Not so very long ago, my wife casually mentioned that she bought a sled. Since we don’t have any grandchildren and I haven’t delivered newspapers in almost fifty years, our need for a sled wasn’t immediately apparent. Maybe she was having a Rosebud moment, I thought.
“It’s a ‘found’ sled,” she said eagerly. Apparently this good fortune cost us a little over one hundred found dollars, not including shipping, so I didn’t immediately grasp the treasure hunting element of this. I can often be quite thickheaded this way.
“I want to put it on the porch as part of the Christmas decorations,” she explained. I had seen this done before, where someone will perch a sled up against something with a big red bow on the curved prow of the thing, as if Santa suddenly became too lazy to bring it inside. I went along with her plan because whatever she does always looks nice, as she often spends every waking minute of several days fussing with these things, and that includes being outside and barefoot in her pajamas in broad daylight when it’s thirty-four degrees.
When the box arrived, we opened it and took out the sled, which did indeed look found and in this case, found in Germany in 1940. At least that’s what the handwritten tag said and it did look as if it could be seventy-plus years old. It is most certainly older than the sled I had back in my wild sledding days of the 1960s, on a cold winter afternoon when I ripped open my upper lip and loosened two of my front teeth.
I grew up in Greece, New York, which is forty-three square miles of the flattest land on Earth. Anything remotely resembling a hill is most likely just leftover dirt from some sort of excavation or it’s top cover on an old landfill. Nobody is getting elevation nosebleeds in Greece, New York, that’s for sure. Of course, with any rule comes the exception.
Ridge Road is the major thoroughfare that cuts east to west through Greece, and as legend has it, the glaciers slowly formed the trail that would eventually become Ridge Road. This happened long before The Ridge was home to numerous shopping centers, car dealerships and a big canvas bubble where people can practice their golf swing year ‘round. As the glaciers furrowed out the future four-lane highway, a few hills and slopes were created. One such piece of land a little south of The Ridge was known as Suicide Hill. One could probably go anywhere, in any town, in any country and in whatever language was spoken; the phrase “suicide hill” would hold a childhood reverence unparalleled by nearly anything else.
Suicide Hill was never intended for sledding. Not by a long shot. It was absurdly steep, as if the devil himself had dreamed up the angle as a way to taunt gravity, but the main suicidal aspect of this hill was that it abruptly flattened out and immediately ended with a stand of stout hardwoods and a creek. A hurtling kid would have to roll off their sled at the last second or risk certain disfigurement or perhaps the dreaded soaker if they missed the narrow opening that led off to a rutted farm field. The only things missing from this scenario were wads of razor wire and explosives. Naturally, kids loved it and the danger element swelled by a factor of ten since there hasn’t been a sled made then or now that can be steered. The only thing guiding those sleds was fate and the wishful rudder-action of frozen toes beneath a thick pair of rubber galoshes.
Anyone who thinks a sled can be steered has never been on a sled, especially on one’s belly while hurtling face first down an icy hill, which was the only way any self-respecting boy rode a sled. In theory, the front crossbar could be nudged a little left or right which flexed the steel runners, which was supposed to guide the thing, but there was no physical reason why this should happen. This action made a sled steer with all of the spontaneity of a cruise ship. I suppose if the hill were a mile long, one could lazily steer a little bit providing there was no looming cliff edge to be considered, but Suicide Hill wasn’t a nicely groomed hill of any significant size. It took less than five seconds to get from the top to the bottom.
Since I wore glasses, sledding wasn’t the perfect situation for me because by the time I got my running start, tossed down the sled, flopped my body lengthwise on top of the sled, arched my neck back ninety degrees and started my micro-second run down the hill, my glasses had a polar crust so thick, they would need professional de-icing at an airport. I was flying blind and just begging for a tree to leap out and smash my nose clear through the back of my head. Miraculously, this never happened. Not on Suicide Hill anyway. No, my facial mishap happened on the bunny hill at West Ridge Elementary School.
This little knoll of a hill, a mere fart on the scale of mighty earthly peaks, was about fifteen feet tall, but it was a hill by definition that it wasn’t flat and it was a lot closer than Suicide Hill. It should be noted that parents never drove kids to sledding hills. We were adventurers, off on our own with our leggings, our boots, and our mittened paws holding a length of clothesline while dragging our sleds behind us.
I walked to West Ridge often with my friends, they with their aluminum flying saucers and me with my Flexible Flyer. Naturally, the flying saucers had been freshly waxed and were ready for all sorts of daring feats of swirling. Wax was crucial to the success of the flying saucer. If these were left unwaxed, they had to be nudged inch by crab-like inch down a hill, but once waxed, oh boy, let the fun begin. Of course they had no guidance system whatsoever, not even one as useless as the one on a sled.
We began whipping down the hill and as short as the run was, it was still fun. As children, our adult sense of fun versus the amount of time the fun took had not kicked in yet. Slide, sprint back up, slide again, and then repeat for hours. There isn’t an adult alive who would be satisfied with that sort of brevity.
On one fateful run down the hill, with my glasses frozen to the point where I may as well have been wearing a pair of kaleidoscopes, I didn’t see one of the saucer boys spin in front of me until it was too late. That’s when the sled and I went ass over teakettle and that’s when the rusty steel runner hit me square in the mouth. I knew something was wrong when I could wiggle my two front teeth with my tongue. I was also bleeding a lot. A group determination was made that this particular sledding day was over but had majority ruled the other way, I was game for a few more runs.
On the walk back home, I bit down on my frozen woolen mitten, which helped numb everything and it tasted wonderful. Honestly, is there anything tastier than frozen snow nuggets off a wool mitten? Maybe roof icicles, but that one is too close to call.
We walked the mile or so back home while my friends and I wondered if my parents would be mad. That was a kid’s biggest fear after getting hurt and I have no idea why this was the case because there was no evidence of this being true. It’s not as if my dad would get all annoyed and yell, “Damn it, Rick, did you lose your lip again? OK, go get the staple gun and we’ll have a look.”
My mom saw me coming up the front yard, and while my high tech mitten therapy slowed down the bleeding, I still looked as if I had been hit with shrapnel. Back in those days, we didn’t run up to the hospital and have shots and stitches and oral surgery. Vintage parents had some kind of secret medical degree that made them experts at kitchen triage. Mom had me gargle with salt water, dabbed on a little Mercurochrome with a Q-tip and then slapped a big sticky Band-Aid on my lip and that was that. The next day, my face was swollen but my teeth were still there. By the next weekend, I was back out on the hills none the worse for the adventure.
I have no idea what happened to my Flexible Flyer; I wish I had saved it, but isn’t that how it goes? We outgrow our childhood things and forget all about them until we’re older, but I thought about that Flexible Flyer as my wife fussed with her 1940 German sled. Somebody, someplace saved this thing and if the date is accurate, it survived a World War and the unsettled times that came after it. Some kid exactly like me would drag that sled out on a cold winter day and make the most out of what was in front of him and if he’s still around today, he probably has the scars to show for it.
I’m glad somebody found that sled and I’m glad we are now the caretakers of this tiny bit of history. There’s a little numbness that still remains in my lip from that afternoon fifty years ago that twinges when I look at our little found sled, but that’s a good thing. More often than not, it’s those unexpected memories that are the best ones, and if they tingle a little bit—well, sometimes that makes them even sweeter.