Cornfield Meet

Things collide here.

Last Flight of the Flexible Flyer III

My daughter and I went sledding at Malone College over the weekend. We had a perfect day for it: Sunny, low 30s, no wind. Wet-packed snow, a few bare spots, and lots of icy patches.

We borrowed my brother’s plastic saucer and took our little flimsy plastic sled because apparently our flat-bottomed “boat” sled is down at mom’s.

I also grabbed a couple candles and waxed up the steel runners of my old Flexible Flyer III.

I can’t remember ever not having this sled, though I think I have a vague recollection of a time when it was brand new. True, there’s probably a decade covering my college years and the time I lived in Florida when you
could count on one hand the number of times I rode it, but I’m sure my little brothers put it to work, so we’re still talking at minimum 30-some years that this sled’s been in use.

I can remember being small enough that I sat in the front, putting my boots on the steering crossbar while Mom or Dad sat behind me and put their legs on either side and holding the big loop of rope tied into the ends of
the steering bar.

My friends and brothers and I made countless trips up and down the small hill in our backyard, one, two, three of us squeezed onto this thing like bobsledders or lying down, double- and sometimes precariously
triple-stacked. We’d try to stand on it sideways, like a surfboard, mostly unsuccessfully.

It’s been going to the Malone College hill overlooking Route 62 an awfully long time. Dad started taking us there when he had to enroll in some classes, which I thought was funny because he was already an anesthetist and yet he was having to take these courses in stuff like Music Appreiciation. Anyway, even back in the 1980s, the Flexible Flyer III was becoming a bit of a relic compared to all the runnerless plastic sleds, and it had its weaknesses in snow that wasn’t well-packed. (Nothing like lying on your stomach at Warp Nine and getting a
faceful of snow when you hit a powdery patch.)

So my daughter and I got to Malone and left the Flyer in the car for the first few runs down the big, rounded part of the hill. Nice, long, relatively easy sledding here. Plenty of room to spin around or race, or hold the sleds together in tandem and slowly gather your speed for the run-off at the bottom.

When we decided to move over toward another part of the hill, I switched out the flimsy
sled for the old-school Beast.

It was literally the only classic runner sled we saw on the hill, and there were at least a couple dozen other people out there. I took the Flyer on a test run – steeper drop-off at the top over on this part, and more bumps along the way, but the sled itself offered some shock absorption, unlike the thin plastic rides, and with the hard-pack and ice, she flew. There are few things in life that make me feel like a kid again so quickly and vividly and deeply as sledding.

Having seen me survive, my daughter warmed up to the Flyer and we took turns swapping it and riding double.

The other thing that made this fun was the sheet of ice that extended along the top ridge of the hill, so getting back up was a chore of falling, sliding, laughing, walking back and forth to find small spots of snow and finally half-crawling back up, sleds in tow.

Before we left, we decided to take one hack at the serious part of the hill: a stretch with a moderately steep start, then, after about 20 or 30 feet, a severe drop-off – as in “possibility of being airborne” severe – followed by a minefield of bumps and bare spots.

I went first, lying down on the Flyer, hooking my feet underneath the parking-lot guardrail at the top of the hill to keep from taking off. Gotta be honest: I was a little nervous, looking at that drop-off, wondering if me and my sled would just go over into a nose-dive.

Then my daughter accidentally let go of the saucer sled she was holding. And down it went. We looked at each other, and I had no more time to think, so I unhooked my feet and launched myself in pursuit.

I was on the edge of the drop before I could blink, and while I don’t think I left the ground completely, I know there was a mighty WHUMP! at the bottom, coupled with some serious acceleration, and I was whipping down the hill, ribcage rattling against the wooden slats of the sled, eyes focused on the blue saucer as I closed in on it. I steered close and, not slowing down, managed to reach out and grab it one-handed as I flew past, hoisting it triumphantly.

So, back up the hill.

One more run. Daughter’s coming along, riding on my back. I’ll absorb most of the rough ride, I tell her, you just hang on. It’s not bad. Fun stuff. Then we’ll call it a day.

