A Disastrous Decision on Howe’s Hill: A Sledding Story

This is our own snow-covered backyard.

This is our own snow-covered backyard.

When I was a kid, it was always a big deal when my cousins from Minnesota came to visit. Bigger than big, actually. A huge deal. An enormous, gigantic, massive, can’t-sleep-a-wink-the-night-before deal. It was such a big event, we’d actually clean our house. That’s big. When they came over Christmas vacation, it was even more thrilling: we had a few days off from school, and if we were lucky, we had snow to play in.

Maybe I should tell you something about my remarkable cousins from Minnesota before I proceed. Set the stage, as it were. I idolized these bigger-than-life people. Still do, in fact. My mom’s beautiful older sister, Maria, and her husband Mark raised five children who all had more than just garden-variety skills in nearly every area. For example, where my siblings and I are all passable musicians, my cousins are amazing musicians, playing more than one instrument, and playing them all brilliantly. (At least that was my perception at the time.) Aunt Maria is an artist, of all things, who used to make beautiful fabric batiks, and all her children seemed to me to be very talented and creative, which I loved. Their family did things that nobody else did.

For example, they lived in Germany for a few years, where Uncle Mark taught in a high school there. Then they moved onto an acreage in Minnesota with a jillion animals, including these angora rabbits which Aunt Maria would bring into the house in the evenings and comb. She still raises them. She makes the combed hair into yarn, which she knits into socks and sweaters and the warmest, softest mittens. Uncle Mark could stand on his head. Who else does these things? Nobody in Nelson, Nebraska, that’s all I knew. I was, and am still, enthralled.

They also all seemed unusually brilliant as well, of course. I remember one time when we were visiting them in their home in Blue Earth, Minnesota. Michael, the eldest cousin, had taken some doorknobs off some doors in the basement, and had taken them all apart. He then had laid all the little pieces out on the ping-pong table and had explained, painstakingly, to all us younger kids how all the parts worked together. We sat; speechless, spellbound, drooling probably, not understanding a word he said, but extremely impressed that he could take apart all those doorknobs and get away with it. My aunt probably wasn’t so spellbound later when she found the basement doorknobs all lying in pieces on the ping-pong table.

Everything my Minnesota cousins did seemed so grand to me. Of course I must remind you that I did grow up in Nelson, Nebraska (i.e. “the Sticks”) and probably was more easily impressed than most. If my cousins would have told me that they had invented ice cream, or had traveled to the moon on bicycles, I probably would have believed them.
But, hey, give me some credit. The three boys are now rocket scientists in California, from what I understand. Or at least they used to be. You’ve heard people say “Well, you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to—” Well, my cousins are rocket scientists. Lisa, the oldest daughter, has been featured on television news programs and in magazines for running a unique little restaurant in Amboy, Minnesota; Sarah raises, breaks, and trains horses and writes children’s books. See what I mean?

The last time I asked one of the boys what he did for a living, he opened his mouth and started to talk, and I found myself studying his blue eyes, and then drawing the contour of his face in my mind, since I couldn’t follow what he was saying, exactly. (An artist’s fallback is that, when perplexed by what somebody is trying to explain to you, you can always zone out and draw the person’s face in your invisible sketchbook. I do this more than I’d like to admit. “Let’s see. . . I’d say those eyes are closer to cobalt than cerulean. . . with just the tiniest splash of viridian. . .”) I’m sorry for all this meandering, but I just need to instill in you, Gentle Readers, appropriate awe of my Minnesota cousins, so you’ll understand why events in this story unfolded as they did. Have I accomplished this goal? If so, I will proceed with my story.

So—to recap–our cousins from Minnesota were coming for a visit, it was a humongous deal, it was Christmas vacation, and we were cleaning house.

Indulge me as I drag you down one more little side trip on memory lane–the house I grew up in was massive—if you count the attic and the sunken furnace room, (and I always do) it had five stories. We didn’t clean every room, nay, not even every floor, but it was still a sizable task to clean just the “public” areas. Poor Mom. I’m certain it wasn’t so much all of us cleaning as it was Mom cleaning, and shooing us out of the way when our “help” became unbearable. By “us cleaning,” I mean we kids bickered and picked on each other as we loitered about, watching out the windows so we’d be the first to see our remarkable Minnesota cousins coming. We’d fight for the prime window in the library, for best chances at spotting their ultra-cool station wagon pulling into our driveway. (Even their car was different.)

Trip to Nelson, 2012 134

When Mom entered a room that we were “cleaning,” we’d kick an object or two under the couch, or feign dusting. But enough about our own personal ineptitude. I’m sure our intentions were good. Mom was more patient with us than I’d have been.

