Some epiphanies hit you like a sneeze, overwhelming your senses and leaving you with a mess on your hands.
As my 30-minute commute to work expanded to the point of distraction, my fingers squeezed the wheel, knuckles white with anxiety. Thankful for the two-hour delay yet grumbling about road conditions, I drove my ‘92 Honda Accord through the snow. As the country roads took me home, the back roads of memory played hell on me as I fretted about getting to work on time.
I had ten minutes before the middle schoolers I teach got off the busses and still had to get my one-year-old, Maggie, to Mom and Dad’s house. Turning left, my car slid toward the guardrail, causing two events to occur simultaneously: 1) A word I didn’t want Maggie to learn from me started streaming out of my mouth. “Oh, shit, shit, shit-shit, shit-shit. Shit-shit-shit-shit, SHIT!” 2) The wonder and joy I experienced as a child every time it snowed withered and died, supplanted by loathing. The treacherous snow blanketing the countryside stabbed iciness through my heart right before relief flooded me as we narrowly avoided skidding off the road and lurching into the guardrail.
I felt like C-3PO, the helpless protocol droid from the Star Wars films, just escaping Echo Base as Darth Vader and his cronies laid waste to the place. Whereas R2-D2 had already been moved well back from the heavy fighting, Threepio accompanied Princess Leia, waiting until the last minute before danger overtook them like I waited for school to be cancelled before I got on the road. Blaster fire all around him, C-3PO shuffled as fast as his stiff little legs would carry him, calling out for Hans Solo to: “Wait for me!” He got onto the ramp of the Millennium Falcon right before the smuggler’s ship returned fire and took off.
To me, R2-D2 represents smooth-sailing, self-assuredness, and capability while C-3PO represents clumsiness, self-doubt, and culpability. Artoo is untouchable. Threepio is an accident waiting to happen. No matter the situation, Artoo sees what needs to be done and sets out to do it regardless of what stands in his way. No matter the situation, Threepio walks into danger, worrying all the while right before having the worst happen to him. Even if Artoo does get swallowed by a swamp creature or hit by blaster fire or takes on two super battle droids with no more than motor oil and a set of thrusters, the damage is cosmetic, slowing him for only a short while. Threepio’s the pessimist who gets dismantled by blaster fire or beheaded by an assembly line or his memory wiped by Leia’s adoptive father.
After dropping off Maggie in one piece and making it to school a few minutes after my students did, I was overcome with the realization that because of Maggie’s presence, snow meant something new to me. What used to mean sledding and beauty, now encapsulated danger and fear. Echo Base, no longer my frozen haven, lost its shield generator to enemy fire and I was in danger of being crushed under the emotional weight of all that snow. No longer R2-D2, gliding over the packed-down ice crystals, I was C-3PO, careening around corners, in constant danger. I might as well change all the presets in my car to talk radio and start buying fiber-rich cereal, because I am now officially a grown-up.
Not the bustling metropolis in which one dreams of making it big, my hometown of 412 residents and over four million chickens was by no means ever snow-resistant. Mom was the librarian at a private school my sister and I attended in Columbus, Ohio’s capital city, which meant we had twenty miles to travel every morning. When the road conditions turned icy, sometimes she would call off school even when the administrator wouldn’t. That meant we had all day to redistribute the snowfall covering our backyard.
Bordered by neighbors on the left and a tin-topped shed overrun by a lilac thicket in the back, our yard extended for 50 yards. On the right, a seldom-traveled alley enlarged our territory. With the exception of a few bushes and a small sapling, our area of play was wide open, and best of all, ten feet from the end of the porch, the backyard dropped in elevation by 12 feet at a 60-degree angle, perfect for sledding.
When we got two or more inches of snow and discovered we were staying home from school, I wrapped myself in as many layers of clothing as possible. First, the long underwear went on followed by a pair of sweatpants and jeans. Then for the top: an undershirt, turtleneck, and sweatshirt. I’d cover my feet in two pairs of socks and snow boots, throw on a muffler, gloves, and a ski mask, and struggle into a set of Dad’s old coveralls. By the time I was done, I’d worked up quite the sweat, which made no matter as my sister, Chris, and I plunged off the back porch and trundled to the garage.
We’d work our way past old mowers, over ladders, and around garden equipment and various pieces of lumber, exertion chugging out our condensed breath. After a short scramble onto the giant, grimy-white freezer, we reached our sleds hanging from nails anchored in the framing. I’d grab the green sled designed for one with its molded plastic backrest and black handles for steering while Chris reached for the red plastic sled, designed to accommodate two. Having successfully recovered our winter chariots, we’d burst out the side door of the garage, set the sleds on the edge of the hill, back up all the way to the house, sprint in slow motion because of all the layers of clothing, leap onto our ready sleds, and yell with delight as we plunged down the hill.
In between breathless runs down the slope, Chris and I made snow angels, plastered each other with snowballs, feasted upon the biggest icicles we could find, built bumps and jumps out of our smooth sled trails, and made new discoveries in the field of snowman engineering.
All this culminated in our return to the kitchen where Mom waited with warm towels, hot chocolate, and a smile reflecting our own. We’d strip out of our outermost layers, careful to keep the snow clinging to us like burrs on a poodle from falling to the linoleum. “Keep the snow on the towels” my mother’s mantra.
We would be giddy despite our exhaustion, enabling the rest of the day to live up to our expectations, for responsibilities on snow days ceased. We didn’t have to be anywhere; we didn’t have to get ready for anything; we did the things that interested us; and on those days we were the most ourselves.
