“C’mon Pop! You’re not quitting already, are you?”
His legs were burning from trudging back up the hill behind his house more than 20 times this afternoon, but his soul silently begged for at least one more exhilarating slide. The slope was as familiar to him as the bent frame on the front of his Flexible Flyer, fondly reminiscent of his carefree boyhood excitement with his brothers a
nd neighborhood chums. Of course, it was much steeper back in the day.
His eyes traveled from the flannel-grey sky to the Sled-Eating Oak in the middle of the hill that heroically displayed scars from wayward sleds and toboggans (some new, some as old as the man himself) and back to his 10-year old pleading son.
Although he wore waterproof, windproof, Thinsulate bibs, his son’s togs were not unlike those he wore at that age. Most amusing were his father’s U.S. Marine Corps woolen pants that his mother had shortened and narrowed for himself. Heavy, even heavier when they soaked up the melting snow, but suspenders rescued them from falling down over the black, hand-me-down, rubber galoshes and their broken metal latches that leaked through the cracks of age.
Yes, he used to wear bread bags in his boots, and his mother’s old knee socks were cleverly fashioned as long mittens to keep the snow and ice balls from chafing at his wrists. Sometimes it even worked.
As his son stared at him, awaiting a response, he thought about the AFC Championship game that was probably well into the third quarter. His team was playing and he was in the office pool.
“Let’s go, we’re making a snake. You can be the head!”
Lacking any credible reason to refuse, he positioned his sled in front of the string of seven others, laid belly-down on it and jammed his toes into the front of his son’s sled. “Push, everyone, push,” and the articulated line began its descent.
He executed his responsibility by nimbly steering left, then right, sending the serpent in a twisting path as it picked up speed. Screams of joy emanated from behind. Now, at near-lightning speed over the well-packed snow, he straightened them out in time to fly off the foot-high bank and onto the frozen pond, sending skaters scampering for safety and intruding on a mid-ice hockey game.
Completely out of control, the snake whipped its tail past the head before finally coming to rest almost at the far end of the pond. He rolled off his sled onto the ice and laid there, trying to catch his breath, as each segment of the snake came up to congratulate him on his superb head-of-the-snakemanship. “Let’s do that again,” begged a small Norman Rockwellian, redheaded girl.
From his knees, he cautiously started to stand on the ice but his feet had other plans. One headed generally northeast, the other roughly southwest. Anyone within 25 feet heard the snap.
Two weeks later, leg in a cast, he sat in the rudely uncomfortable wheelchair by the frosty picture window in his living room with the Super Bowl on the nearby TV. He was mostly watching his son, who just now returned to the top of the hill after his millionth slide of the day. Would it be the last run of the season? The January thaw had disposed of a lot of the snow and the trail was runner-worn to grass in many spots. “Watch me, Pop!” He couldn’t hear but he could read lips well enough to know.
The TV began yelling at him. “Third and twenty. It’s a hand-off to Harris. He spurts through the right side behind a bone-crushing block on the guard. He’s past the 40, to mid-field. Harris cuts left to avoid a charging linebacker, who slips in the mud and grabs unoccupied air. Only the safety can catch him now! He’s at the 40, the 30… will it be a game-winning touchdown?”
‘Maybe it will, maybe it won’t,’ the man thought as he as he opted to watch his son heading perilously for the Sled-Eating Oak. But really, was it his son he was watching, or was it really himself? ‘Can’t be my boy. He graduated college five years ago…’
As he turned to watch the replay, he made a vow to challenge The Tree once more. Of course, it will have to wait for next year. There’s always next year. Hopefully.