The Great Ice Capades of 1971
*From Dinner with WT by Rick Baber, TigerEye Publications, 2010
It’s hard to remember whose idea it was. Or even the exact date that it happened. All I know for sure is that it was the very cold winter of the first year I was in high school.
Jr. High had been pretty much a breeze. To be honest, I never had much of a problem with my grades, so I didn’t see the point of wasting valuable teenage time doing foolish things like studying. This was a time for having fun. The only thing was, in our small town of about 7000, there wasn’t much fun to be had if we didn’t make it ourselves. That usually consisted of something that could get us in trouble. So those of us with extra time on our hands would create new and innovative ways of getting into trouble. It didn’t matter, much, if it was not exactly legal. All that mattered was that it was fun – and that nobody had done it before. Sure, we were thugs – but we were creative thugs.
The plots in Jr. High had been limited to Jr. High minds: Stealing and dumping into the river every fire extinguisher in the school district; Putting Fred in a 55 gallon barrel and rolling him down the hall – mowing the principal over as he inadvertently walked out his door; Releasing the hand brakes on the school busses so they would roll backwards into the bayou behind the bus parking lot; Running our motorcycles gang’s flag up the flagpole, padlocking it on, and then setting the tall grass around the pole on fire when the principal climbed up there to cut the lock. Mischief. But nothing that was ever intended to hurt anybody.
With 1970 came high school. We weren’t prepared to change our lifestyles just because we had to change schools. If anything, we should be more cunning than ever now. We had the wisdom of three years of experience at our disposal. And now we could drive.
Man, the (open) halls of the High School were cold. Upperclassmen walked up and down them, carrying books and looking as if they had some sort of educational agenda in mind. It was frightening. What were they doing to these people up here on this hill? How could they have forgotten that spirit of hell raising so deeply instilled in all of us? Some things would have to change up here if we were going to be able to tolerate it. It was obvious though, that it was going to take some time. This was the age of causes. What we needed was a cause.
As autumn gave way to winter the expression on nearly every student’s face changed from “I’m an adult now, and I’m here to get a quality education” to “Man! It’s cold outside. I wish it would snow so we could get a day off from this rat hole and sleep in where it’s warm.” Complacency had given way to discontent. The basic elements leading to an insurrection were there, but the spark was missing.
Then it snowed. Every kid in the school was glued to the 10 o’clock TV news that night, with a transistor radio stuck up to one ear anticipating the inevitable announcement that all Batesville schools would be closed the following day. The announcement did not come. It was business as usual – which was unusual in itself because, in past years, it would only take a light dusting of snow to get us out of school. This was nearly a blizzard by Arkansas standards. There must’ve been one or two inches of the stuff on the ground. There are places in the world that are equipped to deal with the hazard of the frozen white on streets and highways, but Arkansas isn’t, and never has been, one of those places. Counties and cities have better things to do with their money than to blow it on snow plows that would only be used once every blue moon. So, when it snowed even a little bit our Pavlovian conditioning had us blowing off the homework and staying up for the midnight movie on TV. It didn’t’ work this time. We were … well … unhappy.
An informal student inquisition commenced immediately. Who was the Bozo in charge, and what would it take for him to declare a snow day? Just getting out of school wasn’t all that important now. Tradition was at stake. Our cause was born.
After a few days of tedious investigation, it was determined how the process of declaring a “snow day” worked. School Superintendent Coats had recently purchased a four-wheel drive vehicle. On any morning that there was a question as to whether the condition of the roads was so hazardous as to create a dangerous situation for the busses, he would get up very early and drive the county roads, as well as the hill to the high school. His reasoning was simple: if he could make it, the busses could make it. If the busses could make it, school was on. Therefore: if he could make it, we had to get out of bed.
This was war. In 1970 very few high school students had four wheel drives. We had ’67 Mustangs, and Camaros, and VW bugs. What made that madman think our lives were any less important than those kids on the busses? At least that was the propaganda we used to rally people around our cause.
