Monday, March 28, 2011

A Shaky Start, But a Speedy Finish

Trudging to school one October morning, I was startled when Clair Woodard shouted a warning as he wobbled past me on a funny-looking bicycle. Catching up with him at school, I joined the others who had clustered around him to examine his new acquisition. Even in that day, the bike had an old-fashioned appearance. Its thirty inch wheels with narrow tires put the rider high in the air while the very small, springless seat offered little comfort. But he and his brother Clinton were elated to be the first at our school to have a bike, even though they had to share it.

Proud of their new acquisition, they offered the chance to ride to any who were interested. Simultaneously I was eager to try and fearful of making a fool of myself. Desire won out. “Let me try,” I begged Clair.

Holding the bike upright next to the front step of the school, Clair said: “Climb on.” The pedal shanks were so long that my feet would touch the pedals during only part of their revolution. Clair shoved, setting the machine in motion, and I pedaled away, weaving wildly across the school yard and into the road. Since I couldn’t reach the ground with my feet, it was either ride or fall. I was afraid to fall.

At the church corner, I turned east onto the pavement where the bike picked up speed. Clair and Clinton were way behind in the pursuit of their precious bike which was not equipped with brakes of any kind. This couldn’t go on forever.

“Ride into the ditch,” they shouted. Glued to the handlebars, my fingers finally responded. The left pedal caught the sod at the edge of the ditch. Over I went in a heap without one shred of dignity. Disentangling myself from the bike, I examined the places that hurt. A nasty bruise on one leg and a brush burn on my arm summed up total damages. The sturdy old bike was unscathed.

Pushing the bike back up the road, I was met by the concerned owners. Sweat running down his cheeks, Clinton exploded, “We thought you weren’t ever going to stop.” In spite of this awkward and scary start, the desire to have a bike of my own became a consuming passion. I was hooked on riding, as this was an activity where normal feet were not a requisite.

On father’s restricted income, I well knew that getting a new bike was out of the question. When I waxed eloquent on the subject of a used one, he responded: “But you have a wagon and a scooter and a tricycle.” Not only were these old, but I had practically outgrown them. How could father even compare things which were so unlike in form and function?

“Father, did you see Don’s new bike?” I inquired hopefully.

“Yes. It’s really a nice one,” he admitted. Painted a bright red and sporting twenty-six inch balloon tires and a headlight, I thought nothing could be finer.

“Will you really try to find me a used one?” I continued my ardent campaign. This he agreed to do.

After some inquiry, father heard that Roy Shaw in Cattaraugus still had his old bike after having gotten a new one for his paper route. I gave father no rest until we went to look at the retired unit.

My first view of its dusty frame and rusty fenders might have been described as interest but hardly love at first sight. The deteriorated tires were flat and the frame was broken at the crossbar. It certainly was not in mint condition. The blacksmith was able to braze the frame. Father bought two new tires and tubes. With a can of red paint, I covered its many scars. But I did have a bicycle of my own. As it turned out, it was the only one I ever owned as a boy.

* * * * *

“Mother. I’m going out to slide before I do my chores.” “Be careful,” she admonished as usual, for sledding in winter for me had proved to be a more dangerous pastime than riding a bicycle.

December days were short, leaving little opportunity for fun between the time I got home from school and daily chores. Grabbing my sled, I started for the road. A small grade descended from our house to the Brooklyn bridge. The snow, packed hard by passing vehicles, had been topped off by some freezing rain. It seemed just perfect for sliding. Holding my sled in both hands, I ran as fast as I could and then took a belly-flop, all actions calculated to gain forward momentum. I made a fast take-off.

I had failed to observe a spot part way down the hill where snow scarcely covered the pavement. When the runners hit this exposed surface, the sled stopped instantly. Inertia caused me to continue my forward movement without the sled. My face became the main point of contact, much to the detriment of my nose, forehead, chin, and teeth. Stunned for the moment, I lay sprawled in the road until the pain in my face became severe. The lenses of my glasses had shattered, cutting my face. Picking up the mangled frames, I stumbled back to the house, dragging my sled. Mother had heard me coming.

“Arnold, what did you do?” she cried.

