The Christmas Flyer
from The Christmas Flyer)
The week before Christmas day ticked slowly by. Being out of school for vacation was a sure sign that the season was settling in for good. The large bulk of the decorating, shopping, tree-trimming were done, so this week was filled with enjoyable tasks all directed at the holiday in some way; helping with last minute decorations, repairing the inevitable failed string of tree lights, scanning the TV schedule for coming Christmas specials or movies, or, as we closed on Christmas Eve, helping Mom in the kitchen with the preparation of yet another exotic recipe. These were wonderful tasks, work transformed into play, but the week was also punctuated with a dragging longing as we waited agonizingly for the day to arrive. Each morning of our holiday, I would open yet another paper door on the Advent calendar which was new three weeks ago. When I first started marking the days, I had to hunt through the jolly scene of a rotund Santa surrounded by little children dressed as elves, all loading a large, red sleigh. Now, I had the location of all the remaining paper doors memorized, including the big “24”. As I would swing open the door to reveal an angel, gingerbread man, lamb, or puppy, I would count the remaining doors to check how many more days there were to Christmas. This morning ritual was a guidepost for the remainder of the day. Every kid in my world knew how many days it was until Christmas and we all wished we could get there in a flash. But, of course, we had to mark time through the days, waiting. Mom and Dad tried to alleviate our Christmas angst by giving us even more holiday tasks to do but, eventually, our boiling points would be reached and the combination of pent up excitement and longing for Christmas to come would drive us into a frenzy. Mom and Dad knew then that it was time for a trip.
Traditional Christmas trips such as searching for a tree or visiting Santa were always planned into the holiday calendar. Energy expending trips were spontaneous. Two days after our vacation from school began, I guess Mom and Dad had had enough. Just after lunch, Dad hustled John and I into our winter clothes, then out to the Chrysler. As we piled into the front seat, we saw the sleds Dad had thrown into the back and we knew we were headed for the hill at Bethpage. Whenever there was snow on the ground the golf course in Bethpage would open its gates to anyone with a sled and the will to fly. The hill there was legendary, all the neighborhood kids had flown down it. Steep and long and not a tree in sight, it was as if a ski slope had been made available exclusively for sledding. Often there would be jumps; both intentional ones built by the big kids and unintentional ones created by the incessant pounding of the ceaseless stream of rocketing winter hardware. As Dad pulled into the parking lot and we grabbed the ropes of our sleds, we could hear the chatter in the bright afternoon from the top of the hill. There were a lot of kids with all manner of sleds - large, steam-bent toboggans with four to five kids heading for certain, unsteerable doom, little aluminum saucers with plastic handles, the Bethpage equivalent of a Mercury space capsule, with about the same amount of risk, all shapes and colors of plastic sleds, steerable or not, inner tubes, even heavy, steerable bob-sleds. We had tried some of these exotic vehicles in the past, but had returned again and again to the proven king of the slopes, the sled favored by most kids on the hill, the Flexible Flyer. John and I each towed one of these hardwood beauties, complete with war wounds from previous years.
If you have never spent a winter afternoon careening down a hill on a Flexible Flyer, buy the next one you see. I have spotted them new in stores, but the sleds your parents and grandparents piloted in their young days are still out there. It is far better to find a junk shop and hunt down an old classic with a weathered finish and burnt in model number on the underside, usually accompanied by a scratched in kid's name. The runners might need paint and the oak might need a coat of varnish, but I’ll wager the sled will work just fine. In fact, the old ones seem to take on a personality of that kid that scratched his name in the oak 20, 30, or 60 years ago and the classic machine will hunt the fastest, wildest ride for you. On slick steel runners with a levered oak steering bar there was, and is, no equal in racing down a hill. John and I and our friends each had one and, when we used these sleds on the local hills, we learned to pile three and four high on even the smallest sled, how to handle airborne jumps, and emergency ditch and steering maneuvers. So we were ready. I found a spot in the crowd at the top of the hill, looped the rope over the main oak slat, picked up my sled, left hand positioned on the steering bar, right hand on the opposite side oak rail, and started to run towards the crest of the hill. As I hit the rim, I leapt into the air, and landed right at the edge, face down and squarely on the sled. Just behind me, I heard the familiar oak clatter of another Flexible Flyer being belly-flopped and knew John was in tight formation right behind me. The hill stretched down, white, and away and the hard packed ice and snow buzzed off my raw steel runners as I picked up speed. I did as little steering as possible, but the hill was crowded and I had to lean left to avoid a lumbering plastic log that was ejecting passengers as it headed slowly downhill. Coming back on course, the spray stung my cheeks as I raced close by two kids strewn onto the hill. Halfway down, I had a clear run to the bottom and pointed the runners straight down hill, bouncing as I started gaining more speed, the wind roaring and knifing at my ears. I could see trouble ahead as the bottom of the hill sped up towards me. I knew the sled would wind out at the bottom but the more ponderous craft also on the hill were stopped dead and being dragged sideways 50 feet from where I would finish. Lining up where I thought a likely hole in the crowd would arrive at the same instant I did, I adjusted slightly right then burst through the walking line quickly past surprised shouts to finish the ride runner-deep in the virgin snow near the tree line. As I rolled off and stood up, John parked right next to me, beaming.
“What a ride!” he yelled, as he bounced off the sled, his neck and shoulders snow-speckled. “Did you see those kids crashing off that plastic thing, I almost ran one over. And how about this line of people at the bottom, you think they could get out of the way or something?” We continued to compare notes of the ride as up we merged with the trudging line for another go at the hill. We flew down and marched up the hill again and again as the afternoon sun moved low across the sky. As the snow started to deepen into blue and shadows from the trees lapped up the hill, Dad let us have one more ride, then helped us walk our sleds to the crest for the last time. We climbed into the front seat as Dad heaved the two snowy sleds into the back and pointed the bow of the Chrysler towards home, my flights down the slope singing in my head. Cold, exhausted, and content I was happy to pry my boots off in the kitchen as the hot chocolate steamed. John and I finished off the day docilely playing in the basement. The trip had worked and would help fortify us through the remaining, waiting days.
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