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Prime Time | Sue Bruns: The snowman that never was

The sun breaks through the winter clouds making the fresh snow gleam. I test the texture. Sticky. Good day to build a snowman.

I roll up a huge snowball until I can’t push it any farther. That’s where my snowman will stand. I add a midsection snowball and a snowball head, top it with a stocking cap, add small branches for arms and whatever I can find for facial features.

Sometimes my snowman lasts for several weeks, losing an occasional branch arm or pine cone eye, but weathering winter with a frozen smile.

I recall countless winter days, building snowmen with my kids, and before that with my brother and sister. For me the snowman has become a symbol, not just of winter, but of endurance and stoicism; and this symbolic significance, strangely enough, is because of a snowman that was never built.

When I was about 10 years old, my brother and I were home alone in St. Peter on a perfect winter day. Our parents and younger sister were visiting Grandma in New Ulm. Tom was 14 or 15 at the time and on crutches after having broken his leg. This was just one of many breaks in his youth; his diagnosis: “brittle bones” or osteogenesis imperfect.

Many of my childhood recollections involve Tom with one or another broken bone, an arm or leg in a cast, often laid up for weeks at a time. But as soon as he got the go-ahead to be on crutches, he’d be out and about.

A broken leg didn’t stop him from duck hunting one fall. He strapped garbage bags over the ends of his crutches and another over his cast, grabbed his gun, and hobbled across Uncle Jerry’s field to the slough, his favorite hunting spot. When a broken arm kept him from bowling one season, he learned to bowl with his opposite hand. When a bad break kept him laid up in bed, he learned to tie flies and made a sign that my dad put in our front yard, advertising “hand-tied flies and fishing rod mending” for a reasonable price.

On that perfect winter day when I was 10, however, Tom knew he couldn’t get outside with the cumbersome cast on his leg.

“Sue,” he said, “it’s such a perfect day. Why don’t you build a snowman and I’ll watch through the big front window.”

I ran to get my snowsuit and boots, but before I could get outside, I heard a loud BOOM from the living room. There on the floor was my brother. His crutch had caught on a small rug, throwing him off balance. He had fallen backward and, in trying to break his fall, broke his wrist. He sat on the floor, cradling the broken wrist in his other hand.

“Broke my wrist,” he said, rather matter-of-factly. I had never before dealt with the follow-up of a broken bone, and, when he asked me to call the ambulance, I became immediately useless and hysterical.

“Well, then, could you get me the phone?” he asked. I stretched the cord as far as it could reach and dialed the number. With the broken wrist now resting on his lap, he clutched the receiver in his good hand.

My brother had taken so many trips to the hospital that he was on a first name basis with the ambulance driver: “Yeah, Karl? This is Tom. I broke my wrist, and my folks are out of town for the afternoon. Can you come pick me up?”

With Karl on the way, I dialed Grandma’s number. Tom gave our parents the news that he’d be at the hospital when they got back.

After the two calls, Tom manipulated the broken wrist to realign the bone. The ambulance arrived and took him to the hospital. When the doctor examined the X-ray, he found that Tom had perfectly set his own broken bone.

I had always admired my big brother. In spite of the 4½-year difference in our age, we had many adventures together through the years – fishing for bullheads in Spring Lake, flying kites in the open field across the street, building forts and spook houses, exploring the cow pasture down the road, catching frogs in Uncle Jerry’s newly mown hay field — but it was on this particular winter day — when a snowman never got built — that my admiration turned into something nearer to hero worship, and the snowman became a symbol for perseverance and calm, even in the midst of a storm.

SUE BRUNS retired in 2010 as assistant principal at Bemidji High School after 35 years in education. She now supervises student teachers for Bemidji State University.