Friday, February 25, 2011

A Slippery Slope

The backyard this morning
It has happened again; winter has dug her icy talons into my life.  I awoke this morning to yet another fresh coating of snow.  It was only a week ago that I saw the ground again for the first time in nearly a month. I must admit, the artistry was magnificent.  It was hard to see just how beautiful it looked at first since I was up before dawn to shovel the walks at work.  However, as the sun rose and burned its way through the clouds, a true winter wonderland was revealed.  It was one of those wet snows that clings to each branch and twig and paints the tree trunks white.  Such storms are like shooting stars - shining brightly for a brief moment but destined to fade quickly away.  By noon, the temperature had already climbed above freezing, and the warmth of the sun caused the snow to lose its grip and begin tumbling in wet plops on the ground. In a couple days, the temperatures will once again climb into the 50’s and the snow will vanish just as quickly as it appeared. 

I have tired of shoveling snow and ice this winter.  It has felt like a never ending assault, and my nerves have finally cracked under the pressure.  But that is not to say that I don’t like snow; quite the contrary.  I have always loved snow, from my earliest memories of standing patiently as Mom dressed me in layers, pulled on my coat, struggled to get my wiggly fingers stuffed into gloves, and tugged on my boots, right up to recent years where a steady snow falling on a still night beckons me out into the darkness to go out for a walk. 

I love those quiet times where the only sounds are the crunch of my boots and the soft tapping of heavy flakes against my face and hat. But for sheer joy in the snow, I have to go back to pre-shoveling days.  In those early years, snow always held the promise of a day off school, although attending Indianapolis Public Schools meant that was a rare event.  For me snow was not measured by how much there was to remove, but by how easily it packed to make a snowman or a fort.  I can remember after a particularly heavy snow, hollowing out the pile pushed to the side of my neighbor’s drive, sliding in and watching my clothes steam in the warmth. Likewise, I recall how the bottom half of my jeans would always freeze, being stiff and frosted to the knees whenever I had been out playing.

I was not privileged to be born in a mountainous region.  Mid-westerners must travel long distances to ski, but we are well versed in sledding.  When you are young any hill will do.  In my first neighborhood, the properties on my side of the street were flat, but the neighbors on the opposite side lived on a gentle rise.  The goal was to find a neighbor who was not yet home from work and who had not cleared their drive, then you would hurry down and get in some quick sledding runs, making sure you didn’t shoot out into the street when a car was passing by.  Thankfully,  it was a dead end street, so cars were rare.

If you wanted to get a real thrill you had to talk your mom or dad into packing you into the car and heading to one of the hot spots nearby.  For us there were three potential sites- the local golf course, the hill behind School 77 or Ellenburger Park.  Ellenburger was by far my favorite with the tallest, steepest hill of all three.  It meant a little more work climbing to the top, but the trip down was reward enough.  There were three different paths you could take down the hill.  There was the straight forward, regular hill.  It was long and fast and was the most used part of the park.  Just to the side of this was an area where the ground formed a series of steps that were to a sledder what moguls are to a skier.  I fancied myself a highly skilled sledder, so this was my preferred route.  On the regular hill, I would traverse the course in the age old, belly down position.  For fun, we might stack two or three of us together, but invariably, the stack would lean, and we would all tumble halfway down.  But I had mastered the ability to stand on my sled and ride it like a surfboard, and that is how I would traverse my stepped course.  I’ve never been given to much confidence or cockiness, but I’ll admit, after riding this difficult stretch, I sort of looked down my nose at all the little kids struggling with their saucers on the big hill.  

Eventually, I began to imagine myself as some sort of alpine rescue worker, ready at a moment’s notice to hop on my board and save some poor unfortunate soul. One day I got just that chance.  This time the sledding was occurring on the third area of Ellenburger.  A little past the bumpy hill was the path that wound through the pine trees.  It was a little less steep, didn’t include the bumps but required turning, which limited its use.  With a Flexible Flyer and a little skill, one could easily traverse the path between the trees, but all the poor unfortunate kids with discs and toboggans were forever stuck on the big, open hill.  On this particular morning, I noticed a mother encouraging her young son to go down the wooded path.  I was frustrated because they were blocking “my path” so I sat back and watched and waited.  The boy was obviously very nervous about making the run, and he tearfully argued with his mother.  But she held firm and eventually was able to convince him to give it a try.  Reluctantly, he climbed aboard his sled and with a soft push from his mom, began his trip down.  I was waiting for him to hit a tree, but he surprised me and managed to make the turns and remained squarely on the path.  What neither he nor his mom had taken into account, however, was the fact that at the bottom of the hill were all the discarded Christmas trees from the neighborhood piled high for the upcoming bonfire for the 12th Night ceremonies. As the giant brush pile grew ever closer, the boy held his course and kept a firm grip on the sled.  I thought he would roll off or find some other way of stopping, but he just kept charging forward.  In amazement, I watched as he rammed full speed into the stack of trees, half his body disappearing into the pile.  He was stuck and immediately started calling for help.  Ah, my moment of glory had arrived.  I grabbed my sled, took a running start and dove down the hill holding the sled tight to my body.  I hit the ground with a breath jarring thud, but I already had good speed.  I angled across the hill towards the trapped boy, and just as I approached the trees, I rolled off allowing my sled to continue. I jumped to my feet and charged over to free the crying boy from his entrapment.  It wasn’t difficult, I only had to lift one or two trees before he and his sled were free, but it didn’t take anything away from the pride I felt in performing my first rescue.  I waited a moment or two for the thanks and praise that would surely be heaped upon me by the mother, but instead she just tip-toed her way down the hill and began another verbal assault on her son for not having avoided the tree pile.  It was as if I didn’t exist, so quietly I picked up the rope to my sled and plodded slowly away, my skills and heroism unacknowledged.

