It snowed again this past week. After years of fewer flakes, this year has been a snowy one for a good portion of the country, even in areas that rarely see the stuff. This past week Mister Boomer’s area added ten more inches to the season total. Growing up in the Industrial Midwest, Mister Boomer flashes back to those winters and the snow that was practically a guarantee. Yes, there would be snow, and it was on the ground from December through March, and sometimes into April. Snow didn’t often accumulate in great amounts at a time, but rather, it snowed often. Adding one to four inches several times a week allowed it to build up very quickly. Once it covered the grass, usually by the first week of December, you wouldn’t see the ground again until spring.
All that snow meant a lot of snow shoveling. It was understood that kids, from the age of seven or eight on, would at least help if not take the chore on entirely. After all, what were kids for? Our boomer parents saw to it that their kids carried their share of work inside and outside the house. For the most part, kids didn’t mind. As soon as the snow stopped, neighborhood kids would be outside with the family snow shovel, clearing sidewalks and driveways. It was understood that there would be no snowball fights, snowman making or sledding until the walkways were cleared.
Since most houses contained multiple children, the job was not too daunting a task for small suburban bungalows, unless there was a major snowfall. As a general rule, it was the boys who handled snow removal. A few households had only girls, so their shoveling skills would be pressed into service at those addresses. It was a rare occurrence to see the mother of the household out shoveling snow. Fathers might be out there if they weren’t at work.
Snow shovels of the era were made of metal and wood. In the early days Mister B remembers the family shovel had substantial weight to it. The shaft was a rounded pole of solid hardwood, attached to a rigid metal scoop. The edges of the scoop were perpetually curled where Mister B and Brother Boomer would hack away at the icy patches. Mister B disliked that shovel not only for its weight, but for the splinters and calluses it would dole out, even through two pairs of gloves. Lighter-weight aluminum models were making inroads into the neighborhood, but the family’s second shovel was an old coal shovel. This tool was fantastic for snow removal, with its large-capacity scoop and shaped handle. It was solid enough to chip ice, too. Mister B preferred this shovel, letting Brother Boomer handle the other.
For several kids in the neighborhood, the parental mandate was once the home shoveling was finished, the houses of the senior citizens on the block were next. Often groups of three or four kids would walk over and shovel the seniors’ driveways and sidewalks without saying a word or expecting a reward; it was part of being a good neighbor. More people should practice this simple rule today.
When the shoveling had ceased, it was time to warm up before heading back outside. While sometimes that entailed playing in the snow, there were other times when a group of neighborhood kids would get together to shovel more snow — this time for profit. With long johns on, layers of shirts and a sweater under a coat wrapped by a scarf and hat and dry gloves, the kids would march down the block slinging the family snow shovel over a shoulder like hobos heading for the nearest railroad track.
Since most neighbors knew each other, the houses that might need the service were pre-selected. There weren’t many left on Mister B’s block, so a walk to adjoining blocks was necessary. One boy would approach the owner by knocking at the door and asking if they would like their snow shoveled. The vast majority of the time there was no talk of payment. Once the shoveling was finished, the same boy would return to the door to announce the job was done. At that time the homeowner would hand over some money, from fifty cents to a dollar. The boy, practicing his politeness training, would thank the homeowner and the group was off to the next site.
A group of four or more might stay out until twilight approached, which was around 4:30. A day’s pay might be two or three dollars each. In retrospect, it amazes Mister B on so many levels:
• That kids had the stamina to do the physical work. Shoveling snow all day is rigorous exercise, yet kids did it for fun and profit. It was that same stamina that enabled the neighborhood boys to mow the lawn in summer, then go play four hours of baseball. It hurts Mister B to see dads out alone shoveling snow these days, when their teenage sons are inside playing video games.
• That kids would stay outdoors all day. The key was in the preparation. Layering helped stave off the elements, though frostbite was always a risk. Many a time Mister B recalls hands so cold as to loose the feeling of touch, even after donning two pairs of gloves.
• That kids would work hard for very little pay. To boomers like Mister B, any money was welcome. Not every household distributed weekly allowances, and fewer paid the kids for doing expected chores around the house, so any money earned was a chance to get a candy treat or a McDonald’s or Burger Chef cheeseburger and a small bag of french fries. Or, in Mister Boomer’s case, a chance to drop coins into his piggy bank or a dollar or two into his savings account. Mister B always tried to save part of his earnings, meager as they were.
• That kids of differing ages and backgrounds worked as a team. Leaders seem to organically rise in each situation. Each boy was counted on to contribute their best effort within the limitations set by their age.
Though electric and gas-powered snow blowers were beginning to appear, there were none in Mister B’s neighborhood in the early days. So much has changed between the 1950s and today. Technology has helped and hindered in snow removal, but it appears Detective Thorn (Charlton Heston) was right in Soylent Green: it’s people. The biggest change in snow removal these days is people!
What memories of snow shoveling come to mind for you, boomers