Tough Sledding

Harry Drabik

Thinking about the forthcoming John Beargrease Race, I was reminded of an old friend who in melodic Swedish voice used to say, “We’ve got two seasons: winter and a couple months of tough sledding.” He’s gone (I miss the wonderful sound of his voice), and now that I’m the old one making sage comments on winter sledding, I have to wonder how vivid or meaningful the concept is these days when “sledding” means a gaudy plastic bauble come over from China. Those things, meant for sliding, aren’t sleds. The classic sled has two wooden runners, usually steel shod. In past times, northern people welcomed winter as the best time to move heavy loads. Look at books showing north woods logging. You’ll often see a pair of horses hitched to a logging sled (called a dray) with logs stacked so high the load looks impossibly unstable and far in excess of two-horse power. Ah, but that’s the value of sledding. It allowed the seeming impossible. Now that we’ve come to accept as standard and rely on diesel horsepower, we don’t as easily recognize the power of a mere two horses to move a great load along an iced track. There was a time, too, when roads weren’t plowed bare. Instead the snow was rolled to give a slick base of the sort you’d fly along to grandmother’s house in your one-horse sleigh.

It occurred to me that we’d not be wondering how ancient Egyptians moved stone blocks and piled them into pyramids if they lived in Norway, Finland, or Siberia for non-flying reindeer to cart blocks one, two, three. I could guess northern folk didn’t build pyramids like their distant southern relations because doing so wasn’t challenge enough. (I know some Scandinavians who’d readily agree to that suggestion.) I heard of a house mover (he just happens to be a northerner) who uses a warm-weather equivalent of an iced track. Soap: know how you can make a sticky drawer glide or a screw burrow home more easily with soap? Well, the same effect isn’t limited to little bitty things like drawer slides and screws. Soap on big skids with large loads does the same. I know people who like to think in terms of pyramids going up with extraterrestrial rays or the aid of magical Martians won’t think much of the soap suggestion. Soap’s a lot more mundane and unexciting than a Chariot of the Gods, but it’s a whole lot more available, too, so you decide.

My personal introduction to sledding came the winter I was ten, back when we lived in Chicago. Dad got me (it wasn’t new but supposedly a great big treat) a Flexible Flyer with a wooden platform body about the size of my trunk built on steel runners you were able to steer (in a theoretical way). Dad got me something! I was ten, so you bet I was pleased and excited to try it. Capped, mittened, jacketed, and galoshed, I waddled forward to conquer the frozen outdoors. Chicago is not hilly, so I was at a loss there. I had to follow Dad’s suggestion. Run a ways to get up speed and flop down on the flyer to fly along. Bundled as I was, it was difficult to move, much less run. I’d lumber forward, crash down, and grind a few inches to a halt. After five or six times, the thrill was gone. If Dad thought that was fun, I’d need to improve my acting skills to demonstrate agreement. During the time I owned it, I never found the right situation to use the Flex Flyer to full advantage. As toys went, Dad might as well have given me a curling stone in July. Thanks, Dad!

I don’t blame Dad. He meant well, as I did when parting with the Flyer in later teen years. I passed it to a child (dumb as brick as I’d been) of ten. My heart was full of generosity and magnanimity. In that situation you know the true value of each. But it was a good thing for another ten-year-old to cut his teeth trying to figure out how to make the Flyer fly. The most pleasure I got from the thing were belly bruises, which, as pleasures go, are not much to be enjoyed.

Looking back on the Flyer, I wonder if its name didn’t lead me into a false or misleading expectation of flight. I’ll come right out and say it. As a child I could be awfully literal. The Flyer said fly. That’s what I anticipated: flight, soaring with the birds. Literalness is a plague to children (and religion, too). Back in my Flex Flyer day, I heard another boy say he “jumped out” of his pajamas. I was stumped. My pajama top had a snug-fitting neck and tight elastic cuffs. The bottoms had a slim waist and ankle cuffs. How on earth could a person jump out of them? Was he an acrobat doing airborne somersaults that shed these close-fitting garments in a series of loops and dives? For me (how inadequate I felt), it took concerted effort to get those things off. I’d need a rest when finally extricated, and more than once got tripped up by a stubborn ankle cuff clinging and taking me down when I took a step. Getting those pajamas on wasn’t quick or easy either. The theory behind such sleepwear for the young might be to so tire the child putting them on that he or she will promptly conk out from the effort. It worked for me, who more than once gave up the battle before my head was worked out the neck hole. Childhood was exhausting, five-buckle galoshes especially so. Who had the idea to make those in children’s sizes? Had they any idea the frustration and chaos they created in cloak rooms? (And how many of you remember those?)