I used to write now and then for the Valley News, a paper in Vermont. Here’s an article I wrote about sledding. It’s prompted by the cold weather we’ve had here in New Hampshire these past few days….
by Joseph Monninger
It’s a painful dilemma for Pie, my nine year old sledding companion. He received a new Flexible Flyer for Christmas — the new boards almost yellow, the runners barn red — though his old sled, one he nicknamed Arrow, is perfectly sound. Watching him inspect both as they hang on our shed wall, I appreciate his struggle. He wants to be loyal to the old sled, a short bed Flexible Flyer I bought in a yard sale for ten dollars two years before, but the appeal of the new sled is undeniable. Ideally he would take both, alternating them on various runs, but we both know that is unrealistic. He has to choose. Behind me his mom, Wendy, tells him to make up his mind.
“Rocket,” he says, which is the name for the new sled.
He looks at me to see if I disapprove. Because we have been sledding together before, he knows I am fond of yard sale sleds, the ones that have turned the color of horse harness. I collect them as some people collect tools or duck decoys, and I always have five or six around the place. I like the way they look and I like the way the front assemblage can bend and twist, a calf’s neck being bulled by a cowboy. I hoist my long one from the wall, a sled named Thunder Boy, and his mom, my girlfriend, selects Mustang.
“Maybe I’ll take Arrow,” he says, referring to the old sled.
“No, use Rocket,” I say. “It needs to be broken in.”
He stares up at me, uncertain. He wears a blue snowsuit, a red hat, and wide, clunky boots. He is a superb sledder, fearless in ways I have left behind long ago. He looks for icy patches and jumps, while I prefer a long, smooth ride through the hills of Warren, NH. He finds spin-outs fun. He loves to tip over.
After he breaks our stare, he nods and helps me lift Rocket off the wall. He scoots it down the driveway and lifts it into the back of my pick up where my Labrador retriever, D-Dog, already waits.
Fifteen minutes later we stand at the top of a long run, one packed solid by snowmobiles the night before. But the snowmobiles are gone and now the forest is quiet except for an occasional chickadee calling from winter branches. Pie doesn’t wait. He folds the rope back, squares it carefully so it won’t dangle down while he’s moving, then makes a short, rump-high run, his arms extended to the bed of his sled, his legs churning behind. His snowsuit makes a whistling sound as he runs, his tiny legs pushing to gain speed. Then he grunts and lunges forward, his belly umphhhing a bit when he hits the bed of the sled. As he turns the corner of the first section, his arms steering the sled perfectly, he shouts back over his shoulder, “To infinity and beyond,” one of his favorite lines from Toy Story and Toy Story 2. His voice is enough to get D-Dog started. She tears after him, her paws flicking up snow, her fur covered by glistening frost. She runs head down, flat out, chasing Pie’s whoops as he goes down the mile run that is one of four or five sledding destinations not more than ten minutes from my house.
* * *
Although I sledded as a kid in suburban New Jersey, going to a place called Richter’s Hill, I had largely forgotten about it — about the cold walks on winter afternoons and the numbness in one’s fingers, the fast, hard ride only inches from the packed snow — until a few years ago when I moved to Warren, New Hampshire. Like most of my neighbors, when it snowed I thought primarily of skis. But I didn’t grow up on skis and wasn’t particularly skilled on them. When I went for long cross country treks into the woods and hills around my home, I never felt entirely comfortable. Cross country skis are difficult things in the woods because they have no edges, making turns on narrow trails nearly impossible. Travelling alone, I lived with the fear of slamming into a tree or falling and breaking a leg, no one around to help me but D-Dog. At the same time, I thought it a waste of energy and opportunity to trudge down such wonderful hills in a thick pair of Bean boots.
After one particularly large snow, and a bad fall on cross country skis, I bought my first sled on impulse in an antique store near Newfound Lake. The next day I found myself, at 45, hurtling down a remote snowmobile trail, my hands clutching the wooden bow of the Flexible Flyer. After my first run in over thirty years, an all out blitz that carried me approximately a mile down hill in one beautiful glide, I let out a loud, goofy laugh that seemed more genuine and much younger than my laugh had been in a long, long time. Snow covered my face, and my hat had pulled back on my forehead, but I couldn’t stop laughing.
