A pile of memories

Bulldozed snow mountain creates Tower of Babel for Basswood schoolchildren

This aerial photo from the early 1960s shows the consolidated school in the field behind the village of Basswood.

I cannot imagine a better winter “toy” for Grade 3 farm boys than a bulldozed 14-foot-high mountain of snow in March.

It literally was a pile of fun. Plus it may have had a few aspects in common with the ancient biblical “Tower of Babel.”

Early March 1969, delivered a sudden blizzard and with it, a great dump of snow. As part of it, school closed for several days in our hamlet of Basswood. No school – joy!

Few morning proclamations match the exhilaration of Mother calling to her six drowsy children, saying that the Brandon CKX Radio announcer had listed Basswood among the school closures. Sweet bliss.

We’d get so excited that we’d maybe help Dad with the morning farm chores.

That was Thursday, and after three more days of lazing around, puzzling and playing, we were ready to get back to school on Monday. Oh yes, we did find time to squabble.

When our bus arrived at school Monday morning, a unique scene awaited us. The municipality had rolled out its D-7 Caterpillar bulldozer to clear the parking lot for the teachers’ cars and our buses. However, instead of just plowing a windrow, the dozer operator chose to pile snow up from all sides into a huge cone-shaped mound. Snow is a lighter load and the powerful Cat crawled halfway up the white hill, pushing the snow higher and higher.

It was a great white heap. My buddy, Andy Cardy and I predicted the recesses and the noon hour would be fun.

This stone marker is all that’s left of the school which created generations of memories in the Basswood area. photo: Mark Kihn

The snow games began. First it was ‘king of the castle,’ where the bigger boys teamed up to win. That group included my older brother David in Grade 4. Then came the sliding or tumbling down on slick almost-wet pants. And the recess wrap-up featured the inevitable snowball fight. The schoolyard teacher discouraged this mayhem. “Someone is going to get hurt,” she’d yell. Luckily, nobody did.

But can you imagine the shrieks and laughter and babbling from 50 schoolchildren (Grades 1-4 in that last year of the Basswood Consolidated School). No doubt, there were also tears and whimpers among all that noise.

By Tuesday, the children had become sophisticated in their playtime activities. A few had arranged bigger chunks of snow into fort-like structures, which sparked quarrels. Who owned the fort and who could play in it? And a few went higher up and with the denser snow, easily hand dug short tunnels through the snow-cone tip. Littler Grade 2’ers seemed especially adept with their smaller shoulders. Small two-legged gophers, I suppose.

I remember that the tunnelling obsession then veered out of control. Soon there was a second row of tunnels, which were longer. Then came a third layer, those right along the base, which were built by bigger, braver boys – the tunnels were too long, too dark, and therefore too scary for the younger ones.

Now came the innovations. A vertical tunnel intersected and connected two horizontal ones. A wider tunnel allowed two small Grade 1 boys to pass each other. And a longer tunnel featured a bend and was therefore darker. There was no light at the end of that one.

I don’t believe the playground supervisor knew what to do. The huge white hill was a teeming mass of coloured jackets, bouncing tuques, and shuffling boots. But why interrupt children when they are having fun?

However, like that Tower of Babel, cracks in the formerly harmonious gaggle began to appear. The older kids always won the territorial or ownership disputes, someone wrecked a tunnel and the necessary blame had to be laid, and an errant mitten or tuque seemed to disappear into another dimension. There would be an accounting for the lost item once you got home.

We farm children even became envious of the few children who lived in Basswood. They stayed and played after school, and even on weekends. They benefited from all our efforts. Their extra joy came at the expense of our added recess-time work. Is that fair? I’d like a teacher to rule on that.

However, before they could rule on those and any other disputes, a strange thing happened. We lost interest.

Boyhood friends Mark Kihn (left) and Andy Cardy were amongst the mayhem on the bulldozed pile. photo: Supplied

As March faded into April, and winter into spring, the Tower of Basswood lost its allure. The longer days and the warmer sun attacked our fabled snow pile, and we had no defences for that. In fact, the pile began to slump somewhat. It began to appear tired, stooped, and quite frankly, sad.

It became a wet brownish blob that was so yesterday. We already had found the melted areas of playground that were good for soccer. We had “moved on” to other diversions. That snow mountain seemed so distant.

Try as she might, Mother Nature couldn’t entirely remove that honeycombed heap until mid-May. It remained as a dirty-white remnant of a former winter civilization. Occasionally, a few children would walk over to it, but the meltwater had made so much mud there. However, the hill did yield lost mittens, a usable tuque, and my buddy Andy spotted a dime. He shined it up. We bought 20 MoJos with that coin at the Basswood Lunch Bar. What a bonus!

In June the school closed after 50 years and in September we caught the bus to larger Minnedosa, 12 miles east along the Yellowhead Highway. The old school itself was soon bulldozed.

If I went back 52 years to those days and to that place, I could envision exactly where the bulldozer fellow built it.

“Thank you Mister,” by the way.

I could also recount the celebrations of two tunnel builders joining up from opposite sides. (Remember that famous scene with the English Channel tunnel breakthrough in 1990?)

And I may still be able to hear the joyous cacophony of babbling children playing on Basswood’s Great Pile of Snow.

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