Owning a sled called the â€œRacerâ€ was a source of pride, but I planned to double that racer pedigree with some secret ways to make it go faster. After we gave him the sled at Christmas, we went out in the farm shop beside our garage. First, we took sandpaper, and ground off all the paint on the bottom of the runners. Next we took canning wax and gave the runner surface a thorough rub down. After that, there was nothing to do but wait on the first snow.
Running through the middle of Kidron is a winding creek called the North Fork. In fact, part of our store is built right over that creek.
South of town, that creek cuts a deep valley through the low hills around our little town. One side of that valley forms a popular sledding hill near the site of a nearby metropolis known as Jericho.
OK, I guess I have to honest. The â€œmetropolisâ€ of Jericho exists only on old plat maps from the 1800â€™s. Today, itâ€™s little more than two or three farm houses gathered around a crossroad along the North Fork.
Old timers can tell you where the Jericho flour mill used to stand. For the rest of us, Jericho is just the home of the best sledding hill around. Itâ€™s short enough that you can drag your sled up in less than five minutes. Itâ€™s long enough to give a thrilling ride.
The shape of the hill adds to the fun. A gentle decline for the first 30 feet or so, it suddenly drops off fast enough to make you feel like youâ€™re going straight off a cliff. With a running start, plunging over the crown at the edge of that sudden drop consistently produces a moment of pure terror that only the best roller coasters can duplicate.
That fast part of the hill lasts at least another 50 feet before it tails off to a shallow meadow that forms the floodplain of the North Fork. At the edge of creek on the far edge of the level flood plain is a barb wire fence. Of course, our sleds always stopped long before they reached the fence.
It seemed like our chance to get that first sled ride would never come, but eventually we got the snow we needed. Out in into the cold we headed with our Lehmanâ€™s Racer.
Matthew pulled his Racer to the top of the hill with a light step that getting your first sled always produces. It seemed that the other five kids who were on the hill stared with worshipful silence at the bright red metal and wood sled.
I, on the other hand, didnâ€™t attack with such a light step. I was struck by the fact that (unlike most things I remember from my childhood) Jerichoâ€™s sledding hill actually seemed to have grown bigger. By the time we got to the top, I was winded. And, from the top of the hill, the sense that it had somehow grown larger was even stronger. Iâ€™d been down the hill hundreds of times growing up, but looking out over the crown where the ground seems to drop like a cliff I felt my heart rise in my chest.
Of course, Matthew wanted to go first. I understood how he felt, but had misgivings about sending my first born child plunging down this suddenly frightening hill. Nonetheless, I gave in to his pleading. Not only that, but I gave him a good running start!
Down the first 30 feet he went, gradually building up speed. As he shot over the crown, he let out a startled â€œeek!â€ After that, we heard nothing but the scratching sound of those waxed runners screaming over the hard packed snow. When Matthew emerged from under the crown and shot out onto the meadow, I realized he was moving at a much faster clip than it seemed like the other sleds had been going.
In my memory, all the sledders were gathered at the top of the hill and stood in awed silence as he shot across that meadow toward the barb wire fence. There was a growing sense of dread as the sled drew nearer and nearer to the fence. With the snow on the ground, the bottom strand of wire seemed dangerously close to the ground.
â€œGet off, get off!â€ I yelled. But, Matthew clung to the sled like it was his lifeline. The Lehmanâ€™s Racer is steerable, but he kept it going arrow straight as if he was trying to draw a geometrically perfect perpendicular line up to the fence.
As he reached the fence, by now moving along at something close to walking speed, he had the sense to duck, pushing his face down against the steering bar of the sled. By then, he had long passed the point where the other sleds had packed down the snow. As he ducked to pass under the fence wire, a plume of white powder feathered over his head. The light powder was indeed piled high enough to allow only a few inches clearance to the bottom wire. But, now he was going through the snow, not over it.
Having cleared the fence safely, the sled plunged down into the creek ravine and disappeared from sight. The creek is only a few inches deep at that point, but that didnâ€™t stop me from imagining a horrific accident. I tore a sled from the hands of a startled young man standing beside me and tore down the hill after my son.
Of course, my sled stopped long short of the barbed wire fence and I had to run that last 20 feet. When I reached the edge of the ravine, I saw my son standing at the edge of the creek unhurt but dripping wet. The creek was covered with ice. The twin tracks made by his waxed and sanded runners ran out onto the ice, but in the center of the creek, they ended at the edge of a Matthew-shaped hole. Black water was bubbling slowly past the jagged-edged hole. At the downstream edge, I could still see the brown muddy water he had stirred up slipping silently away under the ice.
My son was fine. But hot cocoa and dry clothes now replaced sledding as the new desire of his 6-year-old heart.
And, thereâ€™s two simple morals to this story. First, sanding and waxing the runners of your Lehmanâ€™s Racer will make it go faster than you ever imagined. Second, donâ€™t sled down hills that have barbed wire fences, creeks or other obstructions. Even a steerable sled like the Lehmanâ€™s Racer relies on the ability of its rider to steer it!