The only problem with our sledding hill was that it wasn’t long enough. In an eight-year-old’s complicated equation of thrill versus effort, the long walks in the cold to the top of our hill were never quite justified by the disappointingly gentle ride down –– especially if your sled happened to tip over at the bottom, leaving you with a lick of winter on your face and a shovelful of snow up your sleeve.
But disappointment was the furthest thing from our minds every year when, after the first storm of winter, we set out to conquer that hill. We in this case was my cousin Bones and I, both of us ear-muffed and rubber-booted, bundled in snowsuits, our faces covered in scarves or, better yet, ski masks fitted over our heads with the narrowest of peep holes for seeing and breathing. Just getting into those outfits could be a 30-minute process –– and Lord help the boy who didn’t pee before putting on his gear. Once we were all covered up, though, we happily set out with our sleds and toboggans, our moms waving in the window, on a slow trudge to the slope.
I am talking now about a time when kids had sleds, real sleds, not those cheesy, molded plastic butt protectors they sell in the stores today. And toboggans, real toboggans, with curled up fronts, and tied down pads, and ropes along the sides to slip your mittens under.
I am talking about the sleds Mr. Johnson put out every December in the front window of his sporting goods store to entice us when our moms brought us in to size up at the used skate exchange. The rows of Flexible Flyers, displayed in ascending heights from the littlest bomber to the 5’ tandem, The Lightning Guiders and The Airline Racers, with their sleek wooden slats varnished to a shiny finish and riveted onto the red metal blades.
To find one of those sleds under the Christmas tree was heaven on earth in Wisconsin. The only thing better was a fresh fallen snow on which to test it. When we went to our hill, we never knew in what kind of condition we would find it. We could only hope that when we got there, there would be ten inches of pure powder, untouched by any other sleds, a virgin white caftan of a hill, lying there waiting for one of us to make the first cut.
The first cut was the most important. For some kids, the first snowfall is a time to build snowmen and forts. For us, it was a chance to be trailblazers, cutting the path that others would use for the rest of the winter. So we had to choose carefully the steepest, straightest and fastest route. We climbed aboard the toboggan and inched our way up toward the precipice, jerking our rumps forward until the balance of our weight took us over the top and down we went . . . all of about 20 feet.
“Let’s do it again,” Bones said. “We just have to groove it.” So we scampered back to the top and slid down the same path, stretching our 20 feet into 40, then 80, then 120. We worked most of the morning building that path, sliding one after the other down the same groove. As the path began to take shape, we started banking the turns. We packed snow up the sides like one of those luge runs. Then we tried it again.
It was not enough just to reach the bottom and walk back up. As the path became slicker, and the run lengthened out, we realized that just beyond the woods there was another slope that might take us all the way to the creek. All we needed was a little more speed –– and determination.
I’m not sure at what point our sledding turned into an Olympic event. It wasn’t that first morning, for cold surely drove us back inside. I’m inclined to think it happened over the course of two or three snows because my memory of that hill, as I look back on it now, is of many ramps and jumps and saucer trails and iced down paths (using water we carried over in buckets) that came together piecemeal from all the kids who used it. I have memories of night sledding under a lone floodlight on a telephone poll. With our parents around, it was a family affair followed by hot chocolate and parents singing college songs while my father played banjo by the fire.
I remember my older sister in that pointy pink hood with the white fur outlining her face; and all of her high school friends coming over, horning in on our private path, hitting the turns with such force the banks crumbled: FOOLING AROUND and gouging up the trail with their boots. The big show-offs! No sleds for them. They glided down the hill on just the soles of their boots and, of course, they fell tumbling into the snow WRECKING IT FOR EVERYONE ELSE. And you can bet I told my mom about that.
The day I remember best was a perfect day for sledding. An overnight storm had forced them to call off school, but a quick warming in the morning gave us all day to enjoy it. Bones and I went out for one last run on the hill. Because we had been bringing the path along all winter, the first runs were fast and slick. We extended out the path about as far as anyone ever had, and it wasn’t long before Bones took it to the crest of the second hill and on down toward the creek, setting a new all-time hill record.
Once a barrier, the second crest was now a milestone. With each successive run, we got closer to the iced over creek at the hill’s bottom. With the sun going down, and a new cold coming on, we raced up and down the hill trying to pick up that last little bit of speed we needed. I was at the top of the hill when I heard Bones shout, “We’re there.”
His head appeared over the top of the second hill. He walked with his sled under his arm in the high-stepping swagger of an eight-year-old who’d just conquered the world. All those many runs and we’d finally made it. The creek.
“Stay put, I’m coming,” I called back. I reared back and threw my sled onto the hill, diving at the last minute to land with my hands on the controls.
The first hill was easy. I’d done it a thousand times. In the long glide to the next, I could see Bones first ahead of me, then beside me, then behind me. I was barely crawling as I passed him. But I was still moving. So when I got over the top of the second hill, the sled started to regain speed and I knew I had a clear shot.
Those last few yards before the creek seemed to take forever. The sled blades were moving so slowly I could hear the snow crunch underneath. But I didn’t want to do anything to break the momentum. Finally, I came to rest dead even with the tips of my cousin’s track, not an inch ahead or behind.
The silence at the end of the journey was eerie. I lay on my sled without saying a word, then flipped over. I was looking up through the tree limbs at a grey sky. A slight flurry of snow was in the air. A broad grin broke across my face. Surely, this was the farthest anyone, even my oldest brother, had ever gone on that hill –– or ever would. My cousin and I had set a new hill record. But how would people know? By morning, our tracks would be covered over in a new snow.
“Hey, you coming?” It was my cousin Bones. He was standing over me slapping his mittens to stay warm. I stood my sled on its end, shook off the snow and we walked back up the hill together. A record and a tie. Could anything be better?
–– January 2005
Scott Jacobs is a reporter, documentary producer and author of five books. A native of Wisconsin, he started his journalistic career as a reporter for The Milwaukee Sentinel and went on to work for The Chicago Sun-Times. In 1976, he left the newspaper on a leave of absence to pursue video journalism, founding both the Center for New Television and IPA, The Editing House, a post-production facility for independent producers. His video work includes documentaries for PBS and A&E, a CD-Rom that won the first Clio Award for Interactive Advertising, and 20 short videos he recorded recently on the Chicago mayoral race using a Canon pocketcam. He is also the author of “Never Leave Your Block,” a story collection about his neighbors in Chicago’s Bucktown community, and, under the pseudonym Stump Connolly, three books about the presidential campaigns of 1996, 2004 and 2008.