December 30, 2013
FLYING DOWNHILL – FLEXIBLY
MONTPELIER, VT – When you’re a little kid, waiting for certain wonderful events is almost unbearable – Christmas morning, a birthday, the last day of school. I especially remember Christmas morning. My parents were deaf, and the neighbors downstairs had reported that my sister and I were afoot during the night, playing in the living room. So my father, without telling us about it, hooked up an electric alarm switch to my bedroom door that, when I opened it, turned on a bright light in his bedroom. I’ve always felt there was just a touch of sadism in his delight at my astonishment at being caught. But never mind that. My sister and I got even, without meaning to, on Christmas mornings when, unable to sleep beyond four or five o’clock, we ventured out to wake our parents for the great event and found them already wide awake – and just a bit grumpy.
But none of that anticipation could even hold a candle to the thrill of good sliding snow. On my ninth Christmas on this earth, just after we’d moved to the green edge of Syracuse, New York (think lake-effect Snow Belt), I found a beautiful, brand-new Flexible Flyer leaning up against the living room wall beside the tree. Its shiny red-painted runners were slightly concave, presenting four edges to whatever they encountered; a fierce eagle with outstretched wings clasped six arrows and a banner with the words in an old-fashioned font, “Flexible Flyer”; and the handles up front, as advertised, flexed the runners promisingly this way and that for steering. My father had thoughtfully installed a length of clothesline in the predrilled holes for towing.
It would be pleasant to think that kids these days (an expression I hate to use because of its implied dissatisfaction with the quality of our progeny) know what a Flexible Flyer is, without the added explanation of “sled” or “coaster.” But it’s possible that the popularity of molded plastic sleds – far less expensive, far slower in most conditions, and far less controllable – has eclipsed its reputation as the ne plus ultra of the gravity-powered winter sliding devices.
Human beings aren’t alone in their delight in sliding down snowy hills. Otters do it, for hours at times; beavers use practical little slides they’ve molded into the mud beside their ponds; polar bears do it (though they don’t go back up for another run); and I’ve seen a pair of mountain sheep do it for no discernible purpose other than enjoyment. But human beings, in their apparent desire to destroy themselves having fun, have devised ever-faster ways to glide down hills. Some, like the toboggan, are obviously for romantic purposes; witness the fevered screaming, the hugging of the person ahead, and the tangled mass of snow-plastered couples at the end of the ride. Others, like the racing bobsled, are designed to test the limits of physics and human reflexes and nerve. The Flexible Flyer is the most fun any kid can have while hurtling toward certain death.
The Flyer was first designed, built, and patented by Samuel Leeds Allen in 1889. Till then, kids slid sitting down on a gooseneck sled: wooden with steel-shod runners and two steel horns sticking up in front like the necks and heads of geese. Or they belly-flopped on simple wooden sleds made of three pieces of wood. Remember “Rosebud”? Allen, who owned a farm equipment factory, developed the sled as something to keep his workers busy during the winter months when farm equipment sales languished. The sleds were great, but the marketing must have been weak; it took about 25 years for them to become popular. After that, they were the most desired of sleds.
Allen added recurves to the runner tails at some point, which presumably prevented the impalement of anyone who ran into them at all fast. The apparent safety of the design appealed to the parents who bought them, as did the flexible front end, which did really make the sleds a bit maneuverable. I couldn’t quite steer around the right-angle corner at the foot of Stinard Hill onto Gordon Avenue, but by dragging my right foot and skidding a bit, I could. The sled also did draft-horse duty during the war, hauling bags of coal up Geddes Hill from Peoples Coal Company.
For some reason my father bought me the Greyhound bus of Flexible Flyers. It wasn’t as sleek as the sleds of my friends, some of whom owned low-slung belly-floppers that they could run with and flop onto at speed. And it was heavier to pull back uphill. But once it got going, it overtook everything else on the hill; and when the sports car types got stuck in six inches of snow, my long-legged Flyer flew past. I never shouted, “Ha ha!” as I went by. It was a far greater insult to pretend not to notice.
Our hill was a large drumlin that rose right at the head of our street and held Woodland Reservoir near its top. The lake was surrounded by a chain-link fence, further protected during the war by a barbed wire fence a little farther out. I can’t imagine how many hours my pals and I spent on that hill, or the calories we burned, or the fitness we achieved just playing. We came home each afternoon flushed beet-red, our mittens soaked into shapelessness. We built a jump halfway down the hill and took some good flights off it – till one sled landed hard and splayed its runners out flat, and another dug in when it landed on its nose. Its rider shot forward when it stopped and lost a pretty good chunk of his chin when it hit the flat steel bar in front. He clapped his mitten over the wound and took off bleeding and bawling for home. We delivered his sled at the end of the day.
Happy days, long gone. I have no idea what ever happened to that old Flyer. I suppose my parents got rid of it after I’d been away from home a few years. Flexible Flyers are still made – in China now, and sold by a company in Maine. I like to think that somehow my old sled fell into good hands and was kept under shelter and dry. It could still, almost 70 years later, be flying down a hill somewhere with a kid living his life to the limit and half-afraid he’s about to lose it.