Recent cold temperatures and the unusual snowfall that blanketed the south, reminded me of childhood winter adventures–one in particular–and a departed, old friend. Although the story is a tad lengthy, enjoy. And thanks for stopping by.
Creating a family chronicle was a favorite pastime of my parents. Not too much was written, but they did compile a collection of photographs, slides, and, in the early years, 8mm movies. The montage of stills and cinema was the only way I got to know my departed sister.
Many of the films presented Christmases past. The Christmas, 1942 celluloid caught my eye. There it was––THE SLED. Brand spanking new, four-foot long, with bright red runners that supported varnished oak slats. The name Winterland Express was emblazoned in black script down the middle board. Crimson stripes decorated the other two. My mind immediately flashed back to childhood winters.
Most streets in our neighborhood were never plowed, salted, or sanded, which made auto travel difficult, but sledding terrific. By the time I began to participate, THE SLED’s varnished platform and bold lettering had faded to nondescript, weathered gray-brown. Ruby-painted runners reverted to dull steel, with hints of rust. Although our winter companion didn’t command much attention, it held a spirit and a legacy for winning that would never wane. No matter who piloted our battle-worn beauty, the competition always finished second.
Days before my tenth birthday, a heavy snow and below-freezing temperatures set in. A perfect glaze covered the low volume thoroughfares. One block from our house on Rambler Drive, Daisy Lane was primed for activity––a ski-jump-like incline that dropped several hundred feet, with no turning back. The place where dares were tossed like gauntlets and cowards revealed.
The evening of my ten-year celebration, my brother, Gene, had organized a sledding party and asked me to tag along. It was his birthday gift to me, and remains one of my most memorable. But before we could leave, Mom insisted we sit down for my special dinner at the dining room table. Because visions of me on THE SLED crowded my mind, I don’t recall the menu. I just remember the meal took too long to eat.
After gobbling the final crumb of birthday cake, I was excused. My mother ensured that I bundled up for the biting cold––long johns, under flannel-lined jeans, with two flannel shirts on top. Ladder-latch rubber galoshes encased my double-socked feet. A hooded parka enveloped my torso and head. Leather mittens completed the ensemble. I resembled a ginger-bread man, but I was ready. Gene waited by the front door. “C’mon, Mom, the guys are waiting.” Outside, propped against the house, THE SLED waited, too.
The walk to Daisy Lane seemed to take nearly as long as supper. The night was clear. The air nipped at my face. The moon wasn’t quite full, but porch lights on houses bordering our racecourse cast a welcome glow that illuminated the hill from top to bottom. The roadway gleamed, polished by spinning tires from vehicles that had attempted to crest the steep rise during the day. It was beautiful.
To “make sure it was safe,” Gene claimed the first ride on our winter comet and beat his friend to the bottom. After trudging back up the slope, he handed me THE SLED. After all, it was my birthday. “Okay, squirt, let’s see what you got.”
His pals laughed.
I stared, then grasped THE SLED’s side rails and stood it on end. Like a pro, I sighted my trajectory, glanced at my brother, then back toward the drop-off. The notion that, if I screwed up, I might collide with the stone bridge at the base or dump into the icy water of Gravois Creek flowing underneath made supper churn in my stomach. My heart pounded inside my overcoat. But it was time to prove myself with my first solo run on our veteran speed demon. I couldn’t back down. My eyes widened, then narrowed, like John Wayne sizing up the bad guys before taking them out.
I focused on the run––now or never––leveled the frosty flyer next to my body, then clip-clopped down the icy pavement in my over-sized boots. At the right moment, I thrust THE SLED in front of me and flopped on. Honed steel scraped the glazed street. Down the hill we slid, faster and faster. The bitter wind stung my eyes. Tears streamed and crystallized on my cheeks. My vision blurred, but it didn’t matter. THE SLED seemed to guide my hands on the steering bar.
I completed my initial run in style by pulling the tiller hard to the right. THE SLED and I skidded sideways and ground to a halt. What I’d wanted to take minutes had zoomed by in seconds. But witnessing THE SLED’s formidable swiftness firsthand was magical. Even the crusty-white coating that tingled my cheeks felt good. WOW! I had to do it again.
“Hey, that was cool. How’d you do that?” someone hollered from behind.
