The Sled - a Winter's Tale

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

In the years before global warming it seems that Cape always had at least one solidly sledable snowfall a year. In those less environmentally and safety conscious days there were a number of championship sled hills. Bertling is frequently recalled, primarily for length. But for steepness of angle, at least two surpassed it.

First, and most risky, was Hospital Hill -- that slope in front of Southeast Missouri Hospital down to Broadway before the construction of Wescott Motors in c 1963. A downhill plunge could only be accomplished with a steerable Flexible Flyer making a 90 degree swerve at the very end of the run. Anything else and the rider/s reached Broadway. More than a few sleds ended under autos, the passengers having bailed knowing Southeast was a steep climb away.

A more visited location was Academic Hill on the east side of the Hall. While not quite as steep, the volume and type of traffic made it more dangerous. College students seemed to find pleasure in numbers, and truck tubes or solid steel car hoods from the late 40's/early 50's provided platforms for 10 or so. This was not a "funniest home videos" location for short or out-to-lunch school kids without a participating parent. After a few desperate trips to Southeast, SEMO slowed things down by building the walk and planting more trees. Now it's fit for cafeteria trays and not much more.

For a lucky few, the length and angle of the hills did not matter. On those rare occasions in the late '50s - early 60's when the snow began in late afternoon and the cinder trucks had not yet deployed from the city power plant, the call went up to Bill Tipton for The Sled. And then, from deep in the bowls of Rigdon's Laundry (the Sprigg St. location), hidden away for sometimes years, emerged an antique of monstrous size, perhaps unique in Southeast Missouri -- the 8 man (12 kid) bobsled, a throwback to the lumber era.

From the distance of 50 years it seems to have been 14 feet long and weighed 150 pounds. The two sets of runners were of solid oak covered with half inch iron strapping. The front set had foot rests to assist the brass wheel with steering. The rear set was hinged to provide rudimentary shock absorption. In between was a solid plank with foot rails on either side. At the sled's nose was another iron strap that came to a gentle point, and onto that was attached a chain the opposite end of which was wrapped around a car bumper.

As soon as darkness fell, the '58 Chevy wagon with sled in tow would make its appointed rounds in the Sunset Addition, picking up Franklin students and more than a few fathers. These latter took up much room so smaller sleds were attached by rope to the rear of the bobsled making for a winter train of sometimes 10 units.

For what seemed like hours we cruised the streets of the old neighborhood, snow and sparks (when the streets weren't totally snow covered) flying at the breathtaking speed of 20 mph. Sunset, Themis, Luce, Louisiana, Lacey, Whitner, Keller, Bessie and Thilenius all were visited. Independence and Caruthers marked the cruising boundaries, partly because they were often cleared and therefore regular routes for the police. While there were no helmet laws, everyone involved down to the 5 year olds knew instinctively that this was somehow illegal. But it made marvelous memories.

In one of the last such excursions, an attached Flexible Flyer caught an edge and flipped, breaking the arm of the hapless Byron Carson. As I recall we were more upset with the end of the sledding than the injury.

Perhaps that incident coupled with the necessity for a major refit from hard use raised Mr. Tipton's caution level. The following year he was not as quick to turn this legend of Cape over to high schoolers happily doing donuts in the Plaza lot, nor were the parents disappointed with his reluctance What happened to the sled I know not, but when the snow flies I remember it like a scene from Currier & Ives.

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