Southern Snowballs: The Dirt Clod Wars

When I was a kid growing up back in the ‘Hood, we lived on a sand road. The road, a big old horseshoe shaped thing, stretched for about a mile through the scrub woods. It connected at both ends to the same road,  just a stone’s throw and a skip or so from Tobacco Road. It was even more undeveloped than Tobacco Road, though – saw less traffic, was much less famous – was pretty much a nothing neighborhood in the sand hills; cut through the pine barrens and dotted with scrub oak and the occasional house and farm.

But that road was the life of the neighborhood – it connected everyone and everything. It led out of the hood (a forbidden area to us kids in the hood, until later on) – and it led in. It was lined by sandy ditches and it was a sandy road.

We used to stand in the rainstorms out in the sand – in the disappearing ditches (for they would disappear as they filled with sand – and in those ancient escarpments we would plunge our feet again and again – sinking down through the sand until we were up to our knees.

Our mom talks about that thing – how funny it would be to drive by and see this row of kids, all up to their knees in the sand – ‘standing’ on their knees. Of course we were all in bare feet – us boys wore nothing but underwear and cutoffs – not a stitch more; not out of comfort (though that was there) but out of necessity. Clothes were too precious to be tearing up; shoes were for indoors, not out. They were something to be put up for special occasions – like going to the store, or church. Nothing for everyday wear. That was too expensive.

And during those days – those dry days in the hood – the dirt clod wars would begin.

There was something special about that sand in the hood. With just enough ‘binder’ to hold things together, the sand clods would explode on impact into ‘smoke’ – sand and dust – showering their victim with sand. How many times did I show up when the dinner bell rang with my head full of sand – hair, nose, ears, eyes – everything – and covered from head to foot in a grimy layer of sweat soaked and dry caked dust – runnels of dust, layers of dust, with sand dibbling from my drawers . . . my ears . . . my hair – everything.

But those dirt clod wars were fun. We would get in the ditches (they were much deeper at the end of the hill) – and sheltering in them like trenches, we would lob dirt clods at one another.

Now there were several rules to this dirt clod war – and they were basically understood. (Those who did not understand them were taken aside and made to follow our own rules.) First: no rocks and things which could hurt you. Second: no throwing of dirt clods in someone’s face – you could blind them with sand and all. (It would be a bad thing if someone ran home crying and sobbing that someone had thrown a dirt clod in their face. All of us kids would have heard about this thing, and some of them – including us – would have been scolded, if not downright punished – whether guilty or not – and none of us wanted the parents to outlaw our dirt clod wars because they were so much fun . . . and because there was so little else to do. (Which might explain . . . well, never mind . . .)

Other than that, it was “game on” – all the time. A dirt clod war could break out any time you got two or more of us boys together. And they escalated from there on up. A boy, seeing two throwing dirt clods at one another, couldn’t resist picking one up and popping one himself. There’s a fulfilling sense of self-satisfaction in seeing one ‘blow up’ on someone’s back or head. (Head’s were allowed, as long as it was the back of them. And yes: accidents do happen. But no one complained – or rarely did, as we were careful as hell not to hit someone in the eye with one of those things.)

But dirt clods are friable – they are hard to carry around. It’s not like you can stick one in your pocket and walk around. All you’ll end up with is a pocket full of sand. And loading a bucket up with some doesn’t work as well; the dirt clods underneath begin disintegrating under the weight of their brethren; you just end up with a bucket of sand – with a few dirt clods floating around on top, like little ships of their own.

It’s kind of funny. We’d wear out all of the clouds in front of our house, as well as several others – and then we’d have to go down to the “real ditches” where clods were available full time. However, you had to be careful there. There were stones in those clods from when they formed the road, and some of them were made out of a very special kind of dirt. Down here in Georgia we call them “clay clods”. They are hard – they can get almost as hard as a brick (which makes sense, since bricks are made out of them) – and they could hurt you. Or actually someone else. And you didn’t want to do that because then they would begin to use those kinds of dirt clods on you. And you didn’t want to do that; go down that kind of road. That would have led to war – the very real kind, with kids using sticks as clubs and trying to kill one another. Yeah – we weren’t always kind.

But we would stand impatiently, waiting for the rain – staring up at the cloud puffed sky – in the loose sand beneath our feet. For when the rain would come we could sink up to our knees in the sand – and the next day the dirt clods would be there. Sugary crystals (though they certainly didn’t taste like sugar! I should know: I ate many of them – the hard way!) – all packed together in a layer you could skim and break up into many, many clods – or several great big ones.

The wars went on for years, off and on. It developed to the point to where we made a giant slingshot. And then things kinda got out of hand.

Using two of the mailboxes up by the road (and with the teenager’s encouragement and direction) – we rigged a slingshot – a big one. Taking an old bicycle inner tube, we strung it between the two mailbox posts and begin having a war over one of the houses. With that giant thing we found we could sling a dirt clod or two a long way – completely over the neighbor’s house and on into their back yard. And so the war began.

And it all went well – we spent a couple days at it, off and on between playing at something else – lobbing those big ol’ clay (sand wouldn’t work too well; it would fall apart on the way ‘up’) – clods over the house. Until someone noticed something.

There was sand all over everything. All over the house and cars. All over the fence. Huge clods (some of them weren’t breaking) all over the yard. And while we had found we could use the big slingshot for some of the sandier clods – most of them were filled with clay. And so when the neighbor would get mowing (not that they had much to mow; after all – everyone had basically a ‘sand’ yard) – he’d be hitting these big ‘dust clouds’ as he’d be mowing on.

So the parents had us put up the thing – no more slinging clods across the yard. Or the house. Or into the next door neighbor’s yard. And that was pretty much the end of it . . .

But –

I still enjoy a good dirt clod fight. Always have and always will, I suppose. It’s the Southern version of snowballs is the best I could explain it. And done right it can be so much fun.

Little kids – and little boys – playing in the sun; showers of sand – laughter – running, good times; the feel of sand beneath my feet; the cool water playing around my calves as my feet sank down through cool dirt –

Sometimes things were good.