Sometime in the next few weeks, a plan was conceived amid the smell of French fries and pizza burgers with mustard, slaw, and hot sauce, in the dining room of Tommy’s Kingburger. Some of the greatest radical minds in town, left over from the 60’s, decided that what we had to do was make sure that nobody could make it up that hill. Not even Coats. It would require a great deal of effort. Much more than that used to get out of bed in the morning and drive to school. It would involve enormous risk and the requisitioning of some very expensive mechanical equipment – namely, some of our parents’ vehicles – at a particular time of the evening when we were supposed to be in bed seeing visions of sugarplums. But it would be worth it. It would be fun. It was tradition.
With 1971, winter came on strong, and there wasn’t another snow cloud in sight. It was just very, very cold. The daytime temperature hadn’t climbed above twenty degrees in over a week. What we had to do was ice the road over. And we had to do it so well that nothing could get up the hill to the high school. There was only one road, excluding the rocky trail up the back way we called the “baja”. Nobody would expect us to bring our cars up that way. The busses sure couldn’t get up there. The original plan was to release the fireplugs on top of the hill so the water would run down and freeze on the road. There were minor obstacles that presented themselves in association with this scheme – specifically, how to distribute the water over the road in such a manner as to cover it totally and completely. The guy we put in charge of stealing a fire hose failed miserably. If we had just opened the hydrants, the water would simply freeze up there as it came out and we’d have an ice sculpture as a memorial to our failure instead of our long-anticipated triumph over nazi authority. No, it had to be done better than that. We’d have to do it manually. And we’d have to do it soon. Nobody knew how long this cold snap was going to last.
Row Lake was more like a big pond. It sat on the edge of the cemetery property down where the road forked to go up to the school. The water there was relatively warm and had frozen only in a thin layer around the banks. From this junction there was little traffic up toward the school – as it was the only thing up there – on any weeknight. We would have to use the lake as our water supply, and transport it about a half-mile up to the hill in barrels by way of pickup trucks. Timing was of the essence. There had been a history of school vandalisms in our town (no, it wasn’t us) so the police had begun to make regular nightly tours around to all the schools. The trucks would have to fill up quickly at the lake because there was occasional traffic down there. While the trucks were away from the lake, distributing their loads, there would have to be a guard hidden behind one of the tombstones down by the intersection with a walkie-talkie. Another guard up on the hill to warn the rest of us if anybody was coming. With four pickups, each carrying four 55 gallon barrels, we figured the whole mission could be accomplished in an hour. This allowed for each truck to make two trips.
That was a total of 1760 gallons of water, which should freeze quickly, creating a sufficient slick.
There was a bus out that night. It seems like it was the basketball team, but my memory fails me on that. This was instrumental in our plan. The bus was due back in around midnight. We would have the road impassable by the time it returned. The bus driver would, in turn, report the road condition to someone of authority within the school system, who would report it to Superintendent Coats – who would have no choice but to call school off the following day.
We did have friends and relatives on that bus, and we didn’t want anybody to get hurt. Two guys were commissioned to paint a large sign to place just up the road from the intersection, which was to read “BUS BEWARE. SLICK ROADS!”
There were maybe 15 people directly involved in this conspiracy. All of us had taken an oath of secrecy. Not in the literal sense. It was simply understood that if word got out and our plan was foiled that the bigmouth would be exposed and relieved of some part of his anatomy that he had not demonstrated the right to own. Of course, we had to tell our girlfriends so they wouldn’t think we were out running around on them all night. That was OK for me, but for some of the guys I think it might have been a mistake.
As always, we were at Tommy’s on that fateful night. Around nine o’clock, when everybody usually left on weeknights, we hung around. Already the plan was beginning to unravel. Nobody had seen the sign guys. Only two of the four trucks we were supposed to use showed up.
