When I was a young girl in the 1950s, life was lived at a much different pace than it is now. In those slower times, when it snowed in the winter, the town of Oakmont placed wooden horses at the top of Maryland Avenue on the edge of Eighth Street and at the upper side of the intersection on Fifth Street. All of the cross roads and alleys in these blocks had horses placed at their entrances to Maryland Avenue, and the folks who lived on that street in those three blocks had to park their cars on the side streets and walk into their homes. When this happened, this portion of the road was officially blocked off, and we had a car-free, worry-free playground.
It took a lot to make me leave the books I loved and go out and play, but this impromptu, snow-covered park had a magical power over me, and I would drag my wooden sled over to this play land. I was usually by myself, and I would trudge up to the top of the hill and place my sled on the slight flat spot where it would teeter as I lined it up for my ride down the slope. I would scoot back and forth to try to get the sled to edge past that flat spot and convince the sled runners to quit hanging over that little ledge with nothing but air under them and finally drop forward to meet the snow and start their run. Then I would fly down the street, sail over the two humps in the middle that made my stomach do flip flops, hit the bottom section that was somewhere between hill and level and finally swoosh down to the cinders placed at the upper side of the intersection on Fifth Street. When I hit those cinders, the sled tried to maintain its forward momentum, and the steel runners of my American Flyer would throw out sparks and the grinding of metal sounded until the cinders finally grabbed hold of that steel and brought me to a halt.
Once when I was stopped in the cinders and sitting there gathering together after my ride (my father said I must have been daydreaming – but then he always accused me of that), a sled with two “big kids” came rolling in fast and slammed hard into the back of my sled. I flew up and off and onto the street bed. I landed on my face and was dragged through the cinders, unwittingly scooping up sharp pieces of burnt coal into my nose and across my skin as I traveled facedown through the ashy debris. I am not clear on what happened next, but I remember a nameless teenage boy picked me up in his arms and carried me to my home which was two doors over. He deposited me at the front door with my mother, but try as I might I don’t remember her reaction or what she said. I don’t think I was scared; but I do know that Dr. Hagan was hastily called and met us at his office in the Henke Building, where he used tweezers and other instruments to pick the dirt painfully out of my bloodied face. He and I sat face-to-face as I bravely sat gripping the sides of my seat for what seemed a long, long time while he worked patiently and slowly, as Dr. Hagan was wont to do. I was around 10 when this accident happened, and I still carry cinder scars in my nose.
But that didn’t stop me from going back to that hill as soon as I could. After each trip down, I would make the long trek back up dragging my sled by its rope. Rope was easy to come by, as there were clotheslines in most backyards in those days, and our yard was no different. When I needed a new length on my sled, I would take a butcher knife out, fold that rope double, and haggle the blade back and forth to cut a hunk off the roll of clothesline that usually hung on the hook attached to the garage. It would take me a long time, because I wasn’t very strong, and I didn’t know what I was doing. I would tie the new rope to the holes in the ends of the steering bar and make big sloppy knots underneath to hold it, and off I would go on my next solitary, snowy adventure. I can remember watching my 12-year old brother put a new rope on his sled, and he did it so well and quickly and his knots were much better than mine, but I didn’t ask him for help. I don’t know why, but I think we were that kind of a family. Maybe I was that kind of a kid.
I didn’t wear a helmet or knee pads; I didn’t worry about cutting myself with the knife; and there was no concern about child molesters stealing me. Most of my play time was totally unsupervised, and I had no organized play dates.
There were no girls my age in our neighborhood, and my brother didn’t ask me to go sled riding with him - and that may be because boys rode sleds hard. My brother and his friends would go up to the top of the hill, hold their sleds up parallel to their bodies and then throw the sled down onto the street while at the same time dropping down on those wooden slats in a well-timed belly flop, and begin their rides like they were in a snow-covered rodeo. They went even faster if they sandpapered or waxed their runners before they hit the slopes.
I was more timid and sedate, and that is surprising since I was growing up in an almost all-boy neighborhood. At the top of the hill, there was always the decision as to whether I would lie down on my stomach or sit up to speed down the hill. If I chose to sit up, I had to steer with my feet, and if I lay down, I had to steer with my hands. I mostly preferred sitting up, as I would rather lead with my feet than my face, a preference that became even stronger after my run-in with the cinders. Besides, if I went down the hill sitting up on the sled, when I wasn’t hanging on to the wooden frame at the sides or pulling back on the rope to keep my balance, I liked to drop at least one mittened hand down to the street and drag it through the snow. My father was right; I did daydream.