Grandparenthood is one of those sublime intimacies of life that you just can’t appreciate until you’ve been there. Why, you ask, is grandparenthood so special? A survey of 100 grandmas would probably reveal the #1 answer to be the equivalent of “It’s been fun, but now I’m done,” otherwise known as “I shower my grandkids with love and affection all day, but when Mommy comes to pick them up, I can close the door, put my feet up, and watch Dancing With the Stars without wiping a single snotty nose, retrieving the same dropped toy ten times, or explaining once again why we don’t ride on Grandma’s dog.”
But, seriously, the benefits of grandparenthood are many. While Mom and Dad clean the diaper leaks, battle nap time, and dole out discipline, the grandparents’ role is simply to bring unconditional love and joy into the little one’s life. And grandchildren will give unmitigated love in return. There is little to compare to the ear-to-ear smile that bursts onto a grandchild’s face as she spies G-ma and Pap Pap at the airport, running into their arms as fast as her pint-sized legs can carry her.
Grandparenthood is a good excuse to be a kid again—to hunt crayfish in a creek, race a Cozy Coupe on a plasma car, or mold a giraffe out of Play Doh. Why, it’s perfectly acceptable for Grandpa to be served a plastic hamburger on Hello Kitty dishes at a table and chairs three sizes too small for him.
And sometimes grandkids take us all the way back to our own childhoods. Think spinning around till you’re dizzy. Think building with Lincoln Logs and whizzing down a snow-packed hill on your Flexible Flyer . . . .
My grandsons live in Houston, where it rarely snows; my granddaughter lives in San Jose, where it has not snowed since 1976. In December 2012, when Mikey had just turned two and Katie was nineteen months, they visited us in Pittsburgh. I was praying for snow so that the kids could experience its wonders first hand.
In anticipation, I pulled out our one and only sled—my husband Frank’s Rocket Plane from his childhood. Cleaning off years of dust, I drifted back to the late 1950’s and early 60’s when our family’s yard was the Grand Central Station of the neighborhood on “snow days.”
Those were the days when we stood at the bus stop waiting for bus #9 to come clanking along the snow-covered road, chains attached, and cheering every time the bus was not #9. When our limbs turned the consistency of Mrs. Paul’s Frozen Fish Sticks and our cheeks a firecracker red, the crossing guard would dismiss us.
I describe a typical snow day in my book The Crab Hollow Chronicles (eLectio Publishing): “When our brains had sufficiently thawed, and we had regained our wits about us, our thoughts turned to how we would spend this ‘get out of jail free’ day. Naturally engineered for sledding, our yard was the place to be on snow days. It was Command Central of the sled riding brigade. The front yard was level, allowing us to get a good run before shooting down the hill that ran alongside the house. The speed carried us along the long, level back yard until we dipped down a smaller hill and eventually ran out of steam, coming to a stop at the back gate. On a good day, we could glide through the open gate into the field.”
We had at least three sleds, the largest one a Flexible Flyer. There were other wooden sled brands in the fifties and early sixties—the Radio Flyer, Speed King, and Rocket Plane, among others—but the Flexible Flyer was considered the cadillac of sleds.
Actually, coasting on wooden sleds has been popular in the United States since colonial times, but sledding took on a whole new dimension with the emergence of the Flexible Flyer, the first steerable sled. Patented by Samuel Leeds Allen in 1889, the Flexible Flyer sported a revolutionary front-end steering mechanism, T-shaped runners, and a slatted wooden seat.
This 1918 ad claims that the Flexible Flyer is “the Christmas gift every live girland boy wants. Saves shoes, prevents colds, and saves doctor’s bills because you don’t drag your feet in steering.” Hmmm. Photograph by Thoth God of Knowledge
It was not immediately successful, but once it began selling in department stores such as Macy in New York, its trademark—an eagle and shield with the words “Flexible Flyer” printed across them—became recognizable worldwide. By 1925, Macy was selling 2,000 Flexible Flyers per day.
Allen’s company continued to manufacture sleds until 1968. Since then, it has changed hands several times, but with the advent of plastic tubes, saucers, foam sleds, and snow boards, sales of traditional wooden sleds have declined. The Flexible Flyer is still being manufactured today in South Paris, Maine, and China.
Back in the 50’s and 60’s, our preparations to produce maximum speed involved rubbing the runners with waxed paper and Ivory soap to produce “greased lightning.” Others tell me they used candle wax, car wax, and various types of oil.
From my book: We “checked the patented ‘super steering’ on the sleds to make sure that all were in proper working order. Without the ability to steer, you would be taking your life in your hands on our hill. The hedges on the left weren’t too bad if you didn’t mind a little facial disfigurement, but it was in your best interest to avoid the fence and the grape vine poles further down. You were wise to steer clear of the brick house on the right side as well.”
This was especially the case when we built two foot high jumps and my dad would spray the entire hill with the garden hose, transforming it into a vertical speed skating rink. “Over the years, these obstacles had been responsible for some brutal crashes that produced holes in pants, lumps on the head, chipped teeth, and bruises in every color of the rainbow.”
Family and neighbors in our yard. Sometimes we would line up side by side and race down the hill, increasing our chances of becoming crash test dummies.