I’d read books like The Voyages of Doctor Doolittle or Henry Reed, Inc., we’d watch movies such as Unidentified Flying Oddball or Thoroughly Modern Millie, I’d create elaborate vehicles with my Legos or Construx, I oversaw conflicts with my G.I. Joes or Transformers, and some days, I played Super Mario Bros. or Toejam and Earl until my thumbs went numb.
Thinking back, the last time I rushed headlong onto a sled was more than two years ago — more than two years since hot chocolate wasn’t just a sweet treat, it was a medium essential to the reanimation of frozen limbs. It’s time I rediscovered the rush of sliding downhill full-tilt, eyes streaming from the wind, ice crystals spraying up in sparkling arcs to coat my legs and boots. It’s time I gazed into a winter’s sky, the heat from my back and shoulders dissipating into the yielding snow beneath as I completed one more snow angel. I want to build a snow fort, engage in a snowball battle for the history books, hunt icicles taller than me, experiencing that euphoria once again, and I want to do all this with my wife and kids to build memories, deepen Laura’s love, and enable Maggie and Asher to look back on their childhood with delight.
Will I do that, though? Will the C-3PO within want to get off the couch with the ice and snow blowing outside and the sparrows puffed up to twice their size, clinging to the wavering branches? I no longer have a sledding hill right outside the backdoor. I have a deck and grill, patio chairs with table, and 36 feet of flat yard before you hit the garden shed and swing set. My yard’s for mowing and croquet, cookouts and cigars, not the Winter X Games.
If I took my family sledding, we’d have to walk three blocks through the snow to get there, unless I drove my car, but then where would I park, and would I want snow melting into my upholstery on the way home? I’d probably catch cold and maybe even pneumonia. My mom had that last winter and didn’t lose her cough until months later. No thank you, Jack Frost. You can go gnaw on someone else’s nose. Count me out.
The storm troopers have breached my defenses, not even an ion cannon can get me past the blockade. I might as well become a permanent resident of Echo Base. Go ahead. Call me Goldenrod. I don’t care.
Hold on, one cotton-picking minute!
Despite all the jams C-3PO got into, it wasn’t he who fell into the open access panel as the Millennium Falcon hit light speed; it was R2-D2. And wasn’t it Artoo that kept pushing Threepio off high ledges and out of moving transports? Wasn’t it R2-D2 that led C-3PO into Jabba’s palace so they could be offered as slave droids to that giant slug of a mob boss where Threepio got slapped around, covered in green slime, and almost had his optical receptor chewed off? Wasn’t it C-3PO who always knew the right thing to say, his fluency in over six million forms of communication getting his friends out of trouble again and again?
Without Threepio, Hans, Leia, Luke, and Chewie would have been cooked and eaten by the Ewoks and they never would have taken down the Death Star’s shield generator so Lando could blow the last bastion of the Empire to tiny bits.
Despite his hesitancy, despite his understandable caution and self-preservation, C-3PO is just as much of a hero as R2-D2, and for that matter — Luke, Leia, and Han. On the ice planet of Hoth, Threepio never laid down. He kept chugging his stiff little legs, he kept moving, doing what he was told and pulling off amazing rescues despite his limited programming as an interpreter.
I may have programmed myself to be an intellectual, a reader, a writer, a master indoorsman, but I will venture out into the snow. I will risk cold and wet and danger. I will take it easy on slick roads and not concern myself with getting to work on time; instead, I will get there safely.
I may not be R2-D2 with all his hidden gadgets, intimate knowledge of every security system ever made and his trash-canny good looks. I may not say the right thing at exactly the right time. I can be slow moving as well as slow on the uptake, but I will keep moving, I will keep learning, and I will let others call me forward or push me from behind all in the name of toppling an empire of fear. Maybe I can be free of my lack of confidence. Perhaps I can use my sense of humor to win people’s attention then tell them the truth they need to hear. Hoth may be lost, and I may have avoided that guardrail by no more than a foot, but I made it out alive, and more importantly, so did Maggie. Snowy days will see caution, but snow days will see abandon.
I’m proud to say I’m now Maggie’s favorite sledding partner. At four years of age, whenever it snows, she gazes at the flakes drifting down for about half a minute, makes a sharp gasp of surprise, and turns to me with a big smile, saying, “Look, Dad! It’s snowing! Maybe you and me can go sledding!”
I can’t say no to that level of glee. When the snow comes down enough to conceal the grass, we layer ourselves in warm clothing, load the sleds into the trunk of the car, and drive the three blocks to the sledding hill where we find plenty of parking along the road. With the first run, we try to go down together, but sometimes Maggie giggles with so much anticipation she can’t get her sled to crest the hill as soon as I do, and I see her humongous smile transform into a small ‘o’ with eyes widened in happy surprise as I disappear down the slope, enjoying the ride.
In my concern for Maggie’s safety as we headed for the guardrail all those years ago, I blamed the snow for creating icy conditions instead of identifying the problem in myself. My fear of being late to school caused me to drive too fast on the icy roads, risking my daughter’s life. I forgot the wonder of seeing a landscape covered in crystals and the fun to be had because of the snow. Maggie’s the one who reminded me. I took winter for granted until I built my first snowman with her. Her delight delights me, reprogramming me not as an adult who hates the snow, but as a big kid who revels in it once again.