She’s nervous. We get on the sled. I unhook my feet and with the extra weight, we get up to speed awfully damn fast and I hear her say, “No, wait-” but it’s too late and we’re over the edge and –

there is a taffy-pulled moment of stretched time where we’re not feeling the icy ground rumbling beneath us; where things get quiet like driving beneath an overpass during a rainstorm; where –


Oh, good God, we hit the ground again and we knock skulls and I can feel my brain and other organs rattling around as we crash over bumps and ice and I feel my daughter sliding off my back and I holler “Hang on! Stay on the sled!” and we’re rolling off so I  push the right side of the steering bar  hard and the sled carves a left turn, bringing us back into balance and then we’re slowing and stopping and we’re both whooping and gasping and she’s crying a little but then we’re laughing and deciding that that is how you end a day of sled-riding, Red Five, grab the gun and bring the cat inside.

When we’ve trekked back up to the car, I lean the Flyer against it. Late afternoon sunlight catches on
the snow melting from the runners.

Then we notice the damage.

Two of the Flyer’s three wooden supporting crossbars have snapped.

Can they be replaced? Maybe. Grandpa Jeff’s got a good set of tools and a supply of lumber that might
work. But I don’t know.

We remove our hats and our gloves.

If this was the Flyer’s last flight, it was a good one.

February 18, 2008 - Posted by | Uncategorized


  1. I once had this same sled for about 12 years, and it never gave in to even the worst treatment. Our giant sledding hill terminated onto some flats, which were usually long enough to run you out of gas before a second abrupt dropoff of 6 feet onto a lake.
    On especially icy days, we could get to the second dropoff and then it was decision time: to bail, or not to bail? Most of the time, it was far enought into winter that the lake had a foot or more of surface ice, so you just had to deal with the rib-breaking potential of dropping straight down onto an unforgiving surface.
    One day, however, all the sledding planets aligned. An early November snowstorm was followed immediately by a dousing freezing rain. School was canceled, but I was already putting on my sledding clothes before the announcement came over my old broken clock radio.
    To an adult, these storms were a disaster. To me, it created a wintry paradise. Every single object that was outside was covered in about an inch of ice. Neighbors were trying and failing to chisel their way into their cars. The world seemed at a standstill.
    Slipping and sliding my way over to the sled hill took a while, but when I got there, the sight of the glassy slope took my breath away. I had called my neighborhood friend Dion, and he was waiting for me at the hilltop, waxing his runners in anticipation.
    I couldn’t wait, I had to be the first one down, waxed or unwaxed. With almost no words, I took a running headfirst dive down the hill, landing on my Flyer with an “OOMPH!”
    The ice was insanely fast, and this was my first sled run of the new season, so I felt like I was moving in fast-forward. I reached blistering speeds, and none of my usual subtle steering corrections did anything to change my course. I was heading straight for the lake at speeds heretofore unheard of.
    I hit the flats, and there was no perceptible loss of momentum. I knew in my heart that I was about to obliterate all the past distance records off the lake jump. Then I caught a glimpse of the lake and realized that there was only a thin layer of slush.
    Panic gripped me and I turned the steering HARD left. Nothing happened. I was going in, and there was nothing I could do to stop it.
    As the sled flew off the dropoff, I realized that for the first time ever, I was heading UPWARD, and would actually be JUMPING off of this thing. Instinct took over, and I let go of the sled and rolled off immediately.
    My body kept sliding and hit the jump. I flew a few feet into the air and splashed down into about 3 feet of icy water, shoulder-first. The Flyer, unencumbered by my weight, flew high and long in a perfect arc, finally slicing through the slushy surface ice 15 feet further out, leaving behind only a perfect hole in the ice and a resonant “SPLOOSH” in the crisp morning air.
    The water out there is 15 to 20 feet deep. The next spring, we dove for the Flyer for hours, and even tried to use my dad’s fish finder to echolocate it, but she was lost to the sea forever.

    Comment by Kink | February 20, 2008 | Reply

  2. All of the above was just to say that my Flyer’s last flight was spectacular too. You know, blaze of glory and all that.
    And the sled I got to replace her was never as good.

    Comment by Kink | February 20, 2008 | Reply

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