Without waiting for an explanation, she used the limited first aid supplies available to remove bits of broken glass from my chin and cheeks, cleansed my scraped face, and applied Cloverine Salve before bandaging the area. Not one word was said about chores that evening. Since my face swelled up grotesquely, I was the center of interest when I went to school the next day. Without my glasses, doing schoolwork was difficult.
In time, all except my teeth returned to normal. The glasses had to be completely replaced, as the frames were twisted beyond repair. Although very painful, I’m sure that the physical discomfort for me was not greater than my remorse at causing my parents the financial pain for new glasses.
The Cadillac of sleds was without challenge the Flexible Flyer, due to its superior steering capability. Don had one. So did Preston and Hank. They could turn a corner with ease while my sled went into the ditch, unresponsive to my guidance. I strongly envied the owners of these maneuverable machines. Only recently, at a yard sale, I finally realized my dream of ownership. For one paltry dollar, I took title to a very old and tired specimen. It is now awaiting restoration in my basement.

* * * * *

“Come see what Dad and Grandpa are making me,” Don urged the moment I arrived for a Saturday afternoon of play. In the farm shop a new bobsled was under construction. The two sets of bobs or runners were fashioned from tough oak banded with steel to provide a durable contact surface. The rear set of runners was attached to a plank over a foot wide and eight feet long. The front set of runners was pivoted so it could be turned. The driver steered by pulling on a rope attached to the point of each runner. He steadied himself by placing his boots on a footrest at the front of the plank. A narrow handrail on each side provided a handhold for the passengers.

“Where did you get the wood?” I wanted to know.

“From trees in our woods,” Don replied. “We took them to the sawmill to be cut. When they were cured, we had the boards planed.”

“What about the irons on the runners?” I persisted.

“They’re old teeth from the hay rake. The blacksmith in East Otto shaped them for us.”

Lloyd Sprowl, Don’s father, was applying a coat of dark green paint to the plank. “It will be ready by the time the first snow comes,” he promised.

Our impatience was rewarded when an early storm dumped several inches of snow - enough to thoroughly cover the dirt road with a packed surface. Don had plenty of company breaking in the new bobs, which held six or seven children. Packed tightly, each rider held the legs of the person behind him.

“Shove off,” Don called. The last boy pushed vigorously and then attempted to hop on to the back of the moving bobsled.

Daily my desire grew to have a bobsled of my own, for with ownership went the right to steer. Without proper boards or a shop in which to work on it, I realized acquiring one wouldn’t be easy. But my eagerness could not be contained.

At supper one evening, I asked: “Father, do you think there is any way I could get a bobsled?”

To my surprise, his answer was a tentative, “I’ll keep my eyes open and do some inquiring.” In his role as pastor, father made many calls on parishioners over quite an area. A few weeks later, he announced on returning from Cattaraugus, “I heard of a bobsled which we can get for nothing if its even worth fixing.”

“Where?” I wanted to know.

“At Myrtie Freeborn’s place over on Lovers Lane. It’s one her grandchildren, Sanford and Beatrice, used to have.”

As we pulled it out from under a pile of boards in the yard, I could see it was in deplorable condition. Two of the wooden runners were split, the footrest was smashed, and the handrails were broken. I helped father load it into our old trailer to bring it home. Father located an old oak board from his small hoard which was stashed in the barn. He sawed out two new runners and had the blacksmith shape the old irons to fit. After we replaced the rails and footrest, I applied two coats of scarlet paint and spent hours trying to shine up the rusty runner irons until they shone. For me, the period of reconstruction had dragged, although I was happy with this resurrected version. Then I had to wait over a week for snow enough to pull my bobs over to show Don and to try it out. I was delighted to find my bobsled was as long as his.

Hammond Hill, rising sharply from the Pratt Homestead, was both steep and fairly long. This was prior to the time when the road department cut the grade back to its present level. It was convenient for Don to have the best sledding slope practically at his front door. In those days the road was neither sanded nor salted, although sometimes town trucks did some plowing of snow. Horse-drawn bobsled tracks firmed the surface as farmers transported loads of logs for fuel or took grain to the mill in East Otto to be ground for feed.

Two main hazards of this course were the curve at the bottom of the hill and its intersection with West Road at the same spot. Arriving at this junction at the same moment as a vehicle was an exciting and dangerous possibility. Some very close calls were inevitable, collision being avoided only by running into the ditch. Ice on the hill increased speed at the same time control diminished. Under ideal sliding conditions, we whizzed past Pratts, clattered on past the school and church, and even continued on the county road almost to Gene Wing’s place on the opposite side of the valley.

Although crude by Olympic standards, we were able to roughly determine our speeds. Stationing two adults a measured distance apart on the hill, watches carefully synchronized, we calculated approximate speed from these readings. Some of our descents were clocked at over forty miles per hour.