I think the same excuse applied to both of the no-shows: “My dad wouldn’t let me use it.” But our school motto was “A Pioneer Never Quits” and by-God we weren’t about to now. About 12 of us piled into the two pickups and embarked upon our expedition to the lake. Others, not so bold as tobrave the 12-degree weather, followed in cars. Probably a total of 20 guys by now. So there was a minor security leak. These things happen. But these guys were all cool. Nothing to worry about.
I’ve always been told that water froze at 32 degrees. The water we hand dipped from Row Lake that night could not have been over five. Short bucket brigades were formed between the trucks and the water. We’d dip in wastepaper baskets and then hand the full one to the next guy to pass up to the barrel man while accepting an empty one coming the other way. It was the epitome of teamwork, dedication, and sacrifice for the cause that, if it had only been used for good instead of mischief, was the kind of thing that produced greatness.
Four of the eight barrels that were supposed to have been on the two missing trucks were split between these two. We had to work faster than we had originally planned. In doing so, nearly every one of the guys on the ground got spilled upon. When the water splashed on our green army jackets it would freeze instantly. The working conditions were lacking, at best. But we were sure our plan would succeed.
We worked our way up the hill, meticulously spilling the water from the barrels as the drivers slowly took the trucks upwards – carefully avoiding the narrow grass shoulders on each side of the road, as we were saving these for our escape routes. It was amazing. The water froze the instant it hit the street. From out of nowhere, guys appeared on foot with sleds. They would actually follow the trucks on them.
This was working better than we could have imagined, despite the fact that our walkie-talkie man had forgotten to bring them.
After the first load was applied, one of the drivers made the announcement that he had to get his dad’s pickup home. Everybody was cold and tired and wet. Most of us thought the job was done well enough to accomplish our goal, and agreed that we should call it a night. It was about 10 o’clock. Big D and Larry Jack did not agree. They felt that we should apply some more water to the road and then come down to finish off the job by slicking the shoulders as well. They convinced one of the other guys that his dad would be sound asleep, and that we could “borrow” his truck without even having to disturb him. Big D and Larry Jack weren’t the kind of guys with whom any of us risked confrontation, so we, basically, stole the guy’s dad’s truck. In about 30 minutes we were back at the lake, shivering, loading up the pickups just one more time.
By the time we loaded the last barrels most everybody (the sledders and spectators) had gone home. I got to ride back up the hill inside Big D’s truck. Little me in the middle with D driving and Larry on the other side. As we rounded the first curve through the woods approaching the hill we could see the headlights of a car spinning around in the low place just before you start up the big curve. John and Fred (brothers), Jim, and Frankie were just behind us in the other vehicle. As we approached the car on the ice, about two hundred yards away, its headlights went out. We laughed. Obviously somebody down there having fun who thought we were the cops. The car had slid a little off the road into the woods just at the foot of the icy hill. D steered over into the grass and we began our ascent. About 50 yards beyond that a blue light appeared in Big D’s rear view mirror – behind the other pickup.
“Shit!” I heard Danny say it, and I got this terrible feeling that something had gone horribly wrong.
The car we had laughed about, spinning around on the ice, was a cop car. When I turned around to look there were two of them behind the second truck. D goosed ours in an attempt to speed up the hill on the shoulder, then escape down the baja. The shoulder was rough and water was splashing from the barrels in the back. I looked ahead and saw the flashing of two more sets of blue lights coming over the hill above us. The truck started spinning out. We were caught in our own trap!
In a moment two of the police cars slid sideways in front, and behind each pickup. The doors flew open and cops appeared with pistols extended over the hoods of the cars. I think one guy had a shotgun. What did they think we were going to do? Freeze them to death? We weren’t going anywhere. The pickups were stuck. The cops had chains on their tires. They were prepared.
“Come out of the vehicles with your hands up!” commanded a voice over one of those bullhorns.
Larry looked at me calmly, and quietly spoke in his slow southern drawl. “Do ya reckon we oughta run?”
