Winter, as I remember, seemed to last forever during my childhood and teen-age years in Camp Hill. I clearly recall the excitement of seeing the first snow flurries of the season, usually around the middle of December. I mean it was like an instant seasonal switch that was thrown, shifting my mood from all thoughts of football, scouting or any other pursuit, to the glorious thrill of sledding! When those first downy flakes of snow fell, it didn’t seem to matter where I was, be it home, school or wherever – I knew that it was time to start getting the old “Lightning Guider” ready to ride.
It made no difference in which grade I happened to be. That corps of teachers at the venerable N.C. Schaeffer School could all be expected to respond to my – to everyone’s fixed gaze on snow that we had not known since the previous March.
“YOU CHILDREN ACT LIKE YOU’VE NEVER SEEN SNOW BEFORE!”
The only variation was in tone and volume. Miss Umberger’s reminder was mild compared to that of the bellowing Miss Drake or the razor’s edge alto of Miss Colson. In retrospect, I wonder why they never learned something new to chide us and gather our attention to our studies.
You see, it really made no difference to us- spelling, arithmetic, even Pimwe of the Jungle – were all pushed aside by the anticipation of snowmen, snowballs and SLEDDING! Nearly everyone in my class thought exactly the same way, at least among the boys. We watched that hill that led up to the playground, hoping against hope that the snow would soon cover the honeysuckle, which indicated a coverage good enough to free the friction of steel runners – good enough for sledding.
In my mind, I abandoned all thoughts of times tables or social studies and mentally checked off all the preparations I would have to make if I were going to enjoy my favorite winter pastime. My mind raced to anticipate every possible need!
“Where did I put those gloves the last time I wore them?”
“I wonder if my four-buckle galoshes still fit.”
“Will Mom be pissed if I cut the clothesline to make a pull rope for my sled?
The snow continued, as did our gawking, hoping and anticipating, until finally dismissal came and as usual, we were reminded by the teachers that, “Snowballs may not be thrown on the way to or from school,” accompanied by their leering expressions of certainty of violation! They just knew that some goody two-shoes would “REPORT” anyone who attempted to make anything that resembled a sphere from snow, usually a girl or some boy who threw like a girl!
The most important news that we awaited as we left the school, was the cry of a brave schoolmate, who upon reaching down and snatching a double handful of snow, would scream out, “It’s good packing!” That meant that the snow was right for making snowballs, snowmen and snow forts. It also meant that it would pack down hard enough to support those glistening steel runners.
Living only a block from the school was a big advantage when the snow came. Not only was the walk shorter, but for myself and my friend Max, who lived across the street, it meant that we could throw snowballs at the rest of the kids, doggedly trudging their way to Country Club Hills. There was no danger of the feared cry of “I’ll report you!” We were home and no longer under the jurisdiction of the Schaeffer School rules.
Snowballs were usually harmless, unless you got one directly in the face. Then combined with the sensitivity of cold skin, it could hurt like the devil. They were one of the mock childhood weapons that were not covered by silly parental admonitions of, “You’ll break your neck!” or, “You’ll put you eye out!” But we did have some self-imposed restrictions, like never throwing at Charlie Miller. Charlie, an aspiring student of Dr. Shope, Camp Hill’s band director and uniform fitter extrordinaire, had a trombone embrasure that we knew was inviolate.
Sometimes, we would have such snowball fights, replete with forts of banked snow that my arm would ache for hours. At this late stage of life, I would never let my grandkids know that my stiff shoulder is the result of such mindless pursuits, particularly since we live in the south and to them, snowballs are an unknown.
Snowballs were just a diversion from our main activity – SLEDDING! Everyone would take his or her sled down from the wall of the garage, where it had hung since the last snowfall. A quick brush of sandpaper and the steel runners glistened. Two or three rubs with candle wax, and the new rope from mom’s clothesline and that maple and steel rocket was ready to fly!
There weren’t a lot of great long hills near my house. At least none that were without the risk of being hit by a car. But in Camp Hill Park, there was the infamous Toboggan Slide! It was a narrow road, actually more like a trail that dropped steeply from just behind one of the park shelters. Why in the world it got its name is beyond me. No sane kid, not even we immortal pre-teens and teenagers would choose to rocket down that hill on a curved board that was impossible to steer. That is not to say that it was never attempted, because the Hoover family had a toboggan and it is possible, given Debbie and Bobby’s verve, that there were attempts.
