“The sled started with a bound, and they flew on through the dusk, gathering smoothness and speed as they went, with the hollow night opening out below them and the air singing by like an organ. Mattie sat perfectly still, but as they reached the bend at the foot of the hill, where the big elm thrust out a deadly elbow, he fancied she shrank a little closer.”
- Edith Wharton, Ethan Frome
Like Edith Wharton’s ill-fated lovers, I was charging down the hill in the dim light of dusk, but in my case, I was traveling alone and there were certainly no suicidal aspirations. The period, I believe, was the winter of my junior year in high school, and the location was the long winding road that led through our camp at Raccoon Lake. I’ve written many times about the halcyon days of my youth spent among the trees and hills surrounding this beloved lake in Parke County, Indiana. The campground was mainly a warm weather adventure, with the entrance road chained closed after October. For those who were brave enough to venture into the camp in winter, it was a quiet retreat with snow standing deep and untouched except for the scattered meandering tracks of the resident squirrels, raccoon, and deer that occasionally strolled through. That December was one of the rare times my parents decided to make the trek to enjoy such a private winter wonderland.
The snow was several inches deep, and as I’ve already stated, the camp road was closed for the season. So we took the county roads that created a sort of backdoor entrance to the camp. Although hilly, these roads were at least well traveled meaning that if they had not been plowed, they were at least well compacted. Dad turned off the county road and slowly eased the car into the deep powder which hid the path into the camp itself. Our trailer sat at the midpoint of a steep hill, and given its grade and the depth of the snow, it was obvious the old Chevy impala was not going to make it back up even if we were able to inch our way down to the trailer. It is what we had expected, and we had come prepared. We parked the car and unloaded the well-worn American Clipper sled that for years had carried my siblings and me over the hills of Ellenburger Park and the Pleasant Run golf course. To deliver our supply of clothes, food and water (which filled a few five gallon containers as well several rinsed gallon milk jugs) it would require a few trips up and down the hill. Mom, Dad and I formed a single file line, and with the loaded sled tagging along behind, we made our way down the treacherous hill to the trailer.
The end result of these repeated jaunts up and down the road was that we created a compact path from our car to the trailer. The sled, being on metal runners rather than a flat-bottomed toboggan, had not liked the deep, loose snow, but now that the path was well worn and compressed, I found it moved much more easily. It dawned on me that perhaps I could create sort of a bobsled style track on which to glide down the hill. The course still needed some work, so I spent the afternoon stomping down the snow to widen the path. I would work on a stretch then climb onto my sled and give it a try. In doing so, I was able to “feel out” the best route. The sled was not given to making sharp turns easily, so any change in direction had to be wide and sweeping. I began pushing and piling the snow to the outside of these turns to create a banked effect, serving to both aid in the turning but also to add some excitement to the ride itself. And so, in the shortened daylight of winter, it came to be that my “bobsled” track was completed just as the sun dipped below the lake leaving the camp in darkness. I broke for dinner, but I could not resist taking at least one run before bedtime.
It was a clear evening and the moon was near its full state, illuminating the surrounding woods with its silvery blue light. In fact, it was one of those evenings where the trees cast long shadows over the snowy ground. I climbed the long hill to the level area at the top of the camp where we had left the car. Sitting on the sled, I began advancing myself by using my mittened hands to “row” my way along until the ground started dropping off below me. Little by little the sled began picking up speed, and I assumed my piloting position by flattening my body to the faded wooden deck. I had done a good job of banking my turns, and the sled easily maneuvered through the sinuous path with very little input on my part. It was a fun ride, yet I knew that tomorrow would hold even more promise as the packed snow would freeze creating a fast, icy surface.
For the time being, I contented myself by lying back on the sled, tucking my arms behind my head and enjoying the stars. It was a calm evening, and the air felt deceptively warm. Having just read Ethan Frome in my high school English course, my mind drifted to my favorite section – the sledding scene. I pictured the two lovers barreling down a hill with the large elm looming before them. I wondered what it would be like to have a girl holding tight to me as we bounced and glided down the hill in the moonlight. Would anyone ever have enough passion for me that, like Mattie, they would rather die than be denied a relationship? They were silly, self-absorbed questions from a lonely high school student longing for his first girlfriend. I pushed the thoughts of girls out of my head and instead watched my breath rise above me. For a while I tried blowing “smoke” rings, but just like my success with girls, my ability to blow rings was sadly lacking. Finally, I started to feel the chill of the evening creep into my bones, so I retreated back to the warmth of the trailer and its pot-bellied stove.
