I WAS beginning to think it was the year of the sled. I had noticed that the department stores and mail-order catalogues were featuring sleds, - sleds with railings for toddlers, sterling silver sleds for yuppie desk ornaments, bobsleds for jocks, and tiny golden sleds for a grandmother's charm bracelet. And so while I was sitting next to 12-year-old Paul at a gathering of family and friends, I wondered how he felt about sleds, living as he did in southern California. I didn't expect he'd have a real sled hanging in the garage, so I asked, ``Have you ever seen a sled on wheels?'' He gave me a blank stare, but I was remembering growing up in the northeast when a sled on wheels was brought to our neighborhood by two sisters from the southwest. It was no good in the snow, of course, but once the snow melted and spring came, you could still go sledding down hills just as you did in the wintertime. I hadn't thought about it in ages, and I wondered if anyone still had them in California.
``It was built like a real sled, it steered just the same, and you could sit on it or lie on it, as you pleased, and across the back of it was the same insignia as on a snow sled - the Flexible Flyer, only we called it the -'' and then I was interrupted by the boy's father and uncle who, overhearing my description, chimed in with gusto to identify `` - the Flexy!''
They had been brought up in California and now they, too, were remembering that toy which was evidently created to give snowless children the same kind of downhill thrill experienced in colder climates. I was interested to know that ``the Flexy'' was what everyone called it, not just the friends who introduced it to me more than 30 years ago.
The men began to tell the boy about this long-forgotten wonder of their youth. It was better, they said, than a skateboard, because you were close to the ground, almost hugging the pavement, rounding a dangerous corner. They remembered using it until the steering mechanism wore out. They speculated on why there were no Flexies in the southwest today. Was it because of the traffic? It would be very dangerous now to go out on a suburban street and try to ride face down past the traffic. Or was it because kids today prefer to stand on a skateboard, in order to emulate surfers? Whatever it was, the Flexies are no longer a part of the pleasures of youth, gone along with movie matinees and radio serials.
After leaving my friends that day, I realized another thing about the Flexy. It introduced me to feminism.
When the Johnson girls arrived in our neighborhood I had been yearning for companionship with someone of my own sex. I was growing up on a street where I was the only girl among nine boys. There were girl friends at school, of course, but it wasn't the same as having a neighbor who wanted to design and make dolls' clothes, manicure nails, experiment with hairstyles, take ballet lessons, or collect movie stars' pictures. Of course I could go to the beach with the boys, or exchange comic books, or draw charts of the constellations, but although I would sometimes play little cars with them, the boys would never play paper dolls with me. I began to feel I was only tolerated, and that the things girls liked to do weren't considered worthwhile.
However, when the sisters moved in, they were not only very different from the boys, but also from each other. One liked movies; the other liked to sew. I liked to do both. One collected perfume bottles; the other read voraciously. I did both. Suddenly I never lacked a girl friend, becoming a sort of go-between, as well as an instant authority on life in the northeast. Their mother would ask, ``What kind of pajamas do you wear in the winter? How heavy should a sweater be? Do you wear rubbers, boots, or galoshes?'' They had known only California and Arizona, and I loved to tell what they could look forward to in a northeast winter.
Telling them about their driveway was the best part. I had learned during the former owners' occupancy that their driveway was absolutely the best starting point for the longest, most exciting, most beautiful sledding in the neighborhood. You could get a fast start from in front of their garage door, then come down the small hill of our street, turn left at the corner and take a long smooth ride right into the woods four blocks away. There was a long climb back up the hill, but it was worth it.
There was a moment when I expected to hear them say they could hardly wait for snow to fall, but instead they said, ``We can do it now.'' They went into the garage and found the Flexy, whose wheels looked like those on a skooter, but whose steering mechanism was unmistakably ``sled,'' and I was instantly intrigued. I could hardly wait to try it, but they insisted on going first in order to show me how, and I watched for cars while they each took a turn.
By the time I rode the Flexy down the hill, the boys had stopped playing touch football and were lining the street, watching. I knew their palms were sweating to get hold of the handles of the steering wheel.
``What is it?'' they asked as they accompanied me walking back up the hill to the starting point, and I explained that the new girls called it a Flexy, and they had brought it with them from out west. Before this the boys hadn't shown any interest in meeting my new friends, but now they were lining up for rides on the Flexy. When the sisters announced that, since it was their toy, they got to make the rules, I remember the youngest boy crying out, ``Selfish!'' at the thought of having to take turns, as well as having to take instructions from a girl.
Suddenly we girls had power, and we quickly learned to use it. The Flexy became a neighborhood fixture, and there were Flexy Days, just as there were Playing Monopoly Days or Singing and Swinging in the Hammock Days, or Punchball Days, when all the children in the neighborhood played together, only on Flexy Days the girls got to make the rules and the boys grew to accept it because taking orders from a girl didn't really matter - just so long as you got your ride on the Flexy.
When the sisters and I outgrew the Flexy, it was handed over with much ceremony to my younger brother, who spent many happy Flexy days before passing it along to another boy in the neighborhood, and in fact it ultimately became the sole property of the little boy who had cried out in such despair at the shock of a girl owning such a wonderful contraption. I wish there had been a little girl in the neighborhood for him to give it to, but I was told that he played with it until it fell apart. That may have been only fitting, for the thing about the Flexy was always its universality - you could use it any time of the year, and anybody could use it. It was perhaps, in every way, the perfect Flexible Flyer. `FASTEST THING ON WHEELS'! The 1950s ads for the Flexy Racer proclaimed the toy as `A New and Thrilling Sensation in Rolling Motion' `For Every Boy and Girl' `Flashing speed ... thrilling turns ... Real Fun.' This year, the Flexible Flyer turns 100 years old. The company, now the Blazon Flexible Flyer, no longer sells the Flexy Racer, but they still build the wooden sleds with the familiar eagle emblem.