I loved winter when I was a kid. I hate it now because I’m old and one of the signs you’re getting old is when cold weather turns you into a troll, but I loved winter when I was a kid. It meant hot chocolate, late night movies on the weekends (eating buckets of popcorn, warming our feet under the radiator next to the tv in the living room), snow days off school, and sledding down the many hills in our neighborhood. I grew up in Greenhills, a suburb of Cincinnati, and you KNOW we did a lot of sledding because we had the word “hills” right there in the name.
The best place to go sledding in Greenhills was behind the high school. There was a monstrous hill just behind the library that went down for what seemed like a few stories, flattened out across the soccer field, and dropped off into the woods on the other side. All the kids showed up there at the first hint of snow, waiting for just enough coverage to make it down without pulling up clumps of sod and rolling.
By mid-January the hill had a nice, protective armor of ice and snow, shined to a perfect smoothness by the relentless barrage of the neighborhood kids and their many trips down. The goal was to attack the hill with enough speed to send you flying across the soccer field and off the edge of the field, into the woods. We had no idea what would happen if we actually accomplished this, but everyone there knew it would be “totally cool” if we did.
One year, we got a huge snowstorm, one of those blizzards that dumps several feet worth of snow in just a few hours. Everyone in the neighborhood gathered at the high school the following morning to take advantage of this gift. Rather that slide down the hill like normal, we brought shovels and, instead, spent three days building a snow track with high edges leading straight down the hill and across the field. It was like a rudimentary luge ramp, only perfectly straight and made entirely out of snow. With this, we said, we couldn’t accidentally dart sideways. With this, we said, we can make it all the way to the woods.
Once we had it built, Matt Kemper from Cromwell road got the bright idea to smooth it out with our sleds and douse the whole course with water just before nightfall.
The next morning, Adam Hester, a tall third grader from Damon Road, stood atop the hill, waiting for the right moment. He set his bright orange sled at the top of the ramp, stood back about ten yards, and took a running start. He leapt through the air and hit the sled, which took off like a bullet, leaving a cloud of slow and ice in his wake. It was like watching the Roadrunner speeding away from Wile E. Coyote. The only difference was this was real life, and a few short seconds into Adam’s trip, we all knew this would end badly.
He flew across the soccer field, hurtling toward the edge of the field leading to the drop-offs into the woods and he never slowed down. “It was the water that did the trick,” Matt Kemper said later, with a mixture of pride and horror. “I thought of that.”
Adam hit the drop-off at full speed, rose into the air a few feet like the General Lee in the Dukes of Hazzard, then dropped into the woods and out of sight. We heard a few crashes, then a brief silence, and then a loud wail that signified Adam had landed somewhere below, likely in an uncomfortable position.
It took us a good hour to get Adam back up the hill. Several kids had gone to get his parents by then and an ambulance had arrived to take him to the hospital. Adam’s parents gave us stern looks and admonishments to “be more careful” and lectures that we should “act like men, not boys” and promises that they would “call all your parents just as soon as we get home.”
Then they got in their car, leaving the rest of us in silence to ponder what we had done. In the coming weeks, we would learn that Adam had broken an arm, his leg, his collarbone, and two bones in his left foot. He had suffered a concussion and a laceration across his back so deep they wondered about the kind of scar it would leave. He was on crutches for several months and was unable to play baseball the following spring. Later, we would learn an important lesson about the need to plan carefully and always pay attention to the dangers that lay waiting for us just over the next ridge.
But all of that was later. That day, standing in the snow by ourselves, we did the only thing you can expect of young boys with a pile of snow, an abundance of time, and several new sleds.
We said, “That was cool. I’m next!”