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Walking the Line

Jim Schepker

As he edged sideways along the wire fence, just inches above the recent snowfall, Chase was careful to keep his footing. A misstep to the ground below would betray his presence and then all would be lost.

It was the prep school’s annual snow initiation day. Chase and his classmates had begun hearing about this tradition soon after classes had commenced back in September. Each year, on the first snow day, the school’s freshmen were given a 20-minute head start. They could hide anywhere on the 40-acre campus, inside or out, but they could not leave the grounds.

When they were found by the upperclassmen, and they would be found, they were told, they would be dragged to the little lake below the dormitories, “pantsed”, rolled in the snow, and then thrown into the water. “And if the lake is frozen, we’ll chop a swimming hole for you,” the sophomores promised.

A lakeside bonfire would provide some quick relief, and then the captured freshmen would be herded to the dorms for a hot shower.

Chase had decided early on that he would have none of that humiliation. It was a cat-and-mouse game, and he could never, ever submit to mousehood.

So he conjured a plan that he did not share with any classmates. If he had, he knew their capture would mean coerced confessions, and then his betrayal.

And in hearing his classmates’ plans, yes, he knew they would be caught. They all came from comfortable homes where parents proudly paid full tuition. Kids of privilege, they had not yet learned to think things through.

One planned to hide on the floor of the back seat of a faculty member’s car, which was never locked. Another believed he would be safe behind the linens draped over the chapel’s marble altar. And another thought the perfect place would be inside a laundry cart, tucked beneath a mound of sheets.

Chase gave them all about ten minutes before they were found.

Earlier in the fall he had noted that a large white pine had collapsed along a fence line at a far corner of the campus. A path led that way and then off the property, through a narrow gate into a nearby neighborhood. After freeing several sheets and a pillow case from the laundry room, he had a plan and the materials needed for his great escape.

When that first snow fell on a late-December morning, about six inches blanketed the ground by the time the final class bell rang. As those fluffy flakes fell, electric tensions rose within the school’s classrooms and hallways. The Dean announced over the intercom that the snow initiation would commence sharply at 3:15 pm, and offered his best wishes for a “spirited and fun celebration.”

At his locker Chase layered on long johns, shirts and a wool parka. He slung the pillow case and bed sheets over his shoulder, and when the bell tower sounded the start of the hunt, he slipped out a back door and headed for that far corner of the campus, pounding his boots on the ground to leave deeply exaggerated prints in the snow to record his every shuffled step.

When he reached the wire fence bordering the campus, he continued through the gate to the neighborhood street, which had already been plowed. His tracks ended there on the blackened asphalt. To his eventual trackers it would look like someone had gone AWOL.

Then he retraced his path, tiptoeing precisely inside his earlier footprints. When he reached the thin wire fence, he slid his left foot, then his right, into its small rectangular openings and worked his way along it for about eighty feet, taking care not to disturb the snow caps that had settled on top of the cedar posts from which the fence was suspended. When he reached the fallen pine, he dropped down into its welcoming, skyward sweeping green limbs. There he spread out one of the sheets from his pack, then donned the pillow case, with holes cut for head and arms. He lay on the first sheet, and drew the second one over him, his cotton cocoon perfectly camouflaged.

After about twenty minutes, Chase heard voices. Three sophomores were trailing his earlier steps. They followed them through the fence opening and onto the street at its end. They returned a few minutes later, one of them shouting “We’ll get you freshman, and then you’re screwed!” And then a second voice: “And we will find you, asshole!”

Shivering at these words, Chase burrowed deeper into his balmy nest.

After about another hour, as dusk began its grey descent, Chase heard the bell tower signal the end of the hunt. He gathered up his sheets and headed back to the dorm.

When he arrived at the dining hall, he found his thirty-seven classmates already assembled there. They were all jovial, sipping hot chocolate and sharing excited storytelling. Upper classmen mingled among them, laughing and high-fiving his classmates as they made the rounds, an intermingling and camaraderie that Chase had never before beheld.

When Chase explained the details of his clever escape to his classmates and several hovering sophomores – the backtracking, the thin wire fence, the pine tree shelter – he was met with frozen stares. He was likely a liar – and certainly a traitor.

That night at dinner, cupcakes piled high with swirls of fluffy white frosting made the rounds. The dessert platter arrived last at Chase’s place, at the table’s end, bearing only a trail of scattered chocolate crumbs.

And so, as he pondered how his winning tactics had dealt him a losing hand, he began to see that this initiation rite had been just that – a revelation that the life ahead would be a complicated, confusing place.

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