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Sledding. Cartoon  by Mark DoneyWere they really the good old days?

by Mary Cook

Cartoon by Mark Doney

Careening down a hill on two narrow pieces of wood has never been my idea of a fun time. Especially in this modern age, when better and faster ski equipment can cost as much as a mortgage on a house, and is still no guarantee that you are going to get to the bottom of the hill unscathed.

Now, take the equipment we used in order to have a good time when I was growing up on a farm decades ago. There certainly was no money in our family for something as frivolous as store bought skis! But nonetheless, the West Hill was a place of sheer joy on a cold winter’s day after church on a Sunday, or when we got home from school early enough to beat the sinking sun.

I guess to be truthful, you really couldn’t call it a hill. It was more of a mound. But it was high to us, and was of an unusual shape, meaning you could struggle up one side to get to the top or, if you wanted to, you could walk around to the hind end, and you would be at the top. I could never figure that one out. At any rate, the West Hill was a place where our neighbour friends met us, and we had great and glorious times on makeshift equipment that wouldn’t even earn a spot at an antique auction today.

Most of it was homemade. Father was quite adept at building something out of very little. Take the only sleigh I can remember. It was fashioned after one we saw in the hardware store window called the Red Flyer. Father went into the store many times with a stub of a pencil and a scrap of paper, and crudely drew what he considered a reasonable facsimile of the Red Flyer. Then he holed up in the drive shed for days on end, with the little cylinder stove with the pipe poking through a hole in the side wall churning out heat, and proceeded to duplicate what he had seen in town. He even painted it red.

We flew down the West Hill on that sleigh like people possessed! Especially if it had snowed, and then rained, and a crust had formed. Our friends on the next farm had an old sleigh that had been handed down from one generation to another, but it never did take the hill like that Red Flyer.

And then one day a rich uncle came from New York. We knew he was rich because he drove a big black Buick with a brass eagle on the hood. He said he thought we should have a pair of skis. He made no mention of skis for each of us. Just a pair of skis. I could see a battle royal ahead. But Uncle Lou anticipated this, and in a very methodical way, decided who, when and how often each of us would have a go.

I remember those skis well. They were as wide as the boards on the side of our barn! And the harness was nothing more than a set of leather straps which we laced around our gum rubbers.

The first time I had them on, and was poised at the top of the hill for the downward slide, I was absolutely terrified. I vowed if I ever got to the bottom and had the wisdom to stop before heading on into the Bonnecherre River, I would give up my privilege of taking my turn on the skis.

My brothers, who were born fearless, fared better than my sister, Audrey. The first time Audrey put the skis on, she ran into a boulder at the bottom of the hill, and decided then and there she would stick to the old cardboard box we got at Briscoes General Store instead.

Yes, a cardboard box. I have no idea what came in it when it first arrived at Briscoes, but it was big enough that two of us could get in it at one time. And of course, you couldn’t see a thing, and you depended entirely that whoever was pushing you for the start, would point you in the right direction. But I felt safe in the box. The sides protected me, and even if I did crash into something, I didn’t think I would be maimed for life, which I was sure was my fate on the store-bought skis, or on the old fender from an abandoned car which my brothers thought was right up there with the Red Flyer.

The fender was rescued from Thacker’s garage in Renfrew. It wasn’t very wide, but scooped up back and front, and could easily hold the three brothers at one time. The bravest had to sit at the front with his feet sticking straight out. The second one sat with his legs wrapped around the first, and it was the job of the one bringing up the rear to keep the fender on a straight path. My brothers loved that old fender. And after every use, it was hauled back to the summer kitchen, wiped clean of caked-on snow, and made ready for the next excursion to the West Hill.

Steel-edged skis, ski wax, snow boards, and boots looking like they had fallen off Mars, were yet to be invented. And of course, so were ski lodges, tows, and chair lifts. But I can understand and appreciate how the love of skiing can get into your bones. What I can’t understand is how I still feel a sense of nostalgia for those good old days when a cardboard box, a homemade sleigh, and one pair of skis for five of us gave us so much joy on a hill that would be called a knoll today. I guess it has something to do with the sense that the world is moving too fast for me. And it has a lot to do with the fact that you can replace that make-do equipment with the most up-to-date trappings on the market today, but you will never replace the sheer joy of warm memories of another time...another era.

This is an original story, first published in The Country Connection Magazine, Issue 48, Winter 2005. Copyright Mary Cook.



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