In addition to baseball, in junior high I became fascinated by the history of the American Civil War. And with a handful of friends my age, we took our absorption a step further in an attempt to emulate the way soldiers of that period dressed and performed in battle. About the same time (1951 or so), the film The Red Badge of Courage, originally a short Civil War story by Stephen Crane was released, starring an actor named Audie Murphy—who only a few years earlier had been honored as America’s most decorated infantryman.
Still at a tender age, my friends and I failed to connect with the reality of war. While we read that this domestic confrontation was the worst conflict ever to involve American troops, it didn’t sink in. Instead, we saw the struggle as melodrama—something to be acted out, with as much authenticity as we could manage in the process.
And so it was that on a gray day in February that several of my friends and I prepared to execute a “winter” Civil War battle. Equipped with ersatz uniforms and other accoutrements we thought made us look like authentic Union or Confederate men in arms, we sallied forth to meet “the enemy.” Our skirmish would take place in the woods just off what was then known as Ashland Gravel Road, coming southeast from College Avenue, moving over Hinkson Creek before descending on and abutting the (then) Highway 63 South.
I was decked out in a rather attractive light tan calf leather shirt (with necessary fringe) over a sweat shirt, a ragged pair of old leather chaps, which I strapped around my Levi-covered legs to resemble leggings, a rolled, tied-at-both-ends cotton coverlet over my shoulder, fingerless wool gloves, a pair of short, black “Engineer’s” boots, a dark brown wool scarf and a grey Confederate ‘campaign’ hat, with tipped crown. In my mind I looked exactly like what artist Jack Davis might have created for one of EC Comics’ historical issues, which my friend Matt Flynn and I had been collecting since 1949.
I carried two “guns”. Both fake, one was an authentic replica of a Colt percussion revolver, (usually carried only by officers,) and a wooden training rifle resembling the Garand M-1 used by American troops during World War II and in the Korean conflict.
I believe there were five of us, all on the same ‘side’, facing an enemy that existed only in our minds. The other four, as I recall, included Matt, Kent Grant, Kirk Polson and David Buchanan. Most of us lived on the east side of town, and knew the ‘cool’ places to do battle better than just about anyone.
As we prepared for our set-piece encounter, we made use of high ground that sat above the Hinkson Valley south and east of where another road spun off of Ashland Gravel, heading downhill toward University-owned storage property (still there) before rising and moving further south, to connect up with one of the many farm-to-market roads in the area.
We found ourselves at the top of a good-sized cliff, which we staked out as our discovery, (though it was probably known by thousands, who used it primarily to test their mountain-climbing skills.) As we looked down at the little ‘spur’ road, we saw a Columbia cab, (a rarity in those days,) carrying only the driver, slowly bumping and grinding his way north, ostensibly to link up with Ashland Gravel or Highway 63, on his way back to town or to pick up a fare somewhere.
As he drove along, with driver side window open about half way and cigarette smoke wafting out into the cold air, he must have looked up and seen us staring at him—because without any provocation, he defiantly gave us the finger.
Acting on impulse, I looked around and found the nearest snow bank, left over from 3-4 inches that had fallen the week before. I jumped up, scooping some dirty, wet snow in my bare hands, and forming a tight ball, about the size of a regulation baseball.
I looked down at the cab driver, still plugging along, but slowly because of the poor condition of the road. He was about 50 feet below us, but on a straight line only 40 feet away. There were no obstructions between us; he was an ‘open target.’
Without aiming I threw my quickly-constructed snowball slightly sidearm, hoping to “put one across his bow,” hitting his car somewhere.
My missile of dirty snow and ice soared down through the cool air, and directly through the cab’s open window, striking with authority the left side of the driver’s face before coming apart inside his vehicle. We were all stunned, but not as much as the driver of that cab. Hitting the brakes hard, he extricated himself, muttering, shaking his fist and sending a stream of four-letter words bouncing up the cliff, where we stood, gawking. I wasn’t prepared for the outcome, but hitting the ‘bull’s-eye’ was such a thrill, I remember the feeling to this day.
Knowing the cabby couldn’t climb the cliff and take us on, we added fuel to the fire by taunting him from our position high above. Knowing we had him, he returned to his cab, shoulders slumped, and drove away. Congratulating each other on our ‘victory’, we walked back home together, using a shortcut through the Ag School’s barns.
Wisely, we had left our bicycles at home.