You can’t hide your sins under the snow

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My brothers and I were in our pre-teens. We weren’t really kids and we weren’t really teenagers. We were in that awkward place, caught somewhere in between. In that strange stage of life, we found ourselves curious about adult things that were of course prohibited because we were too young.

My parents hosted a “barn warming” party that fall, when they finally erected their new free-stall structure for the dairy cattle. They invited all the neighbors, barbecued a big bunch of meat and called in a band.

They also made sure to purchase plenty of beer (Budweiser and Miller Genuine Draft), which was cooled in unused cow tanks. Cans of pop also bobbed in the freezing water — we were allowed to have that, obviously not the other.

I remember my brothers and their friends trying to figure out how to steal a can of beer and sneak off, to drink it by the silage pile. They reasoned that it was dark, everyone was busy talking and dancing. But every time they went in for the forbidden beverage, their efforts were thwarted.

I don’t think anyone really wanted to drink an inaugural beer – it was more about the challenge and the condition of utter juvenile stupidity.

There was a lot of beer left over after the soiree. So Dad carried the cases down into the storm cellar.

“I won’t have to buy beer for a year,” he said, joking with my mother who said she told him so. “If we want a beer, all we have to do is run down into the cave, rather than drive all the way into town.”

I think that’s when my coming-of-age brothers realized the door of opportunity just opened.

“With so much beer down there, they’ll never miss a few,” my brother, Terry, said to Steve and me. “We just take a few now and again, no one will ever know.”

I still worried. They were determined to sneak some beers and embark on their teenage rebellion. And they were cutting me out of the plot — they knew I was too weak, they couldn’t trust me to properly keep the secret. As the days passed by, I’d catch them in whispered plans.

It turned to winter and it was a cold one. A couple of good snow storms made it perfect weather for sledding. My brothers and a neighbor kid said they were going to hit the hills.

That they went sledding wasn’t unusual. What was unusual is that they were gone for an incredible amount of time, despite the cold temperatures. And there was the fact that when the friend came back to the house, he headed straight for the bathroom where he stayed for a substantial amount of time. When my brothers arrived, they didn’t look so hot.

“What’s wrong with you guys?” I asked them, but they just mumbled they had to do calf chores.

Later that night, the brothers retreated to their room, didn’t say much, didn’t eat supper and avoided eye contact.

“You guys are acting weird,” I said from the doorway.

Terry whispered what I had already suspected. They smuggled some of that beer, stashed it in their coveralls and headed for the pasture. When they were a good distance from the farm, the three of them settled in as if they were old, seasoned men to drink the coveted hops.

He said he didn’t know how many they drank, just that they felt sick.

“Probably wasn’t a good idea,” he mumbled. “But we didn’t get caught.”

“What did you do with all the empty cans?” I immediately asked.

He assured me “no one will ever find the cans, where we put them.”

“Yeah, they’re gone,” Steve said from the bottom bunk. “Nobody will ever know. They’re so far inside the snow banks, nobody’ll ever see them.”

Life went on, it was business as usual. I did notice they spent a little more time in the confessional after catechism the next Wednesday. So did I — after all, I was harboring their secret.

We did our penance and moved on. We never spoke of it.

It snowed a lot that winter. I remember taking the younger kids out with their toboggans and never seeing an empty alcohol container.

March arrived and with it came welcome warm weather.

By April, the temps hit record marks and we could hear the water rushing through the gully. I loved that time of year — as the geese flew overhead and frostbite was no longer a threat. All things were good with the world.

Until the phone rang.

Mom told someone, “Oh, it couldn’t have been them!”

I heard yelling coming from the receiver as I stealthily moved in for effective eavesdropping. It was clearly my father, calling from the milk barn. And he was clearly not happy.

Turns out, he had actually noticed beer was missing from the cave and several cans had rolled into the middle of the floor.

That April morning, he got the answer to his lingering question. As he was herding the cattle into the holding pen, his keen eyes spied something sparkling from the top of a hill to the west. You know how farm dads are — if there’s a new set of tracks in the yard, they can tell the make, model, time of day the tracks were made and probably how many people were in the vehicle. They see it all.

And as his eyes scanned his domain, the sunlight caught the metal just right to get his attention. My dad was a hunter, so of course he had a pair of high-powered binoculars in his pickup. As he peered through the lenses, he confirmed what he had suspected. There, before his eyes, was a large pile of empty beer cans on the now-muddy hill.

Mom told the boys with high volume their father was waiting for them and they “better get running.”

I watched as they sprinted into the pasture, carrying garbage bags in their hands and their hearts in their throats. A few minutes later, I could see their tired souls walking up the other hill, to the milk barn where they were surely to learn the lesson of a lifetime.

Our hills were alive that morning — not with music, but rather the sound of my father’s bellowing reprimand.

And that afternoon, my dad moved all the beer out of the storm cellar to a secret location . . . one we never found because we were too scared to look.

Yes, a person can hide their wrong-doing for a while, but eventually all will be exposed. That was the spring we learned you can’t hide your sins under the snow.


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