One time in 1964, we had a rare two-foot snowfall. (I know, I know. Two-foot snowfalls are as common as clam chowder up New England way.) My best friend Patty, my sister Sandy, and I worked more than an hour to dig a narrow path down our hill, which we used as a bobsled run, racing our sleds along its banks, sometimes transforming the longest one into a three-man bobsled. We pulled out our inner tube—the real thing, a black inner tube from a car tire—and gave that a whirl down the bobsled run, too. That was a one of a kind snowstorm and a one of a kind bobsledding experience!
Occasionally, we were able to sled ride on our road when the plows and cinder trucks had not yet come through. We lived in a hollow with steep hills on either side. In that venue, it was playing dodge ’em with parked cars that made things hazardous.
As we got older, we sometimes ventured out to more death-defying locations for sled riding, but you surely couldn’t beat the convenience of walking out of your house and onto the course without waiting for roads to clear or a driver to come forward. Eventually, the inevitable happened, and we traded in our sleds for more “mature” occupations. I suppose my dad gave the sleds away—except for the Flexible Flyer that he parked in the basement rafters, where it remained for many years.
As I mentioned in my first post, my husband grew up not far from me, and he, too, loved a rousing sled adventure. Here he is with his dad and their Rocket Plane circa 1960. I’m not sure which “kid” was having the most fun.
Time marched on. We got married and had a son and a daughter, and, once again, a hill behind our new house that was perfect for sled riding. Frank’s Rocket Plane came out of his parents’ furnace room and was passed on to us to be enjoyed by a second generation.
Young Frank and Leslie went out back year after year with the Rocket Plane and two typical plastic sleds of the day, and they have their own stories to tell (or not tell).
Now and then, when we all visited my parents on a snowy day in the late 70’s and 80’s, my dad would rescue our old Flexible Flyer from the rafters so that the old hill could once again resound with the laughter of children.
Enough dreaming. Back to December 2012. The day after Christmas I got my wish and was blessed to bear witness to a first that was as joyful to me as it was awesome to my grandchildren: it snowed six inches that day, and Katie and Mikey got to poke it, kick it, throw it, tramp in it, make balls with it, and ride on it with Frank’s sixty-year-old Rocket Plane.
Here is Katie’s first sled ride—with her daddy—on Grandpa’s sled. She is saying “Slide.”
Here is Mikey’s first sled ride—with his daddy. He is saying and signing “More.”
This past December, we were blessed to have Mikey and Katie return for Christmas 2013—along with a new addition, Mikey’s 4-month-old brother Andrew. Once again, we were fortunate to get two inches of snow the day after Christmas, enough to sled ride. This time the kids used the typical plastic non-steerable sleds used today. Having substantially matured (at least in her mind), Katie chose to ride the sled by herself this year. When Mike saw what she was doing, he was sure to follow. Of course, close parental supervision was required.
Before long, Mikey and Katie will probably be asking Santa or their grandparents for the Flexible Flyer PT Blaster, the latest in sledding technology. Looking more like a snowmobile than the standard sled, this durable plastic ride sports a fully functional steering wheel and spring-activated brake, a far cry from Grandma’s 1950’s Flexible Flyer and Grandpa’s Rocket Plane.
And one of these days, I suppose, Mike and Katie will graduate from the back yard hill and seek the thrills of more heart-stopping sled runs in the Pittsburgh area such as Sunny Slopes in South Park or Flagstaff Hill near Carnegie Mellon University.
How special can sled riding memories be? Look no further than the iconic 1941 movie Citizen Kane, where the dying word of Charles Foster Cane was simply “Rosebud,” his beloved childhood sled that meant more to him than anything money could buy.
If you are interested in the history of snow sleds, you may want to peruse the Sled Hill site. It examines and displays a large collection of antique sleds, most notably Flexible Flyers. If you have a time-worn or much loved childhood sled at home, you may want to check out its page on the care and restoration of antique sleds, which is written in impressive detail. Read more.
For a more comprehensive history of snow sleds, including the earliest American sleds of the 19th century, check out the Mountain States Collector site (Robert Reed, A Season For Sleds, November 1995). Read more.
The ultimate authority on snow sleds and their history is Joan Palacia, from whom I garnered the information I used in my factual description above. If you’re an antique sled enthusiast or wish to become more knowledgeable, pick up Joan’s book: Palacia, Joan. Flexible Flyers and Other Great Sleds for Collectors. Atglen, PA: Sciffer Pub., 1997.
Which sled did you use as a child? Where did you ride? Any hair-raising tales to share? If you would like to comment, click on “Leave a Response” under my title.
Finally, I must add that grandparenthood has allowed me to come full circle in many ways. This last video, taken at Christmas 2012, proves that even an old fogey screaming Mimi grandma can still zip downhill just like she did 50 years ago.
KAREN GENNARI is the author of The Crab Hollow Chronicles, a fictitious memoir based on her experiences growing up in a neighborhood full of boys in 1961/62. It also explores the merits and challenges of life in a Catholic family of seven.
Join nine-year-old Karen Schmidt in her attempts to navigate Crab Hollow Road amidst the overwhelming male majority who beleaguer her at every opportunity. Does Karen have the fortitude to weather toadnappings, midnight escapades, false impersonation, and more? Along the way, relive the people, products, music, sports, and headlines of the early 1960’s. Virtually every page references the 1960’s. Lots of your favorite toys are mentioned in these pages.