Sliding at night carried with it a special sense of exhilaration accompanied by increased danger, for keeping on the road became more difficult. I tried fastening a flashlight to my bobsled, but the pitifully dim beam was useless and the batteries quickly failed. Batteries did cost scarce money. Nights with a full moon were best. One advantage of night sliding was that the lights of vehicles on the highway offered better warning of their approach than during daylight.

My first attempts to devise brakes were unsuccessful. A hand-brake which forced a pointed rod into the ground created almost no response. I finally came up with loops of chain which could be dropped down over the points of the rear runners. The weight of the loaded sled plus its forward motion forced the chains back and into the icy or snowy surface, effectively slowing and stopping the bobs. However, they were useful only in an emergency. Once the chains were released, the brakes could be inactivated only by stopping the bobsled and sliding them back up out of contact. Yet, in several emergencies, they proved to be a valuable accessory for averting disaster.

For me, this innovation was of special importance as it was one feature which Don’s bobsled did not have. Our competitive urge expressed itself in numerous races down Hammond Hill. Over the long run, neither of us gained a clear winning edge. Both shared the distinction of having the fastest bobsleds in the valley.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Merely Child’s Play

“Anti-eye over,” Preston yelled as he hurled the rubber ball over the peak of the schoolhouse roof, starting one more round of our favorite outdoor game.

"Anti-eye over,” the call came from the other side. Apparently they hadn’t caught the ball before it reached the ground, so were now returning it over the roof. Don caught the ball which had gone high over the corner, but did touch the roof - making it a legal ball. Part of our team scurried around one corner of the building while the rest ran the opposite way. All pretended to be holding the ball, trying to fool the opposing team who scattered and tried to reach the other side of the schoolhouse. Don’s aim was good. The ball hit Clinton Woodard, so he became a member of our team.

On the next round, the other side caught the ball. They came charging around so quickly that Carol and I both were hit before we could escape to safety across the line parallel with our side of the structure. On the following exchange a shouting match attempted to determine whether Harry Silvernail had been struck before or after passing the corner. In the middle of this fracas, Miss Lincoln appeared at the door ringing the hand bell to announce the beginning of classes. At recess, play resumed until all of the opposite side had been tagged and claimed by our team.

* * * * *

Preston Steinbar tossed the softball bat to Clair Woodard who grabbed it with one hand. Preston placed his hand around the bat above Clair’s hold. They alternated until Preston’s hand was so close to the end of the bat that Clair had insufficient space for all of his fingers. So Preston had the first choice for his team. “Harry,” he yelled. Harry came to his side. Clair chose his brother, Clinton. Team members were chosen in the order of their perceived athletic ability.

“Bob.” “Don.” “Lillian.” “Ed.” “May.” As the unchosen group dwindled, I braced myself for the usual humiliation. It was Clair’s turn to choose and I was the only one left. “I’ll take Arnold,” he said without enthusiasm. As much as I wanted to play, always being left until last was painful.

Up at bat first, Clair hit a home run. Batting was in the order of our choice. When my turn came, we had two outs. I swung on the first pitch -missing it completely. On the second try, I ticked the ball. The next time my bat encountered nothing but air. “Third out,” Preston called. So I went out to left field, the least likely place for action. Preston hit a fast ground ball almost directly at me. I missed it completely. He rounded third base before I reached it and pegged it to Clair. Keenly I sensed the disappointment of my team mates. My further contributions to the team continued in a similar vein. When the game ended, I was glad to escape unhappy reality by joining an intrepid African explorer through the pages of a library book.

* * * * *

I realized why I was last to be chosen. My foot problems made it impossible to run as fast as normal. When at bat, I couldn’t seem to hit the ball. In the field, I missed the ball oftener than I caught it. The other students seemed almost relieved when I stayed inside to read instead of joining them on the field. Then a marvelous thing happened.

“See the pheasants over in the potato field,” father called. I looked, but couldn’t spot them. “Right over there,” he pointed. I still was unable to see them. Both father and mother had begun to notice my seeming inability to see things far away and this last episode forced them to wonder if I had a real vision problem. A week later Dr. Hanvey, a Jamestown optometrist, concluded: “He is extremely near-sighted and has astigmatism.” I was vindicated.

With glasses, a whole new world opened up to me. Before, I had not realized what I was missing. To my delight, my batting record improved so dramatically that I was chosen fairly early in the selection process and one of my team members would run the bases for me. My self-esteem was given a much-need boost.

* * * * *

Snow had fallen steadily the previous night and by Monday an undisturbed blanket a foot deep covered the acre of land on which the school stood starkly, unadorned by a single tree or shrub. As red-cheeked students straggled in from three directions, the word was passed around, “Don’t mess up the snow.” At noon, the reason for this admonition became clear. The conditions were perfect for a game of Fox and Geese.