You the reader are wondering why this hill was such a challenge. Well, challenge is really a misnomer for this launch pad to hyper-velocity. It was a genuine risk! And the reason for the risk was the vicious right hand turn at the bottom of a 1/3-mile, 40-degree hill. That turn led to a gentle slope that went on down to the Condogouinet Creek. Missing that turn meant a plummet off the track in into a thicket of winter dried thorn bushes. Even on the supple maple frame of a trusty Lightning Guider, that turn was hell. Very often, some of us kids would trek over to the slide, carrying containers of water, which we would spread over the first hundred or so yards, creating a sheet of ice and thereby increasing our velocity to nearly double.
That in turn, caused us to be cautious and at the killer curve, to turn our bodies on the sled and drag a toe to escape punishment in the thorny thicket. The object, the real brass ring, was to make it all the way down the hill, negotiate the curve and coast all the way down to the road that ran beside the creek. I can attest that many tried and few succeeded. The specter of the killer turn and the briars were the cause of many a worn-out boot toe as discretion won over valor among our reckless rider friends.
Other suicidal activities included the “snake,” where we lined up in five or six – sometimes more- sleds, each rider putting his boot toes into the frame of the sled behind him. I know, in spite of never having been much of a physicist, that it had something to do with the overall mass of the moving object, when increased by more sleds and bodies, would absolutely rocket down that hill. The entire train was guided by the rider of the front sled, the only one with any view of the track ahead. The rest were seeing only he black heels of a pair of galoshes, which locked them into the train.
There is also some rule or law of physics that says something about the increase in velocity at the end of a moving rope or cable when it reaches the point where it has turned or changed direction. Remember the term, “Crack the Whip,” usually done on ice skates? Those poor riders in the last two sleds almost always never had a chance! At the killer turn, when that last segment of the snake was whipped and because their centrifugal pull would wreck the whole train, they usually got disconnected. It came about when the third or fourth guy would lift his feet, dooming the last two or three sleds, glory bound for briar city. Only the brave and hardy would ride the back – guys like Max, who looked death in the eye and smiled every time. He was the guy who, as I remember, convinced me to go down the big hill at the West Shore Country Club in the detached and waxed hood of a ’48 Packard. Talk about suicide! I imagine that tree that we hit is still showing the bruise caused by our collision.
Now it could get even wilder when the girls came out to play. Even at that young age, I knew it was fun to ride double on a sled with a girl. Yeah, even with all those clothes on, the subtle anatomical differences were evident and exciting. On a baby slope, where one or two could sit up on a sled, it was nice to put your arms around the girl sitting in front of you, listening to her screams. Girls always scream when they go sledding!
On the Toboggan Slide, sitting up was out of the question. The equation was simple – raise the center of gravity by sitting up and it was a one-way trip to the thorny wilderness at the turn. The only choice was to lie on the sled and have the girl lie on top of you. In the throes of puberty, it could not have gotten better, snowsuits and all! I can remember several foolish responses to dares or challenges, or perhaps to impress the girls, when we would form a snake, riding co-ed double. The only difference it made was the last two sleds did not land in the briars, but roared right through them and sometimes over them! I know that Enola must have heard the screams of the girls on those occasions.
My brother called me the other day, from Camp Hill, to tell me that they had gotten a huge snowfall. At the time, I was enjoying a nice Georgia day of about seventy degrees. I was torn, as he described the drifts, between wanting to again venture out to the Toboggan Slide, or to keep these old bones warm and safe. Common sense won out and I guess I must be content with my memories of those days. Besides, they probably have all sorts of safety rules and restrictions on the old slide, enforced by some uniformed borough official. It would not surprise me to learn that some lawyer had convinced the authorities to straighten out the killer turn and cut down the briars. And who knows, they may just have done away with the entire hill and made it into a humdrum playground, nature trail or even subdivision! No matter what, when I sit alone, I can still hear the whine of steel runners, the roar of the wind and the sounds of girlish screams and boyish boasts on the Toboggan Slide.
Copyright 2003 by Richard A. Stender
Writer's Postscript: Last fall, on a visit to Alabama, we stopped at a flea market. In one of the stalls, there stood an old sled, rusting and worn. I walked in, flipped the sled and there were those magic words, “Lightning Guider” scrolled on the boards. All the thoughts of winter in Camp Hill came roaring from the dusty shelves of my memory. The ride home gave me time to delve more deeply into those snowy adventures and this vignette is the result.
Editor's Note: This magical story on the Toboggan Slide (to where I owe an occasional limp) is part of Mr. Stender's soon-to-be-published collection Camp Hill Memories. Thank you for sharing, Mr. Stender.
and for more on Camp Hill sledding, check out John Slike's addition, Vivid memories of the CH in the 1940's.