I knew I was going to be in jail in a few minutes – if these guys didn’t just start shooting and kill us – but something about the way he said that just struck me as incredibly funny. I was laughing uncontrollably when one of the cops jerked Danny’s door open and started dragging us out of the truck. He was the one who had been driving the car that was spinning on the ice. He obviously failed to see the humor of the situation. He grabbed me by the hair and nearly broke my nose on the steering wheel as he yanked me out. I heard Fred back there yelling “Don’t push me you ….” (Well, use your imagination.), and looked back in time to see him literally picked up and thrown into the back seat of another car.
They loaded us all up in just two cars and we headed for the police station. Our driver didn’t have anything to say to us. We could see that he was still weak-kneed from the ordeal on the ice. As we neared the cemetery, Larry leaned over to me and said, “Tell him to turn the radio up.”
“Sir,” I said, all to happy to comply, “Could you turn the radio up a little?”
It was ten or fifteen seconds before he answered. “Shuttup!”
Danny was laughing under his breath. Larry leaned over to me again and whispered, “Tell him.”
Although I really didn’t think it was a good idea, I was more afraid of D and Larry than I was this cop. I mean, he had to live by some kind of rules.
“Sir,” I repeated, “We can’t hear the radio back here.”
You know how, when you were a little kid, you would fight with your sister in the back seat on the way to grandma’s house? Your dad would yell at you and you would continue until he lost all control? That’s what this cop did. With a crushing backblow from his right hand he violently, and blindly, swung back to hit me in the mouth. Which is, I imagine, what I would have wanted to do if I were him. I guess he was a rookie or something because he totally forgot about that wire cage between the front and back seats. A deluge of obscenities poured from his mouth almost as fast as the blood squirted from his busted knuckles. Danny buried his face between my shoulder and the back of the seat to conceal his laughter. Larry went ahead and laughed out loud.
Soon we arrived at the police station and were herded inside where the chief of police was waiting. The chief of police! Almost midnight and we got the Chief! We were big time criminals. Nobody ever got the chief this late at night. The fire chief was there too. To this day I don’t know why he was there. Our cop came in behind us, wrapping a handkerchief around his bloody hand.
“Boys,” began the chief, “I want each one of you to call your parents and have them come down here”.
He was the only one of the policemen who didn’t appear to be angry. As a matter of fact, it looked to me like he was trying very hard to fight back a smile. Maybe even laughter.
One by one we took our turns on the phone. Most of the calls were short and spoken in the low, muffled voices guys use to tell their girlfriends “I love you too Honey” when there are other guys in the room. When Frankie was on the phone he turned to the chief. “My mom’s in her housecoat. She wants to know if she can just drive up and honk and somebody’ll come out to the car.”
It was a small town. “Yeah, Frankie,” the chief replied,
“That’ll be fine.”
My turn rolled around. My sister answered the phone.
“Robin, let me talk to dad.”
“He’s asleep,” she said, “He’s really mad ‘cause it’s after midnight and you’re not home yet.”
“Okay. Let me talk to him.”
“I’m not gonna wake him up.” She answered. “You better just come on home or you’re gonna be in big trouble.”
Everybody seemed to gather around the phone to hear my conversation.
“Robin!” I was getting a little upset with her. “I’m kind of in some trouble anyway. Now wake him up!” Already I could hear snickering from the guys. She laid down the phone and I waited for what seemed like an eternity.
He didn’t sound too mad when he picked up the phone. “Hello.”
“Dad,” I began. (I thought that was a good place to begin) “Do you think you could come pick me up?”
“You got car trouble?” I always had car trouble.
“No. I’m down here at the city jail.”
It got quiet. I thought he might have fallen back to sleep.
“Come on home.” He said sharply.
“No, really, I’m in jail.”
“Goddammit!” he was getting miffed, “Quit fuckin’ around and get your ass home!”
Everybody, including some of the cops, was laughing now. I handed the phone to Mr. Collins, the fire chief, and asked him to try his luck. He explained the situation to my dad and hung up.
