A Wild Ride on a Runaway Slide

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When was a child, as soon as snow began to layer itself into a depth, my friends and I would hit the slopes for sliding.

The first thing we'd do is dress for the battle of the hill. Putting on clothes for sliding was like putting on armor. We'd strap on a breastplate of wool or down, slip thick gauntlets over our hands, push our feet into heavy sollerets of leather or rubber, and crown our heads with a heaume of fur.

Thus accoutered, we'd stride forthrightly (if squatly) up the back of the great white beast, dragging behind us a toboggan or sled or a plastic orange flyer with yellow nylon rope handles. Or, if there wasn't money for these things, a lunch tray or a slab of cardboard. Anything to grease the skids to the bottom.

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Sixth grade probably marked the last and best year of sliding in my life, because, as a 12-year-old, I could still be a kid. And I could be a kid at the top of his form, because the sixth-graders were the "big guys" in the elementary school.

Every kid in the neighborhood and for a radius of a half a mile would make for the nearest hill, and from a distance all one would see would be a slash of white, covered with dark moving dots. The crew I hung out with had a captain, a tall gawky boy named Albert who was a year or two older than we were. He went to a parochial school and had to wear a uniform, but in the evenings and on the weekends Albert would discard all that and organize us into activities.

When it came time for sliding, Albert would gather us together at my house, which sat closest to our favorite hill. We'd troop off, hauling one toboggan along with a motley fleet of sleds and plastic disks. Snacks were stuffed in our pockets. Our breath hung above us like cartoon balloons full of chatter in capital letters.

My house was perched on the edge of the second hole of the municipal golf course. The tee stood some 300 yards away down a straight fairway, at the foot of a hill capped by the rambling white clubhouse.

We took the country club road to the top, since walking through the snow down the fairway would have been work harder than we wanted to do.

But by the time we got there, kids swarmed everywhere. We did our runs, sharing our one toboggan with admirable ease because Albert kept the line moving and friction to a minimum.

After a few hours, we had become pretty thoroughly frozen. And, to be honest, it had gotten a little dull and annoying - having to dodge the two-year-olds who wandered into our flight paths or get around parents who dared to take their own hooting trip to the bottom.

ON the other side of the clubhouse, a much longer hill sloped downward, full of small moguls and a few copses of trees. The green for one of the back nine holes was at the bottom, and notched above the green 20 feet or so was a sand trap, its lips covered with unspoiled and never-touched-by-toboggan snow. Some people had made their way down. We could see their tracks, and right before the sand trap we could see the snow flung in all directions because someone had wiped out or bailed out just before he hit the takeoff. A perfect setup for the last run of the day.

Several of the gang had gone inside the clubhouse to get the free hot chocolate and use the bathroom, so four of us stood at the top of the hill, the tether of our toboggan in Albert's hand. We mapped our route, making a daring sweep near a tree (Albert planning for us how we'd have to lean to our right to catch the curve) and then heading for the trap, with the purpose of clearing it to the green.

Bob got in first, hooking his feet into either side of the curved prow. Then Alan and I jumped on, and Albert last. Because of his height, Albert could look over our heads and yell out instructions. With two good lurches we topped the rise and started down.

As soon as we nosed downward we knew why no one had been working this hill: slick, slick, slick. The wind had shaved the snow down to ice, as if a Zamboni had gone over it, and within two breaths we had lost all control of the toboggan. Bob pulled as hard as he could on the rope to lift the nose, but we could barely hear Albert yelling behind us as the limber slab of wood headed for its own destiny.

Peeking out from behind Alan's shoulder, I saw the tree we had plotted coming up, and I felt Albert's hands lean me to the right. I did the same to Alan, who did the same to Bob, and we all canted on our right haunch as heavily as our young bodies could. We felt the toboggan catch its edge and pull to the right. The tree dropped behind us, a black smear in our tearing eyes.

As we flew toward the sand trap, I remember having distinct impressions. There was the peaty smell of Alan's wool coat as I pressed my face against it to get out of the wind's paring coldness. There were the knobs of Alan's spine against my cheek. And of course there was the thin, splintered edge of the toboggan: our stationed, frightened bodies on one side and the blurred maw of the snow on the other, inches from fusion. I could feel Albert's spindly grip on my shoulders, as if they were the cross ribs of a steering wheel.

We had picked up a good head of steam, and the course correction we had laid in to avoid the tree had pointed us exactly toward the trap. If there had been the chance to bail out before now, that chance had disappeared like the ripped froth of our breaths. Physics had committed us.

We all hunkered into each other, streamlining ourselves, bracing our bodies, except for poor Bob, who, as we found out later, couldn't see a thing because of the spume curling over the toboggan and icing his face. We waited.

We hit. Bob had pulled up the nose at the last moment, which caused us all to lean back slightly and loosen our tight embrace. That unbalanced the toboggan ever so slightly, which caused it to hit the ramp tilted to an edge. Instead of continuing in a straight trajectory, Bob's leaning back had flipped the toboggan, and it dumped us deftly and directly toward the center of the earth.

THE creators of the course had dug the trap a good four feet deep, with the upper rim curved over like a frozen wave top and the opposite side cupped up to make any chip shots high and arching. The suddenly riderless toboggan smashed into the opposite side of the trap, doing an end-over and a one-and-a-half gainer to continue down the hill for another dozen yards or so. We, on the other hand, sprawled at the bottom of the trap.

Because the upper curve had provided a kind of lee, not much snow had cushioned the bottom of the trap. In fact, the sand hadn't frozen yet. I found myself face down in it, my cheek scraped and dirt in my mouth. Bob had done a complete flip and landed sitting upright, stunned, his coccyx destined to turn a bruised blue and green. Albert lay on his back, a long dark hyphen, staring up at the sky. The momentum had tossed Alan completely out of the trap (he had held onto the toboggan's side ropes). He hauled himself up, his face stricken and smiling at the same time.

Albert, being Albert, made the rounds, making sure we were all right, and we sat there gathering ourselves, coming slowly back into the present tense. We started laughing and laughing, as much excited as relieved. We simultaneously launched into our stories, outdoing one another, upping the details, massaging it all for its gloriousness, shaping the tale that would be told to everyone else: The Saga of the Sand Trap.

We trudged down the hill to get the toboggan (Bob walking gingerly) and then trudged back up the hill to gather the rest of the clan. We had had enough sliding for the day. We had a story we needed to tell.

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