We don’t see those old steel-runner sleds being used anymore. How old must you be to remember Flexible Flyer and Speedway sleds you could steer as you flew down the hill? Fifty? Sixty? I’m not sure when those wonderful old sleds disappeared from use, but one can still buy them at yard sales, antique stores, or online for $100 to $400. Were you to buy one, it would only be for nostalgic display because there aren’t enough kids on those old sledding hills anymore to create the conditions necessary to use them.
Sledding was very popular in my suburban Boston neighborhood in the fifties and early sixties. I couldn’t wait for school to end — to get off the bus and run home, change into play clothes, and get to the hill with my sled. If I was the first one there after the season’s first snowfall, however, the sled wouldn’t work. Even if I took a running start and jumped on, the runners would sink through loose snow to the hard ground beneath. The sled would stop and I’d keep going off the front of the sled and get a face full of snow. I simply had to wait for the rest of the kids to arrive and they always would, some carrying those aluminum “flying saucers” with leather handles. Others would be pulling toboggans behind them, and both were needed to pack down the snow sufficiently for the steerable, steel-runner sleds like mine to work. When conditions were right, those were what everyone preferred.
They were made entirely of wood and steel, except for a clothesline rope to pull it — and no plastic. In those days, to say something was plastic was to denigrate it and it shattered in the cold. We wore what we called “ski pants” with shoulder straps under woolen coats. I don’t know what water-resistant material they were made from, but on cold days they made a high-pitched, scratchy sound with each step as we walked to our beloved sledding hill while pulling our sleds behind us.
Once the snow packed down enough the real fun began. There were jumps, and if conditions were fast there would be wipeouts. Some kids went belly-down and steered with their hands. Girls tended to sit and steer with their feet. The more daring would go down standing up — holding the pull rope as if it were a bridle and seldom made it to the bottom upright. Sometimes we’d form into trains by laying belly-down and hooking the toes of our boots into slots ahead of the steering bar on the sled behind. It was all good.
We would fly down and run back up all afternoon. Some of the little kids, and a fat one here and there, stayed at the bottom longer between runs — sitting on their sleds eating snow and watching. The rest of us were up and down, up and down, constantly. When it got dark, we walked home with red cheeks, with steam rising from our bodies, and smelling of wet wool.
Saturdays were crowded and there could be injuries when someone fell off and got hit by a sled coming up from behind. The front was all steel and could easily put a gash in someone’s head. The injured party would walk home accompanied by a sibling or friend, then to the local doctor’s office for stitches. They’d usually be back at it in a day or two.
The hardwood slats on top came loose sometimes, especially the center one that moved back and forth with steering. Fathers were all working so we would fix it ourselves. It was hard to find the right size screw so we’d force in a slightly larger one with a slotted screwdriver. That created burs straining to get it all the way in. Many pairs of ski pants got ripped on those burs because we didn't know enough to file them down.
|Parents outnumber kids at Fort Williams|
I don’t see kids sledding today the way we did. Maybe they’re inside playing video games, or maybe there just aren’t enough of them because families are smaller. There were eight in my family and we all went sledding when we got old enough. Every family had at least three or four, but not not anymore. I see kids sledding at Cape Elizabeth’s Fort Williams, which is not far from our South Portland house, but they’re with parents who usually outnumber them.
|It's pretty there though|
There were almost never any parents at our sledding hill. It was all kids all the time, and that felt good somehow. Older kids looked out for the younger ones, going down with a younger brother or sister on their laps and pulling them back up on the sled. We didn’t need parents there and didn’t want them either. The sledding hill was our domain.