Here on the front porch we had another 2 inch snowfall last night. It is a real shock to the system to see the still green leaves covered in white. Our fall came late and ended early. Still, the first snow of the year is always beautiful. There is just something about it that makes me feel like a kid.
In Potsdam, N.Y, the first snow of the season was always a cause for celebration, and the renewal of an age old tradition. The snowball fight between Clarkson University, and the State University of N.Y. at Potsdam.
For those unfamiliar with Potsdam, (and really, unless you live in St. Lawrence county that is just about everyone) it’s a sleepy village of about 9,000 people. According to the 200 census, 54% of the residents are between 19 and 24 years old. So I guess it is safe to say it is a college town. There are two main colleges, Clarkson University, a 4 year private technical college founded in 1896 and the State University of N.Y. at Potsdam, which boasts 4,500 students and can trace it’s beginnings back to 1816.
The two schools are located about 3 miles apart, with the village and the Racquette River in the middle, and in the life of the average undergraduate there is little cause to interact with students from the other school. Until the first snow fall when tradition dictates that the male population of both campuses shall meet on the lawn in front of Hamlin-Powers dormitory (colloquially known as “the pit”) at the corner of Clarkson Ave. and Maple Street, and have a snowball fight. As traditions go, it’s not much, but its about all we’ve got.
The first snow of 1987 came in October, and began in the late afternoon, so that by 6pm the ground was covered and it was starting to pile up. For this reason, the 87’ edition of the snowball fight would prove to be a lengthy one. We were living up the hill from Hamlin-Powers, in the Quad at the time, and by the time we heard the call to battle and got down to the lawn, the battle had already moved. The Clarkson students had pushed the Potsdam kids back over the bridge into downtown, and were headed towards the Potsdam campus.
By the time we caught up with them on Pierpont Ave., there were a few hundred of us stretched out down the sidewalk on both sides of the street, hooting, hollering and acting like Crusaders out to pillage Constantinople on their way to Jerusalem. The Potsdam campus was built in the 70’s and looms over the south end of Pierpont like a brick fortress. Its architectural style best described as “Late Karl Marxstadt”, it is an brutal red brick monstrosity. The snow was falling pretty heavily by then, and the orange sodium vapor street lights cast a rusty glow over the campus.
Growing up in Western New York, I have had the pleasure of being in many snowball fights. But this one was an epic. There were hundreds of kids running around the Lego brick towers, throwing snowballs in pitched battle. It was impossible to tell who was on which side, not that it mattered. The girls in the high rise dorms were throwing buckets of water out of the windows on the 8th floor, and we were throwing out our shoulders trying to hit their windows with snowballs. The battle seemed to last for hours, until finally, wearing down, getting cold, and becoming hopelessly outnumbered, we began the retreat back towards Clarkson.
Now Potsdam is a pretty sleepy town, and despite having about half of it’s population between the ages of 19-24, there is very little unruliness. So the sight of several hundred rowdy students running amuck brought out the Potsdam PD, in force. Oddly enough the sight of the Police does little to discourage a mob, and in fact has the opposite effect, in that it tends to provoke them. In fact, my experience has taught me that there are few mob situations that cannot be made worse by the appearence of the P.D. So when the squad cars pulled up on Pierpont and began barking orders through the PA, the crowd milled about sensing trouble, and not wanting to miss out on it. The final provocation came when the Dean of Students from Clarkson stepped out of one of the police cars in his nice suit and designer trench coat, and began giving us orders. I will never forget the satisfaction I felt at seeing that first snowball sail through the orange colored overcast. It was a beautifully thrown ball, arching gracefully over the heads of the gathering crowd, and descending like a cruise missile, striking him squarely in the side of the head. It was like a spark striking a can of gasoline. The the police cars soon disappeared in a hail of snowballs, the frozen projectiles striking their doors, and hoods, and windows with a satisfying hollow thunk.
We stayed long enough to throw a few ourselves, before our senses got the better of our valor, and we ran for it as if the cops were hot on our trail. Not that we stopped long enough to look back. Since they were outnumbered about 100 to 1, I assume they wisely decided to stay in their cars, sound their sirens, and hope we kept running. We were happy to oblige.
Years later, my travels would take me to places like Madison and Fort Collins, where real colleges had real riots, and would overturn and burn police cars on certain designated evenings. I can’t say that I ever understood. Our little annual snowball fight seemed quaint in comparison, like something out of the roaring 20’s of Raccoon Coats, and Straw Boater Hats. Sure, we may have gotten a little rowdy and out of hand, but no one ever meant any harm. I wonder if they still have the annual snow ball fight, or if in these litigious times even that freedom has been taken away. Every body needs something to rebel against. I suppose in the grand scheme of things it’s better to learn that lesson by throwing a snowball at the dean, than a firebomb at a police car.