As I grew, so did my center of gravity and soon the surfboard style of sledding gave way to more traditional approaches.  Eventually, sledding stopped altogether for me until one night in high school when a few of my buddies invited me to join them for a late night sledding adventure. Our destination was a steep hill in the woods.  Sledding through trees is actually a very foolish proposition even in the daytime, but teenagers have not yet developed that part of the brain that registers fear or common sense.  (You can trust me on this, I’m a doctor!)  So one by one we headed off through the trees.  It wasn’t long before the crashes started.  Shoulders, heads, and fingers soon bore the marks of unexpected meetings with tree trunks.  I believe my friend Steve broke a finger and we questioned whether one of the other guys had hurt his collarbone.  After my first impact, I learned my lesson.  When I suspected I could not make the turn to avoid a tree I would simply roll off.  The sled would still hit the tree squarely, but I would at least be safe.  This plan worked fine until my coat snagged on a nail sticking out of the sled’s surface.  Instead of rolling off, I sort of pivoted around the nail and was turned perpendicular to the sled, but still on it.  The tree hit me squarely in the stomach, and I swear my head and knees met on the other side of the trunk.  The wind was knocked out of me, as well as the rest of my bravado.  We called it quits for the night and with the exception of one glorious weekend of sledding at our trailer at Raccoon Lake (that’s a story for another day,) I ended my sledding career.

Sledding with my son many years ago.
These days I pick my steps carefully on the snow.  I’ve taken more than a few tumbles this winter.  The old Flexible Flyer sat rusting in my parent’s basement for many years.  I don’t know what happened to it.  Perhaps my sister inherited it for her girls.  I limit myself to driving by our local sledding hills and watch the young ones having fun.  It is their time now, but there was once a time where I truly felt I was king of the hill.


  1. Oh Scott this was a wonderful deja vu! Isnt it funny to drive by now and see the mighty Hills we braved have somehow shrunk?
    As for that Momma~ Thank you for her. Im sure she meant too but got embarrassed for her son.
    I so loved sledding!
    When I went to Vincennes University, Ronnie Seats & I and a group of us would go down to Ski at Paoli Peaks. Oh what fun!
    Im amazed I didn't break any bones!

  2. Again, wonderful evocative writing, thank you.
    When I was a girl growing up on the west coast of Lancashire in a small fishing town, snow was unheard of. I don't recall ever seeing snow until I was older and we moved inland, and even then, never in any great amounts, so that schools closing, mayhem ensuing, people adopting the siege mentality and stocking up on essentials in the shops to the point where the shops have to limit customers to what they can buy (as happened here last December, in some areas), just didn't happen. Now I live in Norfolk, and we had snow from November into December and the occasional flurry in early January. This is a flat county, there is one slight mound at the entrance to the village and here the children were out sledding. It's a thrill I never had the chance to enjoy, and now too old and wobbly on the legs to even try.

  3. Maggie,
    You missed out on one of the great joys of life. In my opinion, all children should get to experience snow. Building a snowman, having a snowball fight and sledding were almost rites of passage. And when I was really young, Mom would sometimes treat us to snow ice cream. What a treat. Then there was the great blizzard of '78. The entire city was shut down for days. Even snow plows could not move at first. Sleds were used then to get groceries. My favorite memory of that storm is watching a line of people walking down what is usually a very busy street (that day barren of cars) and pulling their sleds behind them as they headed to the store. I was one of those people having been sent by my mother to buy powdered milk, since the real stuff was nowhere to be found. Good memories.

  4. Scott... this seems to be the only way to send a message to you, and has nothing to do with this post. First, thanks for your comment on mine, and I do hope you don't dry up! Your writing is such a wonderful breath of fresh air. There is a village called HEYDON in Norfolk. It is a few miles north of REEPHAM, which is a gorgeous village, full of REAL shops, by which I mean not chain stores, not one high street name there. The road to Heydon goes nowhere else, so it is a bit isolated in some respects, but such a charming place. It is one of only a handful of villages which is owned in its entirety by the family who live in the Manor House, in this case the Bulwer Long family. There is one shop, one pub, a smithy, a very beautiful church and typically English cottages around a village green. I researched it when I was doing a series of articles for a county magazine on villages like this, owned privately, and it is years since I went, but fond memories of photographing, sitting on the green picnicking, and then going to the library to grab books about the area to add to the research I got from my own bookshelves. Don't know if this Heydon has anything to do with yours... I know Horsham St. Faith, and Erpingham too. There is a house there where the owner has built a garden wall around the front of his house, made from everything except bricks it would seem... pots, pans, bits of machines, stones, dishes, plates, and it is a wonderful thing to see.
    Sorry, gone on a bit too much!

  5. Maggie,
    You make me want to hop on a plane now, fly to England and tour the Norfolk area. Years ago I wrote inquiring about the Heydon's and their property, and was then given information regarding the Manor House. It has been so long that I can not remember what I learned, but I do believe the Heydons were briefly associated with the manor house. It is beautiful from the outside, so I claimed it as the family manor in showing friends. I believe somewhere along the way that the Heydons were one of the few families outside the Queen who could tag swans on the Thames. Not sure if that is true or not, but it sounded very romantic to me. There are Heydon family members buried at Westminster Abby. How wonderful you researched this area. I hope someday to see it in person.