Still wallowing in the exhilaration, I didn’t immediately reply. Instead, I lay on the wooden slats and relived the thrill of unbridled acceleration and the frigid night air stinging my face. My first opportunity to pilot the family marvel alone and it was a doozy.
As if I’d been sledding and utilizing the tricky stop all of my ten years, I grinned at my opponent, then finally responded. “Oh it’s not hard. Just gotta cut the steering tight and lean in.”
I stood and hoisted THE SLED to my side. The trek to the top was slow and slippery. My mind clicked into slow motion as I relived each bump and the runners scraping the hard packed street––loud at first, then silenced by the wind as I sped through the frosty air. Frozen tears stung my cheeks once more. My wintery time-travel had turned house lights into a blur. The memories of my first run repeatedly danced in my brain as my feet plodded along.
“Hey, where you goin’?” my brother asked.
Still in a trance, I’d paced beyond the huddle of waiting racers, totally oblivious to their presence. “Uh, the wind was in my eyes. Didn’t see you guys.”
“Yeah, sure. Gimme the sled. Bob thinks he can beat me to the bottom.”
The outcome of that race was predictable. The exceptional evening on Daisy Lane continued as it had begun. Gene and I traded off, accepted each contest with confidence, and maintained an undefeated record. Once more THE SLED proved its superiority, but at a cost.
My last run chalked up another convincing victory. When I attempted to turn and grind to a powdery halt, however, the great racer didn’t respond. We crashed head-first into a snow bank––instead of the creek. Stunned by the impact, I lay still for a moment, then rolled to a sitting position and wiped the crust from my face.
My competitor laughed. “What’s wrong, lose your touch?”
I glared. “Still beat you, didn’t I?”
With championship status intact, my mishap seemed insignificant––until I picked up my steed. Curved steel awkwardly dangled from the frame. The inboard runner had snapped at the steering flex-point, unable to provide the stability necessary to perform my signature broad-slide. The sight horrified me, and filled me with shame. After all, it was common knowledge that he who useth an item whence it breaks is ALWAYS at fault. My brother reinforced that unwritten code after I pitifully trudged to the summit and displayed our dismembered veteran. The previously unnoticed chill that dominated the night suddenly reached my bones. The excitement was over. I would forever be remembered as the one responsible for THE SLED’s demise. I just wanted to retreat to my bed and hide.
Gene said it was my flaunting maneuver at the end of each run that caused the destruction. Of course, it didn’t seem to matter that he’d copied the move and performed it each time he raced. But status as the younger sibling handicapped me to bear the burden of guilt. Amidst jeering accusations and snowballs flung my direction, I shuffled home, dragging THE SLED, and feeling as wounded as the champion.
Once secure under the covers, I balanced mixed emotions. On one side, I’d spent a marvelous birthday on Daisy Lane. On the other, I was guilty of ruining THE SLED. How would I live that down? How could the stalwart ever be replaced? Next morning, the jumble of twisted blankets epitomized the emotional wrestling match I’d dealt with all night.
After Dad learned of the disaster––and before the snow melted––he inspected the damage, overlapped the break with a metal strap, and reattached the runner. The repair wasn’t like new, but the curved steel flexed right and left once more. Its bottom edge lined-up precisely. THE SLED was ready for a test run.
Because I was the unfortunate soul to be atop the speed demon when it broke, logic told me I should be the one to pilot its maiden voyage out of the shop. My brother ignored logic with his claim that seniority ruled. I observed from the sidelines.
In typical fashion, Gene and THE SLED whistled down Rambler Drive, then concluded with a sideslip finish. After three passes, it was finally my turn. As if glued to the platform, my body became one with THE SLED. We zipped down the street––as I knew we would. My eyes watered. My heart pounded with delight. In front of our house, I cut the steering hard to the right. The runners responded. Ice flew as we slid sideways and ground to a halt––just like the eventful night on Daisy Lane. I was forgiven.
As the years passed, snowfalls like the one on my tenth birthday became less common. Street maintenance in our subdivision improved. Because finding a good track became difficult at best, sledding no longer captured the same charm. THE SLED had served our family well for more than twenty winters before permanently retiring––its one and only defeat.
With my two sons, plastic toboggans and saucers replaced wooden slats and steel runners. I can still recall sharing powdery snow rides with my boys. Their toothy grins and intense giggling made those events unforgettable. But of all the winter rides I’ve ever taken, the most memorable remains that wonderful night on Daisy Lane, when I bonded with THE SLED.