Virginia Watts

Sleds

There was nothing better than those Flexible Flyer sleds my two older brothers owned. Christmas surprises they received in the mid-1950’s before I was born.

Weather conditions had to be just right to make it worth our while to drag them to the top of our street. Packed-down snow was a must. An ice crust on top was even better. We knew freshly fallen snow was deep and powdery, and would mean we weren’t going anywhere. Our sleds were as heavy as wrecking balls, solid hickory with thick blades of steel and bright red lettering, the punch-you-in-the-nose-shade of stop signs.

When the first flakes began drifting down from a grey-lit sky, my brothers would set up camp by the bay window in our living room like they were listening for the ping of an approaching ally submarine; periodically, one of them would sneak outside to the front porch in his stocking feet and perform a top secret test they had devised and refused to describe to their little sister.

 Stop bugging us. We’ll tell you if we can go sledding.

Of course, I spied on them performing this test from the kitchen window, quite sure they knew a lot less than they thought. The way it went was either Curt or Mark would kneel on the concrete porch and pound the snow with a bare fist to see how it reacted, then try to form a snowball.

They had to perform the snow test quickly. Their coats, mittens and boots were down in the basement furnace room where my mother decided all family outwear should be hung during the wintertime so it would be warm when we put it back on. The problem with that theory was that everything was cold again by the time we brought it upstairs.

Once my brothers decided the outdoor conditions were prime for sledding, the real military-grade operation began.

 Don’t come out in the garage until we call you. We need time prepare. 

I would stand inside the kitchen, one eye in the cracked-open door, watching as they flopped the Flexible Flyers on their backs like belly-up bugs, the blades, which my brothers called “skis,” suddenly exposed under the glare of the garage’s fluorescent overhead lighting. The first outing of every winter required the longest preparation. The skis lost all of their silvery shade spending hot, humid summer months up in our attic. In the fall, when my father carried the sleds down the ladder, the skis were as black as an iron skillet.

In the garage, my brothers worked on the same sled at the same time because Curt, the oldest, wanted to be sure Mark didn’t take any stupid shortcuts. Being the fastest racer on the hill outside was important to Curt. He wanted to go out there and dominate the competition. He wanted to win in life and be remembered for it. Mark mostly wanted to perform science experiments in solitude. 

The first step was to sand the skis with the fine grit sandpaper our father supplied specifically for sled preparation. Steel wool pads followed the sandpaper step, and then an application of a thin coat of car wax. The car wax, Curt explained–I asked him a hundred times until he had two choices, either answer me or strangle me–was to remove any minor scratches.

 The key to a fast sled is skis as smooth as a baby’s behind.

I guess he was right. Our two sleds were the fastest in the neighborhood. No one could beat us.

The best way to ride was to get a good running start and belly flop aboard, painfully I will admit, being careful that the pull rope was firmly underneath you and you had a firm grip on the wooden crossbar to steer.

You have to lean into your turns!

My brothers would shout to me from the top of the hill.

You can’t just steer! 

I heard a false rumor recently that wooden sleds were banned in all states as too dangerous. That’s silly. It’s sledding that’s dangerous. You can still buy a Flexible Flyer from many stores or order one from the L.L. Bean catalog. 

This month, to make the year of 2020 even worse, I had to finally insist that my parents move into an assisted living apartment. After fifty-six years of living in that cozy orange brick rancher, surrounded by most of the same neighbors, this change for two people in their mid-90s has not been an easy one. And now, I face the tall task of clearing out and selling the home I grew up in with my brothers.

On the day I begin, the first thing I am going to do is climb the ladder to the attic. The Flexible Flyers are still up there, and since my remaining brother doesn’t want them, those babies are finally mine.

And I’m not going to make them into a coffee table or display them at an attractive angle on a wall or adorn them with plastic holly and old ice skates at Christmas time. No. Once I have pounded snow with a bare fist and formed a tight snowball, once I have tended to skis with sand paper, steel wool and a thin coat of car wax, I am heading outside to fly.

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Virginia Watts is the author of poetry and stories found in Illuminations, The Florida Review, CRAFT, Sunspot Literary Journal, Sky Island Journal,Permafrost Magazine, Bacopa Literary Review, Streetlight Magazine among others. Winner of the 2019 Florida Review Meek Award in nonfiction and nominee for Best of the Net Nonfiction 2019 and 2020, her poetry chapbooks The Werewolves of Elk Creek and Shot Full of Holes are upcoming for publication by The Moonstone Press. She has been nominated three times for a Pushcart Prize.