As I walk the grounds of Forest Hill Park, a slight dusting of white sporadically covers the grass. The bare greenery and empty trails make it hard to imagine that 300 combatants engaged in an epic snowball fight here more than 40 years ago. There are hardly enough flakes to make a single quality snowball.
I’m here two days before Christmas, looking for clues about my father, Edmund. When he died suddenly in 2015, he left a treasure trove of maps, travel diaries and inspirational quotes. There were also a host of plans and artifacts from the 1973 and 1975 battles of Forest Hill.
Through the years, he’d told and retold the stories so many times they’d crystalized with other memories of family and friends. Flipping through family albums sparked tales about people’s jobs, how he knew them and their role in the Great Snowball Wars. Like so many things my dad did, the winter wars were big and expansive — so grand that they seemed to touch everyone.
Despite his small stature and round, wire-framed glasses, he’d occupy a room with an uncommon energy that mixed politics, philosophy, religion, ethics and storytelling. His banter was surpassed only by his passion for projects: a 20-person croquet tournament, a 365-mile bicycle trip with friends to Canada or a performance with his Hungarian folk dance group.
So as I sifted through his boxes and folders, they were filled with maps of Europe and Cleveland, high school essays, his 130-page college thesis, love letters from early relationships and sticky notes containing quotes from Socrates and David Byrne.
Another box contained diaries from his 15-country bicycle trip in 1979 that stretched from Portugal to Israel. Documents and plaques from his six years working in Lithuania as an adviser to the Ministry of Defense were stashed under his desk.
At the time of the snowball wars, my father was 22 and hadn’t yet collected many of these documents. Almost the same age I am now, he was working his way through college studying psychology and philosophy. In 1994, Edmund married Olga, and they raised my sister and I. Eight years later, he enlisted in the U.S. Army, became a logistics officer and eventually retired as a colonel.
What mattered in 1973, though, was the Great Snowball War.
From the box, I discover a bounty of intricate maps detailing layouts of the park, plans of attack and numbers assigned to each “attacker,” “elimination” or “defender” as a way to keep score.
Original invitations, written in medieval script, promoted the culminating Grand Ball on Dec. 29, 1973. Attendees were asked to dress appropriately: “Costumery shoulde be authentic, original and inspirationale.”
Handmade flags for each team — one with a skull and crossbones, another with a gold griffin — and neon green arm sashes with felt stars were tucked neatly in another box.
The idea for the wars was born between my father and his childhood best friend, Andre, who often collaborated with him on these elaborate schemes.
My father, who assumed the title “Field Marshal Erwin Von Duky,” commanded the Blue Alliance. Andre “Caesar” led the Green Alliance.
The objective was to capture the other army’s flag on certain corners of the park. Get hit with a snowball, and you were out of the game, required to wear one of the green arm sashes.
As I sifted through his keepsakes, I kept trying to reconcile this incredibly goofy, yet sophisticated event with the timeline of his life — and mine. I never got a chance to ask my dad’s advice about the choices he made or the direction he chose when he was my age. But I had these boxes filled with what he held dear.
It got me thinking about a quote by one of his favorite philosophers, Friedrich Nietzsche: “[Man] must organize the chaos within him by thinking back to his real needs.” He often shared it with me, whenever I felt a little lost — and here I was, adrift in his archives.
Yet I don’t think my dad’s main goal all those years ago was to organize the biggest snowball war in Cleveland (although, I would venture to say that he did). I don’t even think he did it because of some uber-sense of competition (after all, his team lost both years and he didn’t seem to mind).
Ultimately, I think he planned it for the same reason he planned all-night dance parties at his house, started a pingpong club in the basement of the Lithuanian American Citizens Club and hosted large-scale croquet matches at Edgewater Park. I think it’s the same reason he squeezed 12 whole, evergreen Christmas trees in his house in Fairview Park.
Like those stories of the Great Snowball Wars, my father often used to repeat Nietzsche’s quote to me. I never fully understood it, just like I never completely grasped those snowball wars.
Now as I lean on the edge of adulthood, I think about how my own mind is cluttered and chaotic, not quite sure which way to go or what turns to make. I wonder if my dad felt this way in his early 20s, deciding where to go, what to pursue, who to love.
While I remember him telling me about his ups and downs, he never told me how he coped with them.
But maybe he’d been telling me all along. Maybe these games defined the philosophy of his life afterward: Live each day as if it’s the last big snowball fight.