Once upon a time, not so very long ago, it used to snow a lot more that it does today; or at least it seems that way. Without getting into a debate about climate change, let me say that during my childhood there always seemed to be plenty of snow to play in all winter long. Though horse-drawn sleighs were certainly fewer and farther between in the 1950s, sledding remained a popular winter pastime as can be seen from the vintage winter gear in the collection of The Strong.
Back in my youth, toboggans and runner-type sleds ruled the day. The toboggan I used was a relic from my mother’s time and, despite its splintered wood and broken ropes, it remained uncompromised—sturdy and functional. The well-established and steel runnered Flexible Flyer, invented and introduced in New Jersey in 1889, was ubiquitous. It performed “okay” for the most part, but it was always “cutting in” when one least wanted it to. Frankly, its popularity waned as new modes of downhill transportation made their way to market.
One of those new sledding options was the hugely popular Flying Saucer. What made it all the rage? Well, because we were—for the very first time ever—pondering the impending reality of serious space travel. Fantasies of rocket ships had come out of the comic books and onto the cover of Life magazine. And, when it came to Flying Saucers, everyone just had to have one or two, or even three. As I recall, Flying Saucer sleds came in painted steel, aluminum, and fiberglass and my family had one of each.
In the winter of ’58, when I was nine, my dad built us a Flying Saucer run in the backyard. It wasn’t terribly long, but it did have several banked turns. He sprayed it with the garden hose every evening, and it was bloody fast. During its design and construction phase, we siblings (err, guinea pigs) helped perfect the size and slope of the high-banked turns with our high-speed mishaps. Of course, we landed in piles of soft snow and straw bales each time, and usually remained unhurt. Once though, I did manage to knock the wind out of myself. Nevertheless, it was great fun. We couldn’t wait to try it out again each morning before school. Soon, though, we managed to crack the orange fiberglass Flying Saucer. No matter, we preferred the aluminum one anyway, because it seemed to out-perform the others and was lighter to carry.
The ancient toboggan provided an entirely different adventure. One hill near our house made a perfect toboggan run except for one thing: the tree line at the end of the slope. Most days, we had plenty of time to stop our skid. Other times when a slight thaw had created a bit of a crust on the top of the snow, the slide proved much more thrilling and eventful. On these rides, the occupant of “Seat No. 1” usually had to be extricated from the curled nose of the craft by the other survivors; some portion of his or her lower extremities and costume (think of Ralphie Parker’s snowsuit in the 1983 movie, A Christmas Story) was usually compacted and entangled in some way.
This same crust proved hazardous with the Flexible Flyer. Just as you thought you were going to make it all the way down the hill without “sinking in,” you sank in—always suddenly, and almost always resulting in bloody lips and other minor facial contusions. No matter though, we usually picked ourselves up and trudged back up the hill for more.
Later, we acquired yet another market newcomer, the aluminum Sno Bronco. But we found it too narrow and unstable, now that we had all grown a bit larger. It did get used a bit though, some 20 years later, by my niece and nephew.
Today, novel sled designs have proliferated. Regardless, I can still see on occasion a piece of corrugated cardboard (from the new washing machine box) or the rare black rubber inner tube (from Uncle Henry’s Farmall tractor) in action. Which ride was your favorite? I’m sure all of you fellow sledders have similar stories to tell. Why not share some of them with us? Then, let’s hope it keeps on a-snowin’!