Prime Time/When ice-covered roads were wonderful
There's nothing like a long hill to quicken a kid's desire to use it properly - that is to slide down it, to sled down it.
Ooooh, the possibilities and the dreams derived from simply spying an extended long hill at a 45-degree angle. Wow! And the kid's dream gets better as the steep hill gets pictured with lots of compacted snow - and then freezing rain on that same snow. Pure fun. These thoughts and visions make the desire for sliding even stronger. Yes, yes, it gives kids goose bumps just to think about it; they see the hill as a tipped form of a skating rink that lets sleds careen down so fast as to make the sledder's eyes water. Oh such fun! Life can't get much better than that.
Our home town, that little lutefisk ghetto, was surrounded by what the crusty old Norwegian men in the taverns all called åsener. Kids just called them hills. The bottom of one such half-mile hill - actually a town road - literally ended with the hill-road coming right up to Main Street, and in winter that Mill Hill became the Number One destination for all kids with sleds.
Officially, the sign on the Main Street corner read Mill Street, but to everyone in town, it was Mill Hill. The old mill for which it was named still stood there, sort of, the tall three-story wooden structure built over a portion of the river. A spillway diverted some of the river water to still gurgle and gush underneath the decaying mill, even if it hadn't been used as a mill for 25 years. Just a sad landmark. Alas, the decaying, paint-peeled building had turned into a tilting, forlorn, baleful structure, and just as gradually, it became windowless too, thanks to multiple shots from bb guns. Empty old structures with windows somehow attracts bbs. Wonder why. Maybe that's applied original sin that we're learning about in confirmation class. Whatever, Mill Hill was a tiny bit of land mass just made by the gods (non-Lutheran) for winter sledding.
At the very top of the hill stood the last residential houses before the land gave way to barns and silos and chicken coops. Where the village ended on the top knoll is where the farms began, and the knoll became the starting point for the multiple sleds heading back down towards town. Every trip down was good and some were - well - gooder than others, meaning, of course, more speed!
Hurtling down Mill Hill certainly was great fun. And now the bad news - pulling, dragging, hauling those same sleds back up that steep, lengthy road was no fun. Hard, boring work that took too long. Two runs a night was standard as the walk back to the top took about half an hour. And during all this misery, by necessity, watches were regularly checked as most of the kids had to be home by 10 p.m., their curfew time, the ultimate hour in the cosmos, the definitive moment for grownups when the world simply ended at the stroke of 10. It was over. Period. Nothing was ever supposed to happen after 10 p.m., except of course to go to bed. This is most certainly true.
As indicated, this great sliding hill was really a black-topped township road. It meant that automobiles coming up the hill met sliders going down the hill. Different. Odd. Strange. How many township roads have cars on one side and sleds on the other? Something's not right. Yes, this was obviously dangerous; yes, this was obviously dumb; and yes, such warnings were obviously forgotten or dismissed. Go figure.
Trudging, slipping, sliding up the long road, dragging their sleds behind them, the huffing-puffing gang would at last meet at the hilltop, rest a bit, then spin their sleds around and prepare for the long-awaited descent. Of course, there was a hierarchy in the kind of sled you owned. At the bottom end were homemade sleds with wooden runners, sleds that were just OK, semi-serviceable but not fast enough compared to those sleds at the very top of the scale, Flexible Flyers. Flyers were the Kings-of-the-Hill. They flew!
Sizes varied too, of course. Little sleds for one person, and the bigger the sled, the more bodies who could climb on it, the riders either sitting up or lying on their bellies. Then there was the ultimate sled in town. Butch Hjelmeland - whose father was the town butcher, of course - had a sled on which there was room for six bodies, all sardined together for the joy ride down the slope. Butch, his body contorted, his knees pushed back to his shoulders, sat in the front, his feet on the steering bars, and behind him scrunched the Butch-picked Lucky-Five, all with their feet in the laps of the person ahead of them. Getting that many carcasses started down the hill naturally required some extra shoving from strong bodies, but once started, once in motion, once the momentum took over, the half dozen partyers knew they were in for a glorious ride on the fastest sled on Mill Hill! Ooooooo-whee!
The best of the best came one night after a brief, freak, winter-afternoon rainstorm, resulting in Mill Hill turning into a skating rink, the glare ice resulting in car drivers - after their forcefully delivering both in Norwegian and English many naughty words - having to find a long alternate route to make their destinations. You betcha, an incredibly icy road. Slick. Dangerous, the drivers proclaimed. Treacherous, they whined. Their cars couldn't make it up a fourth of the way! Oh, how they hated it! Oh, how we loved it! It was wonderful!
The last run down was so great that night that our sleds coasted all the way up to Main Street. A record achievement! Something never before accomplished! We could hardly wait to proclaim this Rose Bowl victory to our parents. What a night! What success!
As the kids burst into the house with the great news, the father looked up from his newspaper, mumbled a "Humfff, int'resting," and went back to his reading. The mother looked up from her darning, looked back at the stocking, and said quietly, "That's nice, dear."
Grownups sure don't understand what's important in life.
Art Lees is a Bemidji State University a professor emeritus.