Most of us have cherished childhood memories of receiving a particularly special Christmas gift. When I was nine, my parents gave me a Flexible Flyer sled for Christmas. What a great gift! It was better than getting a Red Ryder carbine action BB gun with a compass in the stock. Parents can be tone-deaf to the cool brands that kids crave, but in this case, they hit the ball out of the park – what kid didn’t want a Flexible Flyer? They were sleek, they were cool, if you owned a Flyer, you were nobody’s fool.
We lived about 20 miles north of Pittsburgh, near my mother’s childhood home. I look back on that time as some of the most wonderful days of my childhood, unfettered by concrete and asphalt, free to roam the fields and woods and creek beds. And definitely free to ride a Flexible Flyer without crossing the paths of cars annoyingly using sledding roads for their own selfish purpose.
When we moved to the Lawrenceville neighborhood of Pittsburgh, sledding was still on the agenda, as our house was conveniently located at the end of a “sled run.” Well, technically, it was a dead-end steep alley that intersected with a short branch of Duncan Street, then turned 90 degrees left for a short run to 54th street. All downhill, of course, and another right turn onto 54th led downhill for several blocks to Butler Street, but that would be a suicide run on a sled. Sounds great, huh?
I’d pull my sled up the block and a half to the top of the alley, and zoom down the hill, stopping at the bottom, before it turned left toward 54th. On one particular run, though – a run for the ages – I learned my sled was not only a true flyer, but flexible as well. I also learned that if you shoot your eye out, you still have a spare eye, but you only get one life to squander in a sledding accident. Of course, the accident need not be fatal – it might merely leave you maimed.
It was a particularly cold afternoon, and snow covered everything, including 54th down to Butler. Few cars were in sight. I pulled my sled to the top of the alley. Holding the sled off to one side, I looked down the hill, assessing the conditions as I imagined Olympic bobsled racers did. Then I ran as fast as I could, tossed the sled down, and dove on top of it. I could tell right away this was a Gold Medal run.
My Flyer flew down the hill, and at the intersection with Duncan, I knew I couldn’t just end it there. I made the sharp left and continued on, passing my house on the right, where my mother was probably unaware that she soon might have one less child. As I approached 54th, my speed was undiminished. Can’t stop now! This is the run of a lifetime!
I turned right, taking a wide path onto a steepening section of 54th street. I saw immediately I was heading directly into the path of a car coming up the hill. I’ve often wondered who was driving that car. I’ve wondered what their reaction was when they saw a kid on a speeding sled come out of nowhere, and knew that in an instant, it would be under their wheels. In my experience, many men of that era spoke similarly to Ralphie’s old man, and so I imagine the driver’s tapestry of obscenity might also still be hanging in space. All I remember is a flash of fear shooting through me, and jerking the steering bar hard right as fast and far as I could, even though I knew I couldn’t steer away quickly enough.
I can’t say exactly what happened next, but here’s my best guess: my guardian angel temporarily suspended the laws of physics, and pulled my sled away from the car and into the curb in front of my house. When I stopped, the sled had spun completely around, and was facing uphill, tight against the curb. The car continued up the hill as if nothing had happened.
While the Great Sledding Fiasco of 1959 could have become the most regrettable incident of my life, it certainly served one purpose. Any chance of my becoming an agnostic evaporated that winter day, when, through my fur-lined hat, I could all but hear the angel wings flapping.