Ah, the sounds of winter recreation. Cold steel skate blades carving up the frozen ponds. The hearty crunch of snowshoes breaking through virgin snow. And my personal favorite, the sounds of kids on sleds streaking down the steepest hills the area has to offer.

Weeeeeeeeee! THUD!

“He’s hurt bad! Everybody run!”

Where I come from, the sounds of sledding were always punctuated by a thud. That’s probably because our favorite spot was two dizzyingly steep hills that ended abruptly at the blood-stained bricks of the Waterville Armory. Those bricks caused more concussions, contusions and mashed noses than any of the weapons stored inside and yet there we were, day after day, sliding down those hills and always believing that this time, we would be spared.

Where I come from, kids were fearless. We were also fairly stupid because back then, eating paint chips was completely acceptable and because we were always hitting our heads on things.

Sliding behind the Armory almost guaranteed that you’d break your glasses and lose some teeth, but did we find a safer place to play? Nossir, we did not. Nobody wanted to be the kid to suggest that breaking bones and bruising brains wasn’t all-American fun and so we sucked it up, sliding down those hills over and over and whispering short prayers that we would at least hold on to consciousness this time. Getting knocked out cold was embarrassing and there was always the chance that you’d lose control of your bladder in the process.

It happened to a kid I knew. From that day on, he was known as “Pee Pee Pants,” because it’s hard to come up with clever nicknames when your brain is swollen. There was the kid who had to break out his inhaler, for instance, every time he lugged his sled back up the hill. That poor fool would get almost to the top and then drop his inhaler, sending it streaking all the way to the bottom of the hill where it would shatter against the cold Armory bricks, at which point he would go racing after it, wheezing all the way.

We called him “Wheezy.”

In those days, your choices in sleds were limited. Most of us carried around those super thin sheets of blue plastic that curled up into tight rolls even when you didn’t want them to. If it was windy, those sleds would blow all over the place and if they turned just so, they were entirely capable of slicing an average sized boy in half. That also happened to a guy I knew. They never found his lower half.

If you were poor, you were forced to head out to the slopes with one of those wood-framed sleds with heavy metal rails, which was the sled your dad used in his boyhood and which he inherited from his dad and so on and so forth back to the Civil War. They called it the “Flexible Flyer” or something ridiculous like that. The sled weighed something like 80 pounds and wouldn’t fly if you shot it out of catapult. You had to haul that monster up the hill over and over, wheezing as you went and enduring laughter from other kids.

The only time the Flexible Flyer provided any advantage was during a collision, of which there were many. Slam into one of your laughing peers on his dinky blue sheet of plastic and you’d knock the organs right out of his body. Which, of course, is great fun. The other great thing about the old-style sleds was that nobody ever bugged you to try it.

The little kids usually toted one of the saucer-shaped sleds, which was, by national law, bright red with yellow straps. The saucer sleds absolutely sucked because there was no way to steer them. You went where the wind told you to go, which was usually into a giant patch of picky bushes where you would remain until spring. Which was fine with the rest of us, because kids on saucer sleds tended to get stuck half way down the hill. When that happened, we simply dumped snow on them and used them as jumps.

If your family was doing OK financially, you might have had a more advanced sled, perhaps one of those thick blue or red double-seaters with molded handles on each side and at least some attempt at aerodynamics. You would spray cooking oil on the bottom of it because you had heard that doing so would make it go five times faster. You would think of a great name for your sled and then stay up all night painting that name on the side of it in bright red letters. You would love that sled and care for it and then, when you finally got out onto the slopes, you’d never get to ride it. That’s because if you had a cool sled, every damn body on the hill wanted to try it, including the big kids who wouldn’t hesitate to give you knuckles if you dared to say no.

“Ki try it?”

“No, I’m next.”

“No huh. You’re after me.”

THUD!

These days, everybody seems to have a cool sled. The behemoth inflatables, the snowboards, the sleek, efficient jobbies constructed out of advanced polymers and designed for maximum aerodynamics by the top, undamaged minds at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Some of them have steering wheels. Others have joysticks and USB connections so you can listen to your Zune while crashing at 35 mph into some poor tyke on a saucer sled.

The last time I was in Waterville, I wandered over to the Armory for a look. The hill is still there but in an age where we actually need armories, it can no longer be accessed by civilians. Probably for the best. That hill rises up into the clouds and that kid-eating brick wall is still right there at the base of it. I found it hard to believe I ever had the courage to slide down that beast on so many cold winter days. I mused over the fact that I made it to this advanced age without suffering permanent drain bramage.

I turned wistfully away from the hill and started back to my car. I hit a patch of ice and my feet went out from under me, causing me to fall with a thud to the cold pavement below. I saw stars. I felt familiar pain deep within my bones. A gang of kids appeared out of nowhere, pointing, laughing and giving me a cruel nickname right on the spot.

I ain’t telling you what it is.


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