It was a dark and stormy night…

It was a dark and stormy night…

All really bad literature starts out that way.  There is even a yearly contest that celebrates this genre of writing.  The basic rule of the contest is that the first (and, usually the only) paragraph start with those seven words.  Then, the aim is to tack on as many words and phrases as you can while remaining semantically and syntactically correct.  There is a Wikipedia entry here describing this contest:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bulwer%E2%80%93Lytton_Fiction_Contest

Here is my entry:

It was a dark and stormy night and, while my brother and I eagerly awaited the coming dawn hoping for an announcement on the radio about our specific schools closing, we dreaded that we would hear no word of our school; unless the snow got so heavy that power lines snapped or were brought down by heavily laden tree branches giving way under the pressing weight of snow – not to mention the numbing cold which would cause objects outside to freeze into brittle shapes that would shatter at the first touch of a strong wind – to fall heavily over frost-tightened transmission lines running through the neighborhood.

There!  Pant, pant.  My contribution for posterity.  But, seriously, folks, here’s what happened in January of the year 1954 to the metropolitan area of Washington, D.C.  The storm dropped an official eleven point three inches, but my little community got almost seventeen inches.  We did, in fact, get four snow days off from school.  Two of them were endured with no road traffic on any of the streets in our area.  This, of course, was celebrated joyously by every kid in the neighborhood – bar none.

When we had gone to sleep, there were vague warnings on television that a bit of snow would come our way.  My dad, being a meteorologist on base, and savvy to the ways of weather, said, and I quote, “bull”.  There was an added syllable to that statement, but I shan’t repeat it here.  He added that “it’s going to snow like hell and they’re not admitting it”.

As my brother and I bedded down we could hear the wind rising and the beginnings of snow pellets smacking against the window panes.  In the darkness, I smiled to myself.

We awoke the next morning to a murky dawn.  Light from the sun was very dim owing to the huge flakes of snow falling down in whirling eddies to land on the eight inches already on the ground.  When I heard my dad’s voice, I knew we (and he) were right:  it was a blizzard and we were free!  If he couldn’t get to work, I knew for certain the bus’s couldn’t get through.

Amid cries of joy, my brother and I practically burst into song as we washed up, dressed, and bounced out into the dining room for breakfast.  It was probably a record-breaking performance in terms of getting ready to meet the day.  After all, why would we want to waste a single minute of not having to go to school?

After breakfast, the two of us dashed down into the basement and began dragging various snow-traversing implements out of the pile at the back wall.  First, and foremost, our mukluks.  These had survived, and still fit us, from our stay in Alaska and were probably the warmest foot coverings on the planet in that day and age.  They consisted of actual seal skin and bear hide.  The seal skin was turned inside out so that the slick outer layer (when it was on the seal) was turned against our woolen socks.  Then you laced up the bearskin (fur outside) with thongs made of Caribou.  The ones that I and my brother wore were gifts presented to us by the old trapper who lived next to us in Fairbanks – bless him.  Believe it or not, Wikipedia even has an entry on this type of footwear.)

Next, we located our two sleds.  Mine was brand new the year before and was called a Flexible Flyer.  It was too, flexible, that is.  It could be steered by means of a “T” bar across the nose.  When you twisted it, the runners curved and you went the way you steered.  Of course, many factors had a bearing on whether or not you actually turned; ice, being one, and other kids being another.

I laid my sled upside down on the workbench and proceeded to touch up the runners with a little file.  Dings, burrs, and other faults which would slow progress downhill were filed off and what resulted was a knife-edge of perfection.  Hah!  I thought.  If this one ran over a foot I should expect to see severed toes at least.

A huge box of snow clothing almost fell on us as we yanked various items from the pile.  I found my pair of snowshoes and set them aside in the hope that it would snow long enough for me to use them.  Little did I know.

Soon, we had everything we needed and struggled to haul them upstairs and into the back porch for staging our assault on the yard.  We looked out into the slowly brightening scene to find that the snow was now over the lower bar on the fence.  That meant it was nine inches deep – and it was still snowing.  Insisting on forcing us to have something hot inside, my mom pulled us back into the kitchen for hot cocoa; not that much forcing was needed.  She made the best cocoa in the neighborhood and kids came from miles around to get a steaming cup of it.  Drop in a few marshmallows and instant brown, furry, upper lip.

Back on the porch now.  Mukluks are easy to put on – if you have three arms.  You definitely need two to hold the top while you push your foot into it.  The third is necessary to keep the inner skin from compacting under your foot.  Since my brother and I were old hands at donning mukluks, we just helped each other.  Once fitted, we wrapped the thongs tightly in a cris-cross pattern from the base to the top and tied them off.  Adding a thick coat with muffler wrapped around the collar and gloves we were ready for some fun.

Snow on the East Coast, especially near large bodies of water, can come in several graduations of ‘wetness’.  If the wind is blowing pretty hard (like, enough to blow your cap off) the snow turns into hard little pellets that sting when they hit.  All morning, the wind had been dropping so that by the time we ventured out snow was falling in much larger flakes.  These tended to be a little wetter and when you tried to slog through drifts it felt like walking in molasses.  This time we were lucky.  The snow was pretty dry and the sled pulled nicely behind us.

We were headed for the hill on the road behind our house one block over.  It was called Boxwood and it went down very steeply to a cross street.  This would have been a perfect sledding hill but for one flaw:  there was no street on the other side of the bottom junction, just someone’s house.  In an effort to stop or at least slow kids from zipping across their yard to crash into their front porch, the owners had installed a line of small pine trees with a trunk about three inches in diameter.

