I really need to start throwing out a bunch of things. My unfinished basement is an inviting repository for such clutter as an eight-track tape deck, a 1969 issue of Life Magazine assuring us that Paul McCartney is indeed alive, and those essential spare parts for a car I got rid of 30 years ago. One item, however, will never be tossed. Right between the erector set and what looks like half of a file cabinet drawer proudly stands a Flexible Flyer. When I started riding this classic sled, it had been handed down from my sister, so my guess is that it’s been around for more than 75 years.
Like the kids of today, my friends and I would delight in those occasions when Mother Nature transformed a scheduled school day into a day in the snow. In those pre-Internet years, my family and I sat at the breakfast table and directed our attention to the radio as it broadcast a seemingly endless litany of school closings in the tri-state area. Through all my years of school and the 30 years of teaching that followed, it was always a thrill to hear one’s school mentioned and to know that we would have a “snow day.”
When I was in ninth grade, although winter didn’t grant us many extra school holidays, we received a generous helping of snow almost every Friday evening. It was during those evenings that I would meticulously prepare the old sled for my weekend adventure. First, I polished the runners with steel wool, following up with a thin application of 3-in-1 household oil. The next morning my friends and I forfeited the luxury of sleeping late; we each set the alarm so we could meet shortly after sunrise and head for our choice spot while the surface was unused and “still good.”
After a half-mile hike through the old Pettits’ Nursery, we climbed to the top of the trestle which carried the abandoned Vanderbilt Motor Parkway over the Long Island Railroad tracks. From the northwest corner of this overpass, a steep, serpentine path zigzagged around the trees and descended to a level area below. The momentum from the drop would usually be sufficient to move the sled an additional 40 feet over this docile portion of the ride.
As we almost coasted to a stop, we caught our breath and braced ourselves for the grand finale that was to follow.
I don’t think William Vanderbilt had our winter recreation in mind when he constructed his parkway through the area in 1909. However, when he needed to build an incline to raise the road to a level that would enable it to cross over the tracks, he obtained the necessary earth by excavating a huge pit at the end of East Second Street. Shortly before the sled came to a complete stop, it would cross over the edge of this sand pit and take a steep plunge to the bottom. The entire ride lasted about 45 seconds, and it was worth the five-minute climb back to the top for each repeat performance.
On one occasion, I lost all directional and stopping control along an icy portion of the trail. Seconds before encountering a large tree, I chose to roll off. The damage to the front of the sled still remains, a grim reminder of what could have been my skull. In those years, helmets were only for football.
A couple of hours of sledding usually wore the usefulness out of our trail. By then, we were all soaked, cold and exhausted anyway. When I returned home, my parents greeted me with a hearty breakfast and a shovel.
Today, my enthusiasm for winter has not changed. Since I’m retired, every day is essentially a “snow day.” Although I can understand why my contemporaries have a yearning for warmer latitudes, I still enjoy a good dumping of the white stuff. The old Flexible Flyer that zipped around those trees during the 1950s has also retired to a more relaxed form of winter transport. When conditions permit, I dust it off and put it to use. If there’s no snow in the forecast, I guess I can clean my basement.