Preston naturally took charge of laying out the course in the snow. He walked around in a very large circle. Then he bisected the circle with several tracks creating a figure like a wheel and spokes. “All set,” he called. “I’ll be the fox on this first round.”

We all scattered to various positions on this figure tramped out in the powdery snow. At a signal, Preston tried to catch someone. All had to stay strictly on the designated tracks. First to be tagged was Ethel. Then Hank, and Ralph, and Douglas. The last to be caught was Harry, who then automatically was the fox for the next chase. Lots of energy was worked off in this strenuous game.

Getting bored after several rounds, Carol suggested: “Let’s do Hare and Hounds.” Enthusiastic approval set us to laying out an even more intricate track in the snow. This was composed of loops and turns of varied design spread out over a large area. The hare could jump across from one loop to another while the hounds had to follow the tracks. Hank started off as the hare, but soon was tagged by Don who then became the hare. Given a fair start, the chase continued. The genius of this game was that no one was forced to wait on the sidelines. All could continue to participate until the bell rang or we tired of the chase.

* * * * *

“I got a new jackknife,” I confided to Dick Bergholtz.
“Let’s see it,” he responded.

Proudly I pulled out my treasure. At one end were two blades - a large one and a small one. This model boasted a third slim blade at the opposite end. The shiny treasure had been my only birthday present. But I was delighted, as it replaced a rather disreputable model with nicked and corroded blades.

A thaw had turned the playground into a slushy mess, practically ruining the tracks for outdoor games. It was even too nasty weather to make forts and have a snowball fight. At recess Dick challenged me to a game of mumbledy-peg. Out in the woodshed we found a pine board about a foot wide and set it up on two blocks of firewood.

“You go first,” Dick offered.

With the small blade extended parallel to the handle and the large blade at a ninety-degree angle, I grasped my knife’s handle at the opposite end from the blades. With a flick of the wrist, I sent the knife revolving in the air until it came to rest on the board. “Yippee!” I yelled as the small blade stuck in the plank, the rest of the knife held aloft. That gave me 100 points.

On my next throw, the large blade entered the board with the end of the handle touching the wood. “Just 25,” I conceded. My third try failed to puncture the board and the knife clattered to the ground.

Dick’s first try accomplished embedding the small blade but with the large blade also touching the wood. “Seventy-five,” he noted. The following flip found just the large blade embedded. “Fifty,” I noted. After a hundred and another fifty, he missed the plank and it was my turn again. Reaching one-thousand, he was the winner.

I remember no serious injury from all of the boy-hours devoted to this game. And it offered a potential far less serious in consequences than two or three lads with double-bitted axes splitting logs for the stove in the confines of the small woodshed at the rear of the building. I can imagine the liability insurance costs as well as concerns of school board members and underwriters if such practices were engaged in today.

In numerous instances when father went to call on farm families in the valley, the boys and I retired to the woodshed where the floor boards provided an ideal arena for mumbledy-peg. In those days a good jackknife was indeed a boy’s most valued possession.

* * * * *

“Play a game of Squares with me, Arnold?” Carol asked as we were finishing lunch. She had already made a grid of evenly spaced dots on the front blackboard using the yardstick to position them precisely. “I’ll let you start,” she offered by way of inducement.

Each participant would take a turn drawing a straight line either horizontally or vertically between the dots. The person drawing the last line which completed a square put their initial in that square to claim it. The one whose initials appeared in most squares was the winner. The contestants employed various strategies to assure their opportunities to draw that completing line.

Miss Lincoln rang the one o’clock bell for resumption of classes before we were through with our game. “Please, Miss Lincoln, can we leave the game on the board and finish it after school?” Carol pleaded. After thinking a moment about possible needs for the blackboard that afternoon, the teacher agreed with one requirement: “You two must then erase and wash the boards and clean the erasers.”

When not being called up to recite, I studied the pattern on the board to plan my strategy. My preparation paid off, for, when the squares were counted, I won by a small margin. I disliked breathing the chalk dust which was a normal part of beating the erasers together outside. But winning from Carol, who was older and one of the best players, more than offset this brief inconvenience.

One common characteristic of the games we played was the simplicity of the materials needed. Without electricity or computers, we were forced to use our own ingenuity to come up with interesting activities. The joyous shouts and peals of laughter ringing out from the little white schoolhouse in the valley proved to anyone listening that we did have fun.