Thursday, February 21, 2002

Skeleton In My Closet

Watching the Winter Olympics, I sat through the skiing, the skating, and the curling, but I couldn’t wait to see this event called “skeleton.”

Skeleton is different than luge, in that each ride starts with the athlete holding the sled and running, then jumping onto the sled as it heads down the hill. The sleds are short and narrow (picture a cafeteria tray with handles), and the athletes are going face-first, with their chins just a couple of inches above the icy track.

Watching this, I had a major flashback, because that’s exactly how we used to go sledding in my neighborhood when I was growing up.

We lived in an apartment complex with a hill in the front and a wooded area out back. In the winter, when we had any kind of decent snowfall – enough to cancel school for the day – all the kids would convene in one place or the other for a full day of sledding.

The hill in front was the short, easy ride, so we’d create all sorts of new ways to make it more exciting. Riding together as a sled train, holding onto the runners or feet of the kid ahead of us. Going down the hill sitting up, or on our knees or, to be really gutsy, standing up like a surfer. We even added a mini-ski-jump by packing some snow against the wooden fence at the bottom of the hill. Get over that, and we could keep going into the street and extend the ride by several dozen more yards.

The tougher course was in the back, where we’d head into the woods to ride our sleds down the hills and between the trees. This was where we combined slalom and skeleton skills, although we didn’t know that’s what they were called.

The first ones down would have the responsibility of picking the path that everyone else would follow. To the left of the oak, past the birch, a quick turn around the maple, etc. The more kids who rode the path, the more tamped down the snow became. Eventually, that meant a nice, slick, packed surface, which meant more speed. Fairly regularly, someone would miss a turn or slide too far one way or the other and -- BAM! -- sled would meet tree bark.

For a kid, a little thing like a head-on collision is no reason to stop having fun. We’d just put some snow on the big lump on our forehead for a few minutes until it was our turn to ride, and then we were off again.

The sleds were resilient, too. They had to be, because there was no such thing as going home to your parents and telling them that you had just banged up your Flexible Flyer and they had to buy you another one. Every kid knew that wasn’t going to happen. In that neighborhood, parents expected a sled to last at least through the winter, and usually through several winters. If yours didn’t make it, you either had to borrow someone else’s, or ride double-decker (the two-man skeleton!).

Since there was no replacement coming, we made do with what we had. I vividly remember a whole corps of kids with sleds that got so battered during one snow-heavy winter that the wooden handles we steered with were practically gone. So we learned to twist and turn our bodies to control the direction. Our faces were leading the way, just inches above the snow track, with that metallic front of the sled frame just behind our chins.

We didn’t have crash helmets and face guards, either. At the end of a run, if the sled stopped before our bodies did (isn’t inertia wonderful?), we’d end up with a face full of snow.

Little did we know that we were performing an Olympic event! Granted, we weren’t achieving speeds of 70-80mph. But they don’t have trees in the middle of the Olympic skeleton track, do they?