Anyway. When our cousins finally arrived, we’d dash around and do every fun thing we could imagine, and then we’d do every fun thing they could imagine. Their fun things, of course, were much more fun than our fun things. (I’d use the word “funner” here if, indeed, it was a word. It should be, in my opinion. Some things are fun. Some things are funner, right?) We’d suggest a snow-ball fight. They’d suggest building snow forts, tunnels, and would organize a block-wide snow war. We’d propose hide-and-seek. They’d conjure up a town-wide scavenger hunt on bicycles, and we’d cover every corner of town, and visit nearly every housewife with fresh cookies, before we were done.

A very wet snowstorm blew in while they were visiting this time, and after supper we suggested hunkering down, with hot chocolate and cookies, to play Monopoly. They suggested we go up to the town’s one real sledding hill and pretend to be kamikaze pilots in the dark. Whoa, that was a much better (see how the word funner would come in handy, here?) suggestion! We were awesome and independent and spending our Christmas vacation with our amazing cousins and a little thing like a snowstorm in the dark with accompanying dangerous windchills (as a matter of fact, I don’t think dangerous windchills were even mentioned back then) wasn’t going to slow us down, no sir! So we bundled up to the tips of our little pink noses, grabbed all the sleds we could find and set out in the dark, to have fun in that snowstorm, with our incredible cousins. It was not something that we’d have done on our own. We were pretty excited, to understate it wildly.

But it gets better: We—ordinarily dull and staid and boring compared to our cousins—actually had something to bring to the table this time. Mark had under his arm our brand-spankin’ new orange toboggan that Santa had brought us for Christmas, gleaming, full of promise. It had three jointed sections—so one person could ride it in its folded-up state, or it could be unfolded and as many as six kids could pile on. It was awesome! We hadn’t even used it yet. We were going to share the experience of its Maiden Voyage with our Minnesota cousins. Mark and I were going to ride it together for the first time down the hill, and then we’d share. Spirits were high.

It was snowing heavily and it must have been nearly ten o’clock by the time we started trudging up to Howe’s Hill. It was very dark. Nelson only had, roughly, about 6 streetlights. This hill was on the edge of town, and the only decent sledding spot in Nelson. It was behind the town doctor’s house, and it was quite steep, with a grove of saplings at the bottom. Of course we’d never had to worry about hitting those saplings, because our sleds always coasted to a stop safely many yards before the tree line. (cue rising music filled with tension)

Howe’s Hill had a rather eerie element, too, in that the town cemetery was situated on a rising hill directly behind it. This was also probably why we never went sledding at night. Seeing those gravestones glinting in the moonlight was a little too disturbing for us.
But with our remarkable cousins—ahh, nothing was too scary. If our cousins wanted to go sledding in a snowstorm late at night, in utter darkness, just a stone’s throw from a creepy graveyard, who were we to argue? They were the greatest cousins on the planet, and we’d follow them blindly anywhere. Even to the moon, on bicycles.
In any case, what could possibly go wrong?

Here are some of my own little crew playing in the snow.

Here are some of my own little crew playing in the snow.

As we trudged through the snow up the hill, I was focused on finding my cousin Conrad, in the dark. I had a crush on Conrad, and was planning to marry him when we were grown-ups, so I’d try to position myself next to him, so the courting process could begin as soon as possible. (It didn’t work out, by the way.) His bright blue eyes were like lasers, even in the dark, and every time he’d focus them on me (which was unfortunately not very often, since he didn’t know that I even existed) I’d go weak in the knees and stumble in the snow. We labored up the hill in the dark, trying to keep track of each other without actually being able to see. We were giddy, and laughed and joked continually. Walking up that hill with my cousins would have been good enough, but the kamikaze sled-rides were going to cap even the hill-trudging experience, I was sure. Not to mention, the thrilling and first-ever Maiden Voyage!

If we were lucky, maybe our cousins’ cool and inventive natures would actually rub off on us! Today—sledding in the dark. Tomorrow, inventing—who knows? Intergalactic time travel? Anything was possible! And maybe one of us would learn how to play the lute!

We got to the top of Howe’s Hill at last, and the boys carefully planned the order of the kamikaze missions to follow. Since the toboggan belonged to Mark and me, we were going to ride it on the Maiden Voyage, and we would be the last ones down the hill. Now I have to admit that I had no idea what they were talking about, and I wasn’t about to reveal my utter ignorance, but a dictionary came in handy, later. If the phrase “kamikaze pilots” is on the edge of your working vocabulary, as it was mine, this tidbit of information will hopefully come in handy. The word kamikaze refers to (a) Japanese suicide pilots, who were trained for suicide missions of flying aircraft packed with explosives into an enemy target, usually a ship. It also can refer to (b) the aircraft itself, or (c) a reckless person with seemingly self-defeating or self-destructive actions. (You’ll learn the relevance of this cleverly-chosen phrase in just a moment. Especially the fact that the cousins were referring to meaning (a), in that we were going to charge down the hill like idiot suicide pilots, but the actual meaning of this event was much closer to definition (c).)

