Do you remember the times when you felt you were really alive? I mean really, really alive. Sometimes a first in a lifetime experience, other times cheating death by the smallest margin. Every cell and fiber of your being vibrating like the E string on a violin. I think you know what I mean.
One of those times for me was hanging on to the back bumper of a 52 Plymouth, hunkered down over my shoes, barreling along at 40 MPH on a snow encrusted gravel road, buddies on both sides, yelling at the top of our lungs. Said road was seven blocks long – you had a choice – let go now, take your chances on compound fractures as you bounced along the road, or hang on as the car hit 50 and beyond. Knowing that if you let go, a concussion and disfigurement would be the least of your worries.
If you considered yourself lucky, immortal, immune from injury, or had just broken up with your girlfriend (therefore no reason to live), you could risk all and hold on until the Plymouth slowed for the corner at the end – all told, maybe a minute and a half. I have to admit, most times I would let the car get up to about 15 MPH, lose courage and bail, sliding along on my feet to a halt, arms in the air for balance. Or down on the seat of my pants, my butt experiencing a nice bruising. But once in a great while, I hung on for dear life, screaming the whole time for the car to slow, and make it to the far corner. It was a full body rush beyond belief. That was Buzzing. It was living.
Wintertime – snow and ice on all the roads – 3:00 PM, classes just letting out. In the school parking lot were cool cars of the fifties – Chevys, Fords, Plymouths, and even one wealthy kid with a 54 Buick Convertible. Fake spotlights, laker’s side pipes, tuck and roll nagahyde upholstery – throaty mufflers giving out a mellow tone and best of all, massive rear chrome bumpers. For those of us that didn’t have wheels, but were dumb enough to take the dares of our friends, we could Buzz rides in the general direction of home. Sometimes half a block, sometimes half a mile. Double gripped, weight balanced over the balls of your feet, courage up, hoping to be the last one to let go.
Let me set the stage. Pleasant Grove was pretty much a gravel streeted small town in the 50’s. Dad’s worked at Geneva Steel, Mom’s stayed home to raise the family and can (put up) all kinds of fruits and vegetables in Mason Jars. Sort of early Emergency Preparedness although we ate most of it from November til May.
In the winter the snow would accumulate on the roads; freeze, melt, and freeze again until you had a couple of inches of good solid black ice as a base. No salt, little sand, once a week snowplow. At least a foot or more of snow in the fields.
Not much to do in mid January, not much to do period in a small town in winter – reread Tarzan the Terrible, watch Laurence Welk with your parents, go to the Saturday Matinee in hopes of a good cartoon – miniature jaw breakers to throw at the girls from the balcony. But, we did find certain pursuits in the great, cold outdoors.
Before our teens, we would beg our dads to round up the tractor or a vehicle with studded snow tires. Then we would tie on a stout rope and form a “train of sleds” behind. Each successive sled with its rope through the back runner of the one in front. Get six or seven of us, a masochist father, a tractor with a high-speed gear, and mayhem would be the result.
Dads’ seem to love to run at full throttle, throwing the vehicle from side to side – hearing the screams of their offspring and his assorted friends. The sleds whipped back and forth the full width of the road like a serpentine. Last guy dragging his boots – crossways on his sled – hanging on for dear life – trying to stay on the road. It was like being the cracker on the end of a whip.
Someone would eventually fall off – hopefully in the middle of the train. Naturally you would think the guys behind would let go their ropes – the tractor slowing to a stop, so no one would be injured. Nope – not a one of us let go until all of the following sleds had run over the body –usually bloody and crying by that time. Our Dads’ laughed heartily at such a spectacle. Then made it a point to cut short the next corner and drag everyone through an irrigation ditch – upending every rider.
They also enjoyed taking us out in the plowed fields, unrestricted by any impediments – the first sled basically acting as a snow submarine. We drew lots for who hooked up right behind the tractor since you could count on not seeing daylight until you fell off. If you lasted a couple of minutes you got to go to the end of the string to glide along the beaten path. With a nasty grin our fathers would roar around the field, then with fiendish glee, turn a tight circle, the first riders cutting across the last of the line – result – a tumbling mass of ropes, sleds and boys. I have often wondered why it brought our dads such delight in compounding our sledding difficulties. I think in some twisted way it felt like payback – for all of the deprivations they themselves had suffered growing up during the depression years.
The roads, both asphalt and gravel were a whole different situation. Steep streets ran from the foothills down into town. Battlecreek Drive and Grovecreek Drive were the favorites. They were both asphalt and as such, the ice formed was smoother. It was the Indy 500 of sledding. When someone says Sleigh Riding, your mind probably brings up a picture of a Flexible Flyer – happy children sit astride, a sweet older brother pulling the sled – winter bluebirds singing in the background. We were at the lower end of the sleigh food chain – and our sleds had names such as Sears, and Montgomery Wards and occasionally “Hand Made”. Steel runners and some wood slats.
In those darkening January evenings, we would gather up against the hills under the trees by the Flood Control (another area that many of us eventually became acquainted with – especially after dark as we explored the mysteries of romance). You’d run like crazy (okay, very slow crazy in rubber overshoes) and then SLAM (belly flop) the sled on the ice, landing on top just in time. Once in a while the runners would land on an area where the ice was missing or freshly sanded – hard to see at night – very few streetlights. The friction catapulted you – bouncing your Noggin along the ice.