The next day dawned clear and sunny - a perfect day for sledding. Again, I towed my trusty sled to the top of the hill and set it in the track. I made a preliminary run to test the speed of the course and how well my turns had firmed up overnight. The results were encouraging. So returning to the top of the hill, I prepared for a second run. Mimicking the bobsledders I had watched on Wide World of Sports (I don’t recall having seen the luge at that point in my life,) I bent over the sled and took a running start, belly flopping onto the sled at the last possible moment and hanging on for the exciting ride that followed. The path started straight before gently making a right hand turn. The hill became much steeper at this point, and my speed picked up noticeably. The trail now made a wide, sweeping curve arcing to the right, and at the apex of the bend the sled would bounce to the outside before being knocked back to the left by one of my bermed sides. Coming off the left side bank, the sled again settled into the middle of the path just as it reached the most radical turn of the course. The camp road formed a large figure eight, and this final turn was at the intersection of the two circles. The sled would sweep up and high on the left, and then with a hard pull on the steering mechanism, I would attempt to snap it hard to the right. It was a difficult turn to make, and often I failed. Because I had been so inconsistent in making this turn, and because I was never able to follow the same path twice, the actual sled run ended here in deep loose snow. It was a convenient spot since it was adjacent to our trailer and the deep snow acted as a braking area.
It was about this time that my parents appeared outside. My father, then in his late 50’s but still a boy at heart, took a keen interest in my sledding project. He watched me make a run then asked why I had stopped the path at the trailer. I explained the difficulty of the final turn and assured him I had tried several times, but could just never complete it. Dad looked at the sled then glanced up the hill and with a twinkle in his eye said, “I think I could make that turn.” I considered myself pretty good with a sled, and figured if anyone were to make the turn it would be me, but I also knew my father had an incredible knack for accomplishing whatever he set his mind to. So I handed dad the rope, and off he trudged up the hill.
Mom and I were standing by the porch of our trailer when we saw Dad coming through the wide arc of the upper path. Something caught my attention immediately. Rather than lying flat on the sled, Dad was on his hands and knees in a crouching position. He had evidently decided this unorthodox position would give him some unique advantage in coming through the turns, but I still don’t know what that was to be. Being larger than me, he had gained even more speed than my typical run and now he was entering the final, critical turn. With a grim look of determination, he turned the sled hard to the right and we watched him actually make it through the turn! This is where the plan went south, however. As I have already stated, I did not continue the packed path beyond our trailer. And has also been stated, the American Clipper did not perform well in deep, soft snow. So even though Dad had cleared the turn, the sled hit this soft powder and came to an immediate stop.
Any student of physics will recognize Newton’s first law of motion which basically states that a body in motion shall remain in motion unless acted upon by another force. My father’s unique riding position placed his center of gravity well above that of the sled, so when the sled suddenly stopped, my father’s momentum did not. The end result of this little physics demonstration was that my father’s body continued on with the same velocity at which he had been traveling at the end of the run. What happened next plays itself out in slow motion in my memory. The sled stuck in the snow, and Dad immediately went airborne. His body sort of straightened into the Superman pose as he continued through the air. I could almost swear he even stuck his arms forward like Superman, but I think that is my memory taking artistic license.
I leave my father suspended in midair for a moment to explain one additional part of the story. I mentioned earlier that we heated the porch area of the trailer with an old WWI pot-bellied stove. Earlier in the day someone had decided to clean out the ashbin, tossing the ashes into a pile in the middle of the snowy road. And that is precisely where the projectile that was my father’s body was headed. Dad did a perfect belly-flop right in the middle of this pile, sending a grey cloud rising from his impact as if it were a plane crashing. Like Clement Moore’s Christmas elf, when Dad stood up “his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot.” A big grin broke across his snow covered face revealing he was uninjured, but even before we had had those assurances, my mother had already burst into hysterical laughter. Women seem to be at their happiest when their husbands have nearly killed themselves or caused great bodily harm through some silly action. It happened three times in my parents’ lives. The first was before I was born when my father decided he could show my older brother and sister how to skateboard. As you might have guessed, the skateboard flew from under him sending his feet high in the air and him flying backwards onto his rump. The second time was this sledding adventure, and the third will be discussed shortly. Tears literally ran down my mother’s cheeks as she laughed uncontrollably. The only thing injured was Dad’s pride, and he admitted that perhaps he did not have the better approach to making the turn after all. And with that he turned over the reins of the sled to me once more.
The next morning dawned as beautiful as the day before, and I enjoyed a couple of early morning runs down the hill. However, when I brought the sled back to the trailer, I was inspired by something that caught my eye. Tucked away under the trailer was an old inner tube from a large tractor wheel. The giant tube was the source of much summer entertainment on the water. Large enough to hold several people, it became a floating platform for swimming. Three to four people could easily sit around its perimeter, and its elastic nature made it a great springboard to practice backwards dives and flips. On one memorable day it even became my opportunity to become acquainted with a very attractive young lady I had just met. Although dating a friend of mine (she was visiting the trailer next door without the boyfriend,) I took the opportunity to get to know her and spend an afternoon floating and talking in the warm lake water. But the days of swimming were months past, and now the tube sat unused. I had never gone tubing before, but this seemed to me the perfect opportunity to try. Knowing I would be unable to steer, the use of the road as a sledding course was out of the question. Instead, I would have to find an unobstructed hill where I would be free to go in any direction the tube chose, and where it could spin without putting me in danger of hitting a tree.
