My father told me many stories about growing up in Hamilton, Ontario, but I really only recall one, probably because it was so dramatic. He was born in 1895, so his stories date back to the dawn of the 20th century, when horse-drawn carriages were common, electric lights were rare, and human flight was a fantasy.
Hamilton is in a relatively flat area by Lake Ontario. The exception is a high escarpment running the length of the city. Hamilton Mountain, as it is called, towers 530 feet. A very steep and winding road – the Jolley Cut – links the two halves of the city.
My dad and his friends loved sledding. One day they decided to venture up the Jolley Cut to use it as the sledding slope to beat all sledding slopes. This particular day, the road was snow-packed and few carriages or other vehicles were out and about.
Starting at the top of the Jolley Cut, they pushed off. They began to pick up speed. Then more speed, and still more. By the time they hit the base of the hill they were going at an impressive clip.
The bottom of the hill was where the road entered the city – and crossed a street. Just as they were about to rocket across that intersection, another vehicle appeared on the cross street.
It was a horse-drawn fire engine, going full-tilt on its way to a fire, with smoke and embers spewing out of the boiler’s smokestack. Bells clanged. Hooves thrashed. No way could it stop. The boys on the sled were in no position to stop, either. Both parties were destined to meet in the middle.
Clutching desperately to the sled, my father and his pals flew into the intersection. The three large, white stallions pulling the fire wagon reared up on their hind legs in panic, and the sled with the boys on it zipped just beneath the horses’ hooves. No one was hit, and neither party looked back as they continued on their respective urgent journeys.
I don’t know if my father and his friends ever sledded down the Jolley Cut again. But we never tired of hearing Dad tell this story.
Fast-forward 60 years: My father had grown up, married, moved to the United States, and had three children. Brother Jim and I, and our friend Melvin, from up the road, spent a lot of time seeking adventures together. Melvin and Jim were in the same grade and played sports together. I was a couple of years younger and tagged along, usually as a one-man support crew.
One winter we happened on a metal saucer-shaped Coca-Cola sign from an abandoned gas station. It was about four feet in diameter and had two brackets on the concave side that could serve as handholds. Its immediate purpose was obvious to us: We’d found the perfect sled.
We proceeded from slope to slope. The sled was amazingly fast! Frighteningly fast, in fact, especially as there was no way to steer or stop it. One of us had to steady it while another one jumped in – and was off like a flash!
It was great fun on ditches and ravines in the neighborhood, but the ride was always over too fast. We needed a longer, more dramatic slope.
We (well, Jim and Melvin) decided on the large hill across the highway from our house. The power company had recently strung high-tension power lines up the hill and had clearcut the trees on either side of the towers all the way to the bottom. Now that was a hill we could really enjoy!
Off Jim and Melvin went, wrestling the sled up the hill. I was stationed below for some reason, perhaps to congratulate sled and rider when they reached the bottom. I stood a safe distance across the road, watching them as they struggled up the hill.
I should talk a bit about that road. It’s a state highway, a main artery out of town. The fact that it runs directly across the base of the hill was an issue that escaped us at the time.
Jim and Melvin made it only halfway up the hill before they became exhausted and decided to start from where they were. Jim was the appointed rider, and Melvin the holder.
As soon as Jim got on the sled, he was off like a shot with Melvin, for some reason, falling facedown in the snow. I saw a blur streaking down the hill. Then, just a split second later, I saw the rider abandon his craft and tumble into the snow. The sled continued alone. When it had almost reached the bottom, it hit a stump and flew into the air, becoming a flying saucer. Its trajectory took it right over the highway at a height of maybe 12 feet.
Suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, a tractor-trailer came barreling down the highway. I watched the flying sled hover, as if in slow motion, a moment in front of the truck and then sail gracefully onto a field across the road. The driver of the truck didn’t stop – not that he could have. He may have given the brakes a startled tap.
We all stood in silent amazement and gratitude. The sign was reluctantly retired as a sled, and the following summer I used it as a pond to raise three baby ducks. It was an ignominious end for an awesome sled, but our father would have been proud – had he ever found out