Once the sun was fully up we would properly assess our surroundings and decide on our Snow Day activities. If it was a white out storm then we would beg for thirty minutes to an hour to be allowed to play outside in it “just a little bit”. If some last lingering strand of maternal instinctual protectiveness was left in our mother and we were refused or request to go outside then we would each claim a good heating vent and set up camp.
Our home was heated with a furnace in the basement that pushed hot air up through vents in the floor. By shutting off all of the other vents in the house we could get enough air pressure to inflate a bed sheet or light weight bedspread. Inside these mini sweat lodges we would camp out with a stack of books or, if you were the lucky one fast enough to get the vent with the view of the TV you could continue watching cartoons. A kids head sticking out of an inflated bedspread always looked like some sort of Medieval torture device.
Later, when we relied on a wood stove for heat, we would spread out blankets on the floor, lie down on one end and roll ourselves up. In front of the TV would be three lumpy human sized kid burritos.
More often than not the motherhood gene remained dormant and we were allowed to go out into the blinding arctic conditions and amuse ourselves.
Our house was located at the top of the tallest hill for hundreds of miles. It wasn’t a mountain by any means but when you’re in the plains it doesn‘t take much much to be the tallest. This should have made for perfect sled riding conditions. In reality it made for only eighty five percent perfect sledding conditions. Our long, straight street with it’s nine degree incline was conveniently free of traffic but inconveniently covered with limestone gravel.
Our sleds with red painted metal runners worked great on the road for the slim sliver of time between the packing of the first snow and the plowing of the street. When the conditions were perfect the sleds were impossible to steer and adventure came in trying not to hit one of the cars parked on the side of road.
Most of the time the conditions for sleds wasn’t perfect and the risk would come from a sudden stop when the runners hit a thin spot in the ice and struck gravel. This would send the rider sliding down the hill on his or her butt. It wasn’t fun but it didn’t stop us from trying over and over.
Two major events happened in the Winter of 1979 to make sliding down the hill a lot more fun. The first was I saw new sliding hardware I had never noticed before. On the way to school during a freezing rain I saw kids sliding down a hill. There wasn’t even snow on the ground yet and some how they were pulling it off. This feat was accomplished with the use of a red plastic vehicle about the size of half of a bathtub. A toboggan.
I don’t know how toboggans had evaded my attention for so long. I had seen them at the stores but never seemed to understand the versatility of that cheap piece of plastic. No metal runners to snag on rocks. Hell forget rocks we could run that on grass. All we needed was ice! I had to have one.
But my timing was off. My paper route job was paying about twelve dollars a month and it was too close to Christmas to ask my parents for anything that wasn’t necessary for survival. I would probably miss out on a least a month or two downhill action.
Or would I? The second change that year was the increased popularity of plastic coats. Before then our coats had always been wool, jersey or if you were and older rich kid, leather. The plastic coat was cheap, waterproof and came in a variety of colors. Even better for my purposes, if the coat had a hat attached it was really a soft toboggan you could wear.
A remarkably cold night in early December gave me the opportunity I needed to test my theory. We awoke to frost covered grass.
“Bubba” I yelled to the bed next to mine “Get your coat on, come on we’re going to go sleddin’”
I needed my little brother because my plastic coat didn’t have the built in hood and ,since I was experimenting, I had to use him. Moments later dressed and outside he was on his back on the modest slope of our front yard. He didn’t move. He lay there on his back like a corpse. I pushed him luge style like I had seen on the Olympics but he still went nowhere.
I was standing over him and blaming him for his inert behavior when he looked past me to the water tower that was on the lot next to our home. “Oh cool, look!” he said pointing.
The water tower was such a visual fixture in our lives we never really looked at it. It was only because he was on his back that he noticed that the tower had overflowed during the night. At some point during the freeze water had spouted from the top and over the sides of the great sphere at the top coating it in ice and leaving immense icicles several feet thick and twelve feet long in some cases.
We discovered the thin sheet of ice under the tower was too thin to do anything practical on but the overflow had created a run off between the backyards and the embankment separating the neighborhood from Interstate 10. Frost might not work for a personal toboggan but ice should.
The first try was a false start. After ten feet Bubba’s plastic hood folded under his back and turned him sideways. It was a good start though. Second run I had him hold the hood over his face with both hands. I aimed him headfirst down the hill and pushed. It worked this time and he took off down the hill like a rocket.
After Bubba passed the border of our yard the newly formed creek changed in characteristics. I guess at that point the water flow had slowed down some and the ice formed over tufts of grass and rocks making the sliding surface very bumpy. After a few significant hits to the head it as obvious my tobogganer wanted to stop.
The first method he tried was to drag his boots on the ice. This turned into dragging one boot after the left one flew off and followed him down the hill. This had almost zero effect on his velocity so the next tactic was to throw down his left arm and grasp at the grass. His right arm still grasping the hood of his coat.
One arm down when you’re a human toboggan isn’t a good stopping maneuver. It is, however, an excellent turning maneuver. He made a sharp right turn and in seconds was up and over the berm separating the yards from the highway. Either because the incline was steeper or the frost was thicker I don’t know he continued on his journey.
Interstate Ten was cut through the limestone bedrock that mad up our hill. From your car you would drive by and see a wall of rock topped by a sloping green hill. From our house you saw grass then a shelf of rock that dropped down to asphalt. Bubba only saw sky because he was still on his back.
He had given up trying to hold on to the hood and was grasping at grass with both hands as he reached the rock shelf. The rock stopped him but not until his head and shoulders where extended out over thin air. I yelled “Bubba!”
Our eyes met and for a split second I could see what was going through his head. He remembered falling twenty feet to concrete the last thing he saw before hitting the ground was me. He remembered getting bitten by a dog as I was running away. He remembered being convinced to put a spoon handle in an electric outlet. He remembered the incident with the dead cow.
He stood up and stomped past me, tears running down his face. “Bubba don’t tell you’ll get in trouble” I tried to convince him.
He turned and yelled at me through sobs “You’re” (sob) “ trying to kill me!”
I wasn’t trying to kill him. I knew I wasn’t. But I had to admit the evidence was piling up.