* * *
“Creating childhood memories since 1889,” is actually the corporate motto of Flexible Flyer, based in West Point, Mississippi. Sledding, or coasting as it was commonly called in the 1800’s, was the passion of a young man named Samuel Leeds Allen. Allen was born in 1841 in Philadelphia. At eleven his parents sent him to the Westtown Boarding School, a Quaker Academy popular among prominent families of the day. In 1861 at the age of twenty, Allen decided to learn agriculture on his father’s farm near Westfield, New Jersey. He worked long and hard hours to understand every aspect of farming. In 1866 he married Sarah Horton Roberts in the meeting house at Westtown School, and together they took up residence at Ivystone Farm. In the same year, Allen invented two pieces of farm equipment — a fertilizer drill for spreading guano and seed drill called the Planet Junior. These two inventions were the impetus to the founding of the S.L. Allen Co., manufacturers of “Planet Junior” farm equipment. By 1881 the company was selling its equipment throughout the United States and Europe from sales and manufacturing offices in downtown Philadelphia.
Allen’s early attempts at inventing the best sled for coasting were all tried out on his daughter, Elizabeth, on the hill at Westown School or Ivystone farm in New Jersey. Allen designed intriguing variations — a Phantom, a Fleetwing, an Aeriel, and a Fairy Coaster — before hitting on the Flexible Flyer. As A.L. Jacoby, sales manger of the S.L. Allen Co. in 1889 wrote in an account of the invention noted:
“Mr. Allen worked up a sled with only one pair of rounded runners, and had these runners weakened at one point about half way back to form a sort of hinge, so they could be bent sidewise there. This gave the steering effect of a double runner sled, but with a continuous runner. This first flexible runner sled was never tried out on snow, but it gave Mr. Allen the right idea, and a sled with flexible t-shaped runners and a slatted seat was soon made, and after it was a proven success, was named by Mr. Allen, the Flexible Flyer.”
The sled’s design has changed little in the last century. Made from American hardwood and steel by American workers, the sled comes in 42”, 48”, 54”, and 60” lengths. It retails for somewhere between $35-60, which is not much more than Mr. Allen’s original price for his Fairy Coaster, a sled designed to hold four or five adults in the late 1800’s.
The sled was not an immediate success. Allen’s own salesmen, accustomed to the farm equipment business, did not like trying to sell the sleds because the sales season cut their vacations short. But in 1900’s, with the revival of golf in the United States and the resultant interest in tennis, skating, tobogganing, and other outdoor sports, the sled finally made its mark in American consciousness. Allen Co. salesmen succeeding in convincing two big name department stores of the merits of the sled — Wanamaker’s in Philadelphia and R.H. Macy’s in New York. By 1915 Samuel Allen wrote to his wife in a letter sent just before Christmas 1915:
“We have been selling sleds at a great pace, averaging right along about 2,000 per day, and the demand so urgent we are sending whole car loads of about 1,200 each to New York, New Haven, and Pittsburgh by express: perhaps five full cars in all. There seems little doubt but that we will sell out clean, in all about 120,000; and it also seems likely that the dealers will sell out clean.”
Since then, the Flexible Flyer has been a staple under American Christmas trees. The sleds can be found pictured on holiday greeting cards, in advertisements, on TV, in the movies, and even in the Smithsonian. Ask most children to draw a sled, and you have a fifty-fifty chance of receiving a drawing of Santa’s reindeer pulling his large sleigh, or of the impeccably designed, wonderfully efficient Flexible Flyer.
* * *
Pie, of course, doesn’t know any of this history. When he disappears from view, his mother, Wendy, charges forward and glides off into the middle distance, her shouts equally aimed at Pie and at me. I wait a ten count, then run with the sled pressed against my chest, my feet sliding, the sled certain in my grip. Then for a second I jump forward, landing with a krummph on the slated boards, the runners hissing underneath me. For a moment the world comes at me slowly. My vision is filled by mounded snow banks and pine boughs trapped by late night storms, but little by little my speed increases. When I round the first bend I see Wendy in front of me, D-Dog bobbing around her still trying to divine how humans can make no motion yet travel at such speeds. Then suddenly I know I am going fast, flicking along the ground, covering ice and snow, wind grinding against my cheeks. I yell out, “To infinity and beyond,” because it is what Pie likes us all to yell and because it seems a sensible thing to yell on a sled, and I glimpse him down at the bottom of the run, climbing onto the snow bank. As I go toward him, Thunder Boy solid beneath me, it is hard to resist the obvious conclusion: that we sled to go back to a younger day. That boys like Pie will always be waiting at the bottom of coasting runs, reminding us by their existence of what we had forgotten. And I know I will only be good for two or three runs today, that I will never sled all day and wobble home to hot chocolate and the incredible warmth of one’s boyhood kitchen again. But I will be in the kitchen waiting for Pie, and my heart will lift to see him return in the last light with his sled behind him, his future and my past caught somewhere between us.