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The Bigger Hills

July 5, 2009

The bigger hills are crowded with older kids and dubious judgment. At Riverside and Payson Park you’re on your own; watch your back, and the backs of your children as well. There is no sledding etiquette in force, and no apparent code of conduct. 

A mob will go at once, their tubes and red runners jostling and jockeying like runaway bumper cars down the hill at menacing speeds, and when they reach the bottom their riders turn around and trudge right back up, headfirst up the middle of the slope into the next wave, the next onslaught of sledders.  I saw child after child mowed down beneath some other child’s toboggan, sobbing, bloody-nosed, chip-toothed. It was a melee, a massacre masquerading as fun. Bodies were falling like the beach at Normandy on D-Day. Like a war movie, only the battle waged between children clad in puffy snowsuits, with pink cheeks and maniacal smiles and runny noses. To paraphrase General W.T. Sherman, sledding is hell. 

I was there with my daughter Lu. Recently turned seven, she had proven her bravery earlier in the year, seated by my side on a roller coaster ride at Busch Gardens in Tampa. This was an important rite of passage. She was done with the bunny slope. She wanted some real action. She wanted to live. 

The sleds in our garage were of the blue plastic roll variety, the worst sleds you can possibly own; kids on blue plastic rolls are the ones left behind, stuck at the top of the hill, shimmying their bottoms forward, hoping in vain for some downhill momentum when their friends with better, faster sleds have already reached the end of the run. Class division in the world of recreational sledders is marked by one’s equipment; kids with mutant, oversized tubes are the aristocracy of the slope. Kids with blue plastic rolls are the groundlings, the huddled masses. Kids with Flexible Flyers, the old classic, steel runner sleds, are embarrassed by their parents’ tendencies toward nostalgia. 

We needed an equipment upgrade, stat. We borrowed water tubes from our next door neighbor (they would do, wouldn’t they?), ensured their full and proper inflation with a bicycle pump, high-fived, knuckle-bumped, and headed off to conquer a big hill, bigger than any we’d ever run before. 

Our enthusiasm withered when we got to Payson Park and realized we weren’t the only ones to have this great idea. The crowd was imposing; hundreds of children and their parents, plus teenagers and adults without children too, a crush of people pressing forward, eager for their turn on the hill.  I was apprehensive. This looked overwhelming, more than a little dangerous, a place where small kids could easily get hurt. A quick scan of the families around us founded my fears. Here and there were children crying, their parents comforting them, administering aid and affection. There were just too many people on the hill, and none of them much concerned for the welfare of their fellow human beings, be they large or small. Lu could sense it too; she was suddenly quiet, circumspect. 

I asked her if she wanted to leave. “We can take the tubes to the Sugar Bowl,” I offered. There is a hollow back in the old cemetery behind our house, a natural depression untouched by gravestones. In winter it fills with snow and makes the perfect sledding spot for younger kids. The run is steep but not too long; it starts up on the ridge that runs along the basin from the north side to the south, a half-circle, like a smile. At the bottom end where the bowl spills back into the graveyard, the border is flanked by sturdy pines as old as the oldest resident there. 

There’s this thing I catch myself doing sometimes, this neurotic aspect of my personality obsessed with safety and fixated on all the possible ways a fun activity could end with tragic consequence.  Playing in the crashing waves at the beach? Look out for rip tide! Riding your bike along the sidewalk? Slow down at every driveway, or a car will back into you! Climbing trees? Don’t get me started!! All the fun things that kids like to do, just being a kid, seems rife with potential, life-threatening danger. 

The Sugar Bowl is not without its own dangers, though the perils are tempered by the manageable scale. The stand of pines, for instance, is unfortunately placed. Every run down the hill threatens to end abruptly, in a collision between body and tree trunk. I was there recently with my younger son Ike, and while we were sledding I noticed how frequently I was cautioning him, chiding him with warnings:

“Slow down!”

 “You’re too young for that jump.”

“Wait until I get to the bottom of the hill. I want to be sure you don’t hit the tree.”

“Watch out for the others.  Make sure they’ve cleared the way before you go.”

You’re such a damp rag, I thought to myself. Taking the fun out of everything. What must the other parents think of you? 