Any kid can tell you that pine trees may be nice, but they will not stop a good sledder at speed.  When you hit the tree – and you WILL hit the tree – the front of your sled rides up the trunk, bends it over, and thumps rhythmically on the underside of your sled as you pass over it.  It will, however, slow you down to below the sound barrier.  Not the official sound barrier of around 768 miles per hour but the kid sound barrier of AAAAAAAHHHHHHHH!  I’M OUTTA CONTROL!!!!!!!!!

I have no idea how many times the owners had to add shingles to the lower portion of their house after sleds have come to a stop against them.

Anyway, as my brother and I slogged around the block, pulling our sleds behind us, we were joined by other hardy adventurers with their sleds.  By the time we all got to the top of the hill there was a crowd of maybe twenty kids of all sizes and downhill capabilities.  First things first.  A chain of kids was formed (chosen mostly by boot size) to walk in a line across the hill and move downwards.  This packed the snow down so that we had a good base.

Packing a good base is important because if you don’t, the very first time you take a flying leap and plop down on your sled, you’re going to eat yards of snow coming over the front bar.  When it is packed, what you have then is a glistening, slightly icy, surface suitable for supersonic power-sledding

Finally, the packing is complete and the hill is ready for trial runs.  Testers are democratically chosen by their size (“I’m bigger than you so I go first”).  They will make the first couple of runs in a sitting position so they can slam their boots down in an effort to stop if anything gets in their way.  This method is mostly psychological because nothing can stop on this hill.  The best that you can hope for is managing a slight turn.  To top it off, turning too much will guarantee that your runners will dig into the snow/ice and you’ll end up doing barrel rolls all the way down.

The hill is declared ready for business and by now there are hordes (maybe fifty) of kids ready to zip down the slope.  The hill itself starts very step and levels out about halfway down and then steepens for the final drop to the cross street.  There is a small drainage gully at the bottom which, if you aren’t prepared for, will launch you into the air.  How far depends on many things.  For instance, your weight, your speed, your intestinal fortitude, and the like.  Most of us like to hit this jump by hanging on to the sides of the sled (if seated) and hanging on the sides of the sled (if prone).  The main difference is that if you are seated you stand a good chance of retaining your seat on the sled, otherwise you’re gonna take a fall.

It is now time for my first run.  I stand a ways back from the crest, adjust everything I can adjust so that my legs are unencumbered by excess cloth (or loose mukluk strings), and I take off running.  In three steps or sometimes four I end up crouch-running lower and lower to the ground.  I hold the sled out in front of me slightly, making sure that the runners are in line with my direction of travel, and prepare for the controlled crash when I finally hit the snow and flop on the sled.

A note here on sled alignment.  If you don’t get the runners exactly aligned it is possible to either miss your sled partially (or completely) and end up on your stomach whizzing down the hill and feeling bits of cloth, buttons, zippers, and gloves ripping off to trail after you; or, the sled will stop dead and you will trip over it and complete the very same trip also sans sled.  The good news about the second scenario is that your sled will be waiting for you when the medics bring you back up to the top of the hill.

It is still snowing hard so the bottom of the hill is shrouded in swirling mistiness.  There are unofficial “hill criers” that will shot that the coast is clear so when you hear that call it is presumed safe to take off.  I do.

A perfect launch.  Feet propelling me swiftly from behind the crest to the very top of the hill, a neat drop of the sled to the snow, and a belly-flop that whooshes air out of my lungs.  I make sure I don’t drag my toes behind me, which is considered ‘chicken’ by the hard core sledders.  It also screws up the take off zone by making grooves.

In no time, I am halfway down the hill and slowing slightly as the grade flattens out.  The bottom clears a lot here at the halfway point and I see that my intended target zone is clear of anything fauna.  Flora are another matter.  I see, too late, that the trees that I was able to slip between last year have now grown branches that stretch from on to another.  This tends to hide anything behind them.  I vow to make a small turn.  Just enough to pass around in a great arc from one side of the hill and end up running perpendicular to the hill on the cross street.

Things don’t work out quite as I planned and my turn is cut short at about the halfway point by a small patch of snow which hasn’t been stamped flat yet.  I hit it dead center and am blinded by the snow I scooped up over the front bar.  Since I wear glasses, this is not a good thing and I spend precious moments frantically trying to clear them.  I can see again, but only to get a really close view of a garbage can before I smack into it with my shoulder.

Like a bowling ball against pins, I topple the cans (there were two of them) and scatter trash around.  My speed has been cut down to practically nothing but when a discarded magazine slips under my runner, it and the sled attached, comes to a dead halt.  Unfortunately, I don’t, and I end up flying forward off the sled and into a scooped up ridge of snow from the guy’s driveway.

“Yahoooo!”  I shout as I turn and contemplate climbing back up the slope for another run.  My brother and I spend most of the day on this hill.  By the time noon rolls around there must have been a hundred kids whooshing down the hill.  It is barely controlled mayhem on the slope.  Established corridors for travel back up to the top are demarked, and for the most part obeyed, but occasionally a downhill sledder picks up a passenger.

When lunchtime arrives, my brother and I troop back to our house, gobble down sandwiches, and head back to the hill.  It continues to snow the rest of the afternoon until we have a base coat that is around six to seven inches deep.  Very prime sledding conditions for sure.  Finally, tired, sore, and ready for a rest, we go back to our house for the last time.  It continues to snow all night long until the next morning arrives with the aforementioned seventeen inches.  School is forgotten and for those four days we live it up.

T.O.M.

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