As I lay on the road numerous times – yup, slow learner – I would often picture a vision through the awakening mist (a wispily clad wood nymph – or maybe a cheerleader). A soft arm supporting my head, she would caress my lips with a few drops of brandy from a silver flask as she brought me gently back to consciousness. Like most of my dreams it went unfulfilled.
Later in my teens I did have a chance to sip a bit of brandy –purple, cloudy, from an unknown fruit. As usual, I tossed caution to the winds and chugalugged three quick gulps. It burned like gasoline going down – two seconds later like kerosene coming up, spewing from my mouth and nose. A nice burgundy splatter pattern on my friend’s borrowed 59 Ford Station Wagon’s front seat – beige upholstery. Never been much of a drinker since then.
But back to the downhill sprints on Grovecreek Drive. If the Slamming was successful, then it was downhill at up to 30 MPH, steering by leaning, pulling on the sled handles, or, best of all, dragging one then the other of the toes of your five buckle overshoes. There were cross streets and some chance of being maimed if you were run over, but I wasn’t overly concerned about that – since I was usually in the middle of the pack and had early warning. The middle was very beneficial -one could grab the back runner of a friend, and spin him smashing into the banks along the sides. Accidents, overturned sleds, loose teeth, crashing into one another, threats, ungentlemanly language – absolutely – greatest fun on earth.
The problem on those long ago evenings was that once you reached the bottom of the hill, there was no way back up unless you wanted to hoof it (Shank’s Ponies, as my Dad used to say). Not good, depending on the size of your misfitted overshoes – always undersized or oversized. All of our houses were up the hill and it was about a mile up to the Flood Control. But there was another alternative – the aforementioned Buzzing. To a new-minted sledding aficionado, it looked like a way to sustain massive injuries, and to a certain extent, that is exactly what it was.
When a car rounded the corner at the cemetery to start uphill, they slowed to the point where you might grab onto the bumper with one hand. Your sled rope (hemp of course, no nylon in those days) in the other hand. Then it was just gravy – letting the car pull you up the hill, sliding along on your boots. If you got really lucky and had Olympic gymnast skills you could loop the rope around a bumper guard and fall on the sled.
The whole arrangement was fraught with possible mishaps. One, you got the loop around the bumper and then lost your grip and the sled went without you. Two, you may have hitched right behind the exhaust pipe or a studded snow tire and ate snow throw, carbon monoxide and sand until you could drop off. Three, the vehicle operator might be a grumpy farmer (are there any other kind?) who, as he became aware of buzzers on the back, tapped on the brakes, turned on to a cross street, or stopped, and threatened to give chase. Sometimes, after a few well-chosen words of exchange, the farmer would circle around and attempt to run us down as we lingered at the cemetery corner.
The best sledding/buzzing technique was to grasp the rope in the right hand, and then use both to grab the bumper, sled swinging away behind. Sometimes the chosen car only went a block or two – other times all the way up – about a mile. The problem was that occasionally there was that patch of ice-free asphalt or sand dump. When your boots hit at speed, your feet went straight back breaking your grip on the bumper. Smack down, new knee holes in the Levis and skin, overshoes almost ripped off, tears in your coat. Naturally your following sled ran right over you.
One other real danger was staying out past your family’s curfew – usually around 9:00 PM. Real trouble if you could see your dad’s car approaching – already fuming from looking for you. The initial punishment was for you to walk home immediately – then he might give you a couple of smacks with a Sam Brown Belt – all in all it was worth it to hang with my friends and experience near death.
At about fourteen sledding became juvenile, and we curtailed our sledding in favor of Buzzing. Preferring shoes, no gloves, and stupidity. Just that death grip on the bumper. To save money in those days, most of us had half soles applied after wearing out the first layer. Then we had metal taps put on the front and rear courtesy of thrifty parents. The rest of your shoe might wear out, but never the metal. Made it difficult to sneak up on anyone with those clickly-clicks every time you took a step.
Holding onto the back bumper, the taps would throw a great shower of sparks, especially on the gravel roads where there were lots of half-inch rock mixed in with the ice and snow. The driver – usually an older school friend with the sole intent of causing injury. On many winter days, we would wait for someone to stop at the high school corner and hook on for a try at the Seven Block Grand Prix.
There were plenty to oblige, letting us grab on, then accelerating as fast as possible, whipping the wheel from side to side to dislodge us – trying to hit 60 MPH by the time 5th North came up. While I was never guilty of any such act, there were times when some tried to dislodge a fellow “Buzzer” by swinging a hip, or shouldering in a bit so the victim might be in line with a wheel. Since the tires were always spinning, the shovee’s Levi crotch was the recipient of hard thrown snow and gravel – it could be very unpleasant.
When did I give up Buzzing? In my mind I never have, although these days you would probably be arrested by the police, the EPA, or PITA – your parents imprisoned for letting you participate, a lawyer to represent the Buzzing Driver – who would need lifelong counseling to forget the physical and mental injuries he had caused.
Even now, I still long for the middle part of a huge chrome bumper, a good wide grip, fresh taps on my shoes. The roar of Smitty Mufflers, the snow spray from the wheels, the blur of the side road – realizing that if I let go now, I might be called home a bit premature. But from the time I grabbed on until seven blocks later, I was more alive than the day I was born.