These are times when I worry I might be over-protective, but then I watch a series of near and true catastrophes unfolding: a mother, sliding down the hill on her daughter’s tube, narrowly misses one of the pines, having to roll off the tube mid-run to save herself; a boy sledding over a jump flies off of his sled (of course, because that’s what happens if you don’t know any better) and lands on his side so forcefully that he cries from the pain in his ribs, and his father must carry him to their car, presumably for a dash to the ER and an afternoon spent waiting for X-rays; and the most spectacular, most sickening collision of all, when a toddler, a little guy just barely walking, wanders away from his mom and dad and out into the middle of the Sugar Bowl, straight into the path of an oncoming freight train of sleds, three of them bearing a cargo of six sturdy teenage girls.  The boy looks to be pummeled, perhaps to oblivion – I honestly fear that he may die – when his mother bravely sprints across the frozen hillside and scoops him up.  She doesn’t fare so well herself, though.  She is knocked completely off her feet and, because she has her son in her arms she can’t stop herself from falling, she smacks her head on the cold, snow-packed ground. The boy is bawling, and the mother is acting like she has a concussion, and the girls are bleating their apologies (“OMG! Like, I’m so sorry!  Are you OK? Is he OK?!”). 

I suggested the Sugar Bowl to Lu as a matter of self-preservation. Yes, taking risk is an integral part of childhood; pushing beyond one’s boundaries, and succeeding in the push, builds confidence and promotes growth. I want my kids to take risks – just the right risks. Less riskier risks, if that makes sense.  The Sugar Bowl on its worst day is a hundred times safer than Payson at its best; fewer people, slower pace, higher degree of mindfulness, less carnage. I just don’t want to see my kids get hurt. I want to mitigate the danger.  I want them to learn the value and importance of a good defense, without having to suffer the scars that come from trial-and error experience.  But maybe I’m not doing them any favors. 

Lucy didn’t want to leave Payson Park that day. She’d been working up the courage to take on the big hill for who knows how long, and now the time had come. Here we were. This was it. We stayed in line and slowly moved our way to the front, to that moment when you’re there at the top of the hill and it’s your turn. You’re next. 

We sat in our borrowed tubes. I asked her if she wanted to hold hands, ride down together as a two-person train. “Sure,” she said, but she let go soon after our descent and drifted away from me. I lost sight of her as my tube began to spin, now hurtling backwards down the slope. Suddenly, without any warning at all, I hit a built-up mound of snow, a jump I hadn’t seen. My tube became a sort of catapult, flinging me forward with unusual and surprising force. I landed directly on top of my head, heard the discs in my neck crunch like a mouthful of Grape Nuts, and crumpled to a motionless heap.  Am I dead? I wondered.  Or just paralyzed? A quick inventory of arms and legs confirmed that the moving parts were still in working order. I was dazed but aware that the world was still going on around me; kids continued sledding, oblivious to my condition. I was aware that if I didn’t get up soon, a cluster of those kids would soon be running me over with their caravan of sleds. 

Climbing trees, riding bikes, swimming in the ocean, sledding down big hills, these are the things kids do, and adults too, if they can somehow manage to retain their sense for adventure and fun. These are just  a few of the activities that challenge us, stretch us; each time, we have a chance to go a little farther, a little faster until the day, if it ever comes, when we reach our limit and can’t be any better than we already are. Sometimes that limit never comes. One thing’s for sure, my kids will never reach the limit unless I let them go and discover it for themselves. 

I found Lucy toward the bottom of the run, heading back up the hill along the sidelines, the safe and sensible path. “I wasn’t worried,” she informed me. “I knew you wiped out.”

This story  (or essay, more accurately) was started on January 1st, 2008. Completed today, July 5th, 2009.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. Suzanne permalink
    July 7, 2009 9:05 am

    Congratulations, Sean. I loved both stories–laugh out loud funny and irreverent, but
    made me want to give the girls an extra good night kiss and just watch them sleep.

    Really looking forward to your next piece, or piece-in-progress.

    Thanks,
    Suzanne

  2. renee m bender permalink
    July 7, 2009 2:36 pm

    thanks for this, sean. it so precisely describes and normalizes the schizophrenia of my own safety consciousness/paranoia. i can tell that i am going to be a big fan of your blog. keep writing (and finishing!)

  3. Kathy Whitney permalink
    July 7, 2009 4:04 pm

    Sean, Great story, brought back some scary thoughts from when my kids were kids and I was a kid. Keep up the good work, I’ll be looking forward to the next one. K/M/G

  4. Barbara permalink
    July 7, 2009 8:33 pm

    Another great one and it brought back so many memories of my own golf-course sledding sailing into sandpits on stacks of Flexible Flyers!! [I think you might have watched?]. Looking forward to the next one!

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