This winter — which is much like the winters I remember from my youth — has set the media recalling great storms of the past, most often the Blizzard of 1978, which combined hurricane-force winds with a foot or more of snow.
And the recent spat of snow and sub-zero weather got me to thinking about some of the arctic adventures I had growing up. I wonder at what point it was exactly that winter went from being a season I eagerly awaited to one I wished I could avoid. Because when I was a kid, I thought winter was a blast.
I and my friends would play football after school and on the weekends. The snow just made it more fun, and showed how tough we were to be able to play under those conditions. Eventually football gave way to our own version of hockey, without skates, played on the icy street in front of our homes. We’d play until we were frozen and then play some more. We’d come back into the house for hot cocoa and to warm up for a while, then head out and do it again. We played under the streetlights until our parents made us come inside.
There wasn’t much sled riding close to my home, but my folks used to take me and my sister to visit their friends who lived near Cleveland Metroparks Bedford Reservation. There was a huge open hill near a wooded area behind their house. Back then my sister and I thought it had to be a mile long. In reality it still was at least half that length.
The best part of the hill was at the end. If you went straight ahead you’d slide into and across the (hopefully) frozen creek. But if you carefully steered your Flexible Flyer to the right, you’d come to a second hill and sled for another 1,000 feet or so. It was the most awesome sledding hill in the world, yet no one wanted to go down it more than a couple of times because it took forever to climb back up when you were done.
One particularly cold winter day a bunch of us walked to the hill with our sleds to rocket down the slope at light speed. I hadn’t taken the greatest care of my sled and had failed to dry it off before storing it after its last use. As a result, a small layer of rust had developed which, when mixed with the ice clogging the steering mechanism, effectively made steering impossible.
Oblivious to this, I got a running start, slamming myself chest-first onto the sled as it began its steep plummet, and sped down the hill like a torpedo in the snow. The frozen creek approached and I pulled on the handles of the sled, urging it to the right. It wouldn’t budge. The creek grew nearer and I pulled harder. No luck.
The sled shot across the creek and the woods on the other side loomed before me. I knew unless there was a miracle I was about to slam into a bunch of trees.
At that instant the thin ice atop the creek gave way and my sled came to a sudden halt as it slid sideways into the water. I felt the ice-cold liquid gush into my boots and soak through my leggins. Fortunately the water wasn’t deep and I was able to stumble out of the creek, dragging my sled behind.
I’d been saved but at that moment I’m not sure I would have called it a miracle. Especially by the time I got back to the top of the hill. My clothes had frozen and I wasn’t able to bend my knees. I walked stiff-legged like a robot, each step getting smaller than the previous, until I finally managed to make it back to the house.
When I walked in, my mom took one look at me, filled the bathtub with warm water and plunked me in it. While I was waiting for the feeling to come back into my hands, legs and feet, she handed me a shot of cherry vodka, which I downed in a second. (I was only 10 years old; today they’d probably lock my mom up.)
The combination of the shot and the bath got me feeling like myself again. But for some reason, my mom wouldn’t allow me to go back sled riding again.
You’d think I would have learned a lesson that day about respecting the snow, ice and cold, but if I did it never sank in.
By the time the Blizzard of ‘78 hit, I felt invulnerable in the winter and looked down upon those who feared to drive in snowstorms. That arrogance led to another adventure, one I’ll share in next week’s column.