It occurred to me that the hill leading to the frozen lake might be the ideal spot to try. Raccoon Lake was a reservoir that served as flood control for the Wabash River. Consequently, in the winter months, they usually dropped the water level considerably in anticipation of spring flooding along the river. This meant that the cove that usually sat full of water in the summer was now just a small stream. The lake bottom was left exposed, and its long, sloping mudflats were now frozen and buried in snow. I went from trailer to trailer looking for a good launching point and found my target a few lots down the road. This area marked one of the steepest descents from the camp to the lake, as I well knew from repeatedly making the tiring climb from our boat to my uncle’s trailer that sat on the adjacent lot, but it was relatively free of trees, which is what I needed. It would make for a fast and exciting ride.
Mounting the tube was actually much trickier than I had imagined. There was a short drop off at the edge of the lot, which meant I had to get on my hands and knees and lay the inner tube on the hill below. Kneeling on level ground and pulling the tube in tight to the drop-off, I then had to launch myself into the air, grab the sides of the tube and hang on tight. The inner tube was so large, that it was easy to fall through the middle, so an accurate leap was critical. My riding pose was sort of a sprawled eagle position with my hands locked over the front edge and my feet over the rear. Surprisingly, the tube did not spin or turn very much, probably due to the diving start, but as expected the ride was a thriller.
The play of sunlight on snow eliminated any shadows which could have revealed the contour of the land. So what was unknown to me was that under the snow lay two minor drops. By themselves they would not have been much of an issue, but the problem was that the cold winter temperature had collapsed some of the air within the inner tube leaving it very soft and spongy. So with each drop, my body would also drop and compress the inner tube even more. As it sprang back to its original position, the rebound would launch me into the air. I could hang on with my hands but not my feet, so my body would literally rise off the tube and then fall back again to its surface. The key was landing straight, but often my body would come down off center or at an angle, preventing me from getting a good purchase on the inner tube. Just as my body would make contact with the tube and I would again try to grab its edges, the tube would hit the second dip, and the whole process would be repeated. If my body were already askew from the first bump, this second bounce was just too much, and I would tumble off into the deep snow and watch the tube glide on without me.
Once again the boy still residing within my dad reared his head, and he and Mom were soon standing next to me at the top of the hill. Just as he had done the day before when I was on the sled, Dad got a gleam in his eye and decided he was up to a ride himself. This ride seemed much riskier, so I carefully explained how to hop on and warned him of the two hazards that awaited below. Dad eased himself over the small drop-off that was my launching point, choosing to push off rather than make the flying start. His position was good as he quickly zipped away. All looked good until he hit the first bump. Just like me, he was sent flying into the air, and as he came down I knew he was in trouble. He hadn’t landed off center or at a precarious angle as expected, but rather his body came down on the forward edge of the tube just as it reached the second bump. Unfortunately, this awkward position left him even more vulnerable to the rebound effect of the second dip, and soon his body was airborne with his feet climbing high over his head. Rather than the belly flop of the prior day, this time Dad came down head first. He and the tube came to rest together with only his feet visible. His head was buried in the snow like an ostrich, and when he emerged to look up at us, his face was hidden behind a thick layer of snow, transforming him into a living, breathing snowman. He removed his glasses to reveal his eyes, the only recognizable part of his face. Just as she had done the other time Dad crashed while sledding, Mom collapsed into hysterical laughter. In fact, she was laughing so hard, she had to grab hold of a tree trunk to keep from falling down. Even years later, the mere mention of this experience would still send her into tearful fits of laughter. As for Dad, he emerged unscathed and made the long climb back to the top of the hill. Never taking himself seriously, he joined in the laughter, and that moment where the three of us stood laughing and wiping tears from our eyes was every bit as enjoyable as any of the tubing rides I had taken that day.
It is these rare and unexpected moments that I cherish most as I look back on my life. The sled was passed on to my sister who used it to pull her young daughter through the snow, or who hitched it to Punkin, her collie-shepherd mix to pull as a miniature sleigh. I can still picture them running down our snow-covered street, Punkin in the lead with Sheila, Karri and their pug, Jim II, chasing along behind. When the morning was over, Jim II sat panting with Karri on the sled as Punkin pulled them back home. Her daughter has since grown and built a family of her own. The sled now sits gathering dust in the rafters of her garage. The board that served as the “steering wheel” has been replaced, but I still recognize the faded, wooden deck and the popped nails that threatened to snag and tear our clothes all those many years ago. But more important than the sled are the memories it helped create, and thankfully, those still burn bright in my mind. Never again will I get the opportunity to make a late evening sled run down the hill at the lake, nor will I hear my mother’s laughter as she pictures Dad’s body being tossed into the snow. The years have slipped away as quickly as that old inner tube shot down that frosty hillside, and there have certainly been bumps along the way to throw me off balance. However, on clear winter nights, I still sometimes slip outside and look up at Orion, try to blow smoke rings at the stars and remember all the good times we shared as a family. And for that moment, I am frozen in time, a boy in winter, and life is good.