, "I said no ice throwing!" charged down off of the mountain and grabbed Little Wilson by the arm. "When I tell you something, you better listen!" He yelled.
We all just stood there watching, terrified of what was going to happen. Ka--- picked up big pieces of ice from the playground and threw them as hard as he could against the back of Little Wilson's legs. He struggled to get away, but Ka--- kept hold of his arm and kept hitting him with the ice until he was screaming and crying. "I said no throwing ice! I said no throwing ice," he kept yelling.
I was horribly intimidated by Ka---, like everyone else I knew. He was bigger than me, stronger than me and could run faster. I felt so bad for Little Wilson that I was jittery and sick in the stomach. The injustice and cruelty finally struck me and my fear instantly turned to anger. I looked around, counting heads, big and small. With clenchd jaw and fists, I yelled: "There's seven of us. What are we waiting for? Let’s get him!" I let out a war whoop and charged Ka---.
I expected to be killed. I expected everybody else to just stand there and watch as I was beat to a pulp, but they didn't. As I charged, they all yelled and charged him, too. Ka--- dropped his piece of ice and let go of Little Wilson. He threw his arms out and got a shocked, frightened look on his face. Before any of us reached him, he turned and ran.
"Get him! Get him!" I yelled as I chased Ka---, past the third grade classroom, past the cafeteria doors. He kept running, down across the basketball court. I looked back over my shoulder and saw that the Wilsons and guys from Elm Street had stopped. I was chasing him alone. I slowed my pace, not really wanting to catch him, but I kept running and yelling, “Get him! Everybody!” I remembered him stealing our rowbat and everything else he'd done or said to me over the years.
Ka--- kept going, right through Dead-eye's yard, down and across the lane along the Tohickon. Icy water was running over the dam, but, in his hip boots, he ran across it and into the woods on the other side of the creek. I kept yelling and running. We were hundreds of yards from the school by then. I was short of breath and tired but chasing.
I splashed across the dam, getting soaked up to my knees, and ran into the woods after him. By then I wasn't angry anymore but I also wasn’t afraid. If he stopped to fight, I would haf fought him—win or lose. When I got through the woods to the edge of an open field beyond it, Ka--- was way ahead. He was on the far side of the field, headed toward Hager's Woods. I stopped to catch my breath and watched him struggle over a barbed wire fence and disappear into a thicket.
"Get him! Get him!" I screamed as loud as I could a few times to encourage him on his way. I felt as though a huge rock had been lifted off my chest. I pumped my fists in the air then flopped down on my back in the snow and laughed hysterically. Tears ran down my face as I swiped out a snow angel.
By the time I got back to the playground, everyone had gone home. Little Wilson, I found out later, wasn't hurt badly. For the rest of his life, Ka--- left me alone. In fact, if we came close to crossing paths, he avoided me. I didn't hate him. I didn't pick on him; in fact I never told anybody but my brother and Ezzie what happened.. The next summer if we saw him while we were sailing our rowboat on the Tohickon, he left us alone and quietly went away.