In just a few minutes parents started showing up. Frankie’s mom pulled up and honked, and he was allowed to go home with her. Somehow, Jim got out of there too, leaving only five of us to face the music. My dad came in and talked to the chief, and it was determined that we would be charged with “malicious mischief”. (Although we later discovered a loophole in the definition that would have rendered that an inappropriate charge.) My dad cut a deal with them. If we could make the road passable by morning, and then spend the next Saturday picking up trash along the highway, they would drop the charges. An hour or so later we were riding atop two Independence County trucks filled with sawdust back out to the scene of the crime. And it was cold up there.
With square-ended shovels we emptied those two trucks while my dad walked alongside them pointing to places that we needed to cover. We finished sometime in the wee hours of the morning, when my dad told me that I’d better catch a few winks because I was going to school at 8 o’clock.
When we walked in the door at home my mother was sitting there on the steps, weeping because her firstborn had turned out to be a criminal. She’d been on the phone to my girlfriend around 10, trying to find out where I was. Becky kept the secret and, basically, lied, and told her that she didn’t know. Then mom called her back to inform her that I’d called from the jail, and a discussion ensued as to how I ever became a juvenile delinquent. The old man didn’t say anything else. He just went to bed. After I shook my mother I did the same.
School didn’t actually start until around 10 o’clock that next morning. The sawdust had melted the ice, then it froze back over with the sawdust inside it. Cars were stuck all over the hill and half of the guys volunteered to miss the first two periods to push the ones they could up to the dry pavement. A few people with 4-wheel-drives were shuttling back & forth to get the stranded students to class. It was a nice community effort. I was told to report directly to the principal’s office when I arrived. The other six guys were already there, smiling as I walked through the door.
Mr. Cross was not in a good mood that morning. He didn’t offer me any friendly greeting. No coffee. No “How’z the family?” No Pop Tarts. Nothing. I took my seat and he began his presentation, slowly and deliberately.
“I don’t believe that just the seven of you planned and pulled off this entire caper. I, therefore, don’t believe it would be fair of me to expel just the seven of you and allow the other culprits to go unpunished. Tell ya what I’m gonna do…” He stood up and wiped his hand across his face, like he always did when he was frustrated. “…I’m going to give you until 2 o’clock. At that time I want everybody who had anything to do with the planning or execution of this incident assembled in the library. You guys should not have to take the rap for everybody responsible. Now, get out of here.”
As soon as the door shut behind us we all knew what we had to do. We went about spreading the word.
When the 2 o’clock bell rang, Mr. Cross pushed his way into the library. Assembled there was a good eighty percent of the student population. Girls, nerds, boy scout types. Even the typing and bookkeeping teachers. It was heartwarming.
Shoving people aside, he made his way to the center of the big room and looked around with his hands on his hips. A disgusted look on his face. Sort of nodding his head “yes” as he looked sternly around the room into the huge crowd.
He began to scream. “I WANT EVERYBODY NOT DIRECTLY INVOLVED WITH THIS ICING INCIDENT OUT OF HERE NOW!”
Everybody started to leave, save the seven of us around the table in the middle.
“COME BACK HERE!” he screamed.
Everybody came back.
Cross calmed his voice a little. “If you knew about this plan, or were actively involved in it, then stay. If you didn’t know anything about it, then leave.”
He took another long look around the room, doing that nodding thing again. Then he wiped that hand across his face and stormed out the door. It slammed so hard against the outside wall as he threw it open that the glass broke.
“Well,” Larry Jack said, “I guess we can go now”.
We still had to pick up the trash, per the deal my dad had made with the cops, but we didn’t get kicked out of school. For our efforts we made the front page of The Batesville Guard under the title of “Ice Capades”. They didn’t mention our names, because we were minors. But we knew who we were.
Maybe high school wasn’t going to be so bad after all.
(c) 2010, Rick Baber, TigerEye Publications