It was a cold December day, four thirty in the afternoon, and it was almost dark. I knew mom would be wanting us home for supper by five. My hands were half frozen in snow encrusted wool gloves, and my ears, when I could feel them at all burned like fire. Hat’s were for sissies. I was an ear muff guy. My feet were not in great shape either. Snow boots slowed a boy down, so I had my school shoes on, with just rubber galoshes over them. My shoes were wet, my feet beyond cold, and I suspected “I ‘d get it” when I got home, but it didn’t matter. I had to be fast. We were too young for cars, and boulevard drag strips, but we boys still had the need for speed. We satisfied that need on Sanford Avenue’s hill, commonly just called Sanford. The plowed , packed, glazed by the midday sun surface of the roads was our Laguna Seca, our Watkins Glen………or our Green Mile. We match raced sleds. We may not have had our own set of wheels (bikes excluded) but we had some wooden slats over a thin steel frame with runners. Two marques dominated the hill. The venerable Flexible Flyer and my own stick, the awesome Yankee Clipper.
Now piloting a Yankee Clipper was a matter of pride to me. The Yankees were the regional kick butt baseball team of the 50’s and 60’s with Casey Stengel at the helm, and Mantle, Maris, Skowren, Richardson and company the heros of the times. Our dog was named Yankee, and far as we knew, he never lost a fight. Good ol’ dog. The Yankee clipper sailing ship itself was a thing of terrible beauty. Fast and deadly, with flowing rakish lines. Growing up we were “all things Yankee.” Dad even had one of those Yankee mechanical screwdrivers. Yankee meant strength, quality and hardiness, all in a plain brown wrapper. Minimalist, strictly business.
And so it was with my sled. While the enourmously popular Flexible Flyer had it’s runners curve up in the back, and go around, looking like tank treads, the Yankee Clipper’s runners stuck straight out with just a little bevel on the edge. I thought of them as dual exhausts. The Flexible Flyer had this cool decal on the top of an Arrow with an Eagle in the middle. The Yankee Clippers decal was less inspiring for sure. The true badges of honor though, were the patina of the wood, the places where the paint rubbed off the runners, and a dent or a nick or two. The Flexible Flyer was …….well Flexible. It was easy to turn, and there was a fair amount of play in the steering and flex in the frame. “The Clipper” was stiffer, lower to the ground, with a more rigid frame It was meaner, and less pretty. My little North Jersey town was “Flyer” country. Just like some areas belong to Ford or Chevy, Emerson belonged to flyer. Only heretics and the hopeless drove anything else. The hopeless had saucers, or off brand sleds from Sears or Montgomery Wards. I never saw one to hold a candle to the Clippers and Flyers. As for bring a heretic, that was me all over. I was a WASP in a town full of Italian Catholics. Some of the Irish kids ran with the Italians. They at least shared Mother Church, Catechism etc together. Me…no way! I was as “out” as out could be. And I drove a “Clipper’ to boot. I was a rogue, a Maverick. I didn’t fit in. That’s just the way I liked it! Which brings me back.
The wind had started to come up. I knew mom would be wondering where I was, but there was a showdown brewing. Ron Doughty, who lived at the bottom of Sanford called me out. We had to make a run and belly flop on our sleds. Usually a parked car was the finish line. Whoever “broke the plane” first won. There was no betting that went on, at least as far as I can recall. My allowance was $1.20 a week at the time 10 cents per year, so I spent it very wisely. an occasional side bet of a favorite baseball card or pocket knife might be made, but we were in it for pride not that there was much competition. Anyway, it was a third party chanting ready, set , go, varying the cadence to throw us off, Run carrying the sled , flop, and go. Then the real craft showed up after that. We all knew where the ruts were, or the grvel or sand which would slow us down. The idea was to get out in front, and weave your way thru to the good spots and cross first. All while trying not to fall off or get hit by a car or running into anything. Blocking or bumping was ok, but use of the hands on your opponent was against the rules.
Now I was a bit bigger and stronger than Ron, and I won easily. I waxed him badly! I had a faster take off. It was decided by the cabal, that three out of 5 would be the championship round. Once we even started on our bellys, from a standstill. That factored out my sprinting ability. The small cabal of “Flyer” owners present,kept trying to change the rules to their advantage, so they could win one, but there was no advantage to be had. They were up against Miller and The Yankee Clipper. They didn’t have a chance! And so it went for race after race. Embarrassing losses for the Flyer group. Not a close race was had. I was the King of Sandford hill, and of the Sem Pond hill too, but that’s another story, and another day. I went home with cold hands, feet and ears that night and got a bit of a chilly reception from mom as well, having come in a bit late, but I was warm inside knowing that out on the hill in this part of my world, i was invincible! Me and my Yankee Clipper that is!
Dr. David E. Miller is a contributing writer for this Blog. Dr. Miller is an Ex-Pat. currently in Malaysia with his Wife Icha.