So that’s what we were going to do! Poised at the top of the hill, snow still falling heavily, in the darkness, my cousins, one by one, viciously yelled some Japanese-sounding phrase (“Acheeoffanubbit! Cheecheeyahbee!”) then threw themselves onto their sleds, and disappeared into the swirl of white. . . and then darkness. One by one. . . Michael was first, then (sigh!) Conrad, then Hanns, then Sarah. It was Mark’s and my turn. The Moment of Glory was upon us. The much-ballyhooed and highly-anticipated Maiden Voyage. We carefully positioned the glorious Christmas toboggan. It was breathtaking to be part of such a memorable occasion, being the magnificent exclamation mark, as it were, to the first ever Howe’s Hill Kamikaze Mission. Mark shrieked out a little speech (“HAIAWANEE! OOscareabit!”) into the gusts of snow, and then he bent down and whispered to me:

“I have a brilliant idea! Let’s go down the hill backwards!”

“Are you crazy??” I sputtered. “On the Maiden Voyage???” My brother Mark came up with some pretty nutty ideas, and this one was a doozy.

“Amy!! C’mon, it’ll be amazing!” Without any further ado, he jumped on the sled, backwards. I was tentative and apprehensive, as I generally was when Mark had “brilliant” ideas. They just so often went awry. Then he said those words that still stick in my craw, so to speak.

“Don’t be a chicken, Amy.”

All our cousins were waiting for us at the bottom of the hill, so I swallowed my fears and pushed my better judgement aside, and I jumped on in front of him, muttering my own anemic-sounding Japanese syllables. We pushed off into a swirl of white, and went down that hill so fast it took my breath away.

Several exhilarating moments followed, as we sped down that hill faster than we’d ever traveled on a sled before. That fresh snow must have had just the right amount of moisture, just the perfect amount of lack of moisture, because it sure was slick. Slicker than snot on a doorknob, as my dad likes to say, and isn’t it convenient to re-introduce the doorknob theme?

Not only did we go faster than ever before, we went (rising crescendo in music) farther than we had ever gone before. Remember that little grove of saplings at the bottom of the hill? The ones we’d never had to worry about, because we’d never gone within several yards of? Yes, them. Well, keep them in mind, as you picture Mark and me, sitting backwards on our orange toboggan, moving so fast in the darkness that it felt as if we were flying. We barely touched the ground. I didn’t think we’d ever stop.  It was thrilling.  And scary.  It was . . . thrary. Or scrilling.

Maybe if we hadn’t been sitting backwards on our brand-spankin’ new orange Christmas toboggan, we would have seen the dark shapes of those trees as we approached them at lightning-speed. Perhaps if it hadn’t been dark, or maybe if the snow hadn’t been falling so heavily, we would have had an inkling of what was to come. But we were sitting backwards, it was (as you remember) quite dark, and the snow was, indeed, falling quite heavily. The bone-rattling “crunch!” as we crashed into one of those little trees was painful on so many levels. Mark and I toppled off into the deep snow, thankfully not hitting the tree with our own hard, dumb heads. (His being harder and dumber, at this moment, anyway.) But our beautiful, brand new Christmas toboggan? It cracked cruelly across its gleaming orange brand-new face. Even in the darkness we could see it, and it put a sick knot into the pit of my stomach. We both looked at each other in the darkness, and one awful question was in both of our heads:  What would Dad say?

The rest of the sledding expedition was a little dampened by our accident, but somehow we rallied a bit and still had our share of fun on Howe’s Hill that night. We pushed the gleaming and now-cracked toboggan to the side and didn’t ride it again.  I didn’t relish the thought of telling Dad about it. In fact, I dreaded it wholeheartedly. Mark, Mark-like, didn’t seem to feel the same amount of dread and foreboding that I did. He’d definitely been in worse scrapes. We decided to wait until the next day, at a moment when Dad seemed in a decent mood, after a good dinner, say, to reveal the awful truth of our foolishness (mainly Mark’s).

As it is, we’re fortunate enough to have a Dad who not only understands the occasional and constant foolishness of children, but also can fix nearly anything. After a sternly-worded, lengthy lecture (which should have been intended for my brother alone, but you know what little sisters have to suffer through!) he put a couple of screws into the front of the toboggan, and glued a piece of oak across it to further strengthen it, and deemed it nearly as good as new. I think Mom and Dad were relieved, after all, that it was the toboggan, and not one of our heads, that was cracked in the unfortunate incident.

We had many more memorable visits with our cousins, and I’m thankful for every one of those visits, because each one has left me with gobs of story material. But this one is long enough, so I’ll leave it at that!

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