“So you’re taking Coop to the Arb to try out the sled”, mom said to dad, as he tied my shoes.
I was able to put my black rubber boots on myself, because they had those “buckle” things that I could hook together. If only my shoes had buckles, and didn’t have those “damn” laces that I still couldn’t figure out how to tie, at least not in that “bow” thing. When I tried, I could sometimes do a “knot”, but then the shoe wouldn’t be tight and the laces would be on the ground and it would look dumb, like I didn’t know how to tie my shoes!
“Looks like a nice Flexible Flier”, she said, “With that bar for steering in front, in pretty good shape actually for used.”
“I sanded the rust off the runners”, dad said, nodding, “And then used steel wool to get them smooth. I was thinking about maybe some ski wax, but maybe that might be too fast.”
Mom nodded. “Yeah”, she said, “Probably smart. More control of the sled at a bit slower speed. And I see you added a rope to the steering bar. Does that help with steering?”
“Well”, dad said, wrinkling his nose, “I guess you could use it for that, though I prefer to steer with my feet if I go down the hill sitting. In this case it’s more for pulling the sled behind you rather than having to carry it back up the hill.”
“Of course”, mom said, laughing, and not just through her nose, but with her mouth, “When I was a kid, if we had a sled like that you could steer, we always went head first and steered with our hands. Lower center of gravity so less likely to fall off if you got jostled or made a hard turn. A bit harder to bail out if you were going to hit a tree or go over a cliff!”
“You and David should come!”, dad said.
Now mom nodded and did the laugh through her nose this time. “Would be fun”, she said, “But I’m not ready to change a diaper on the snowy ground in the Arboretum. Nor have to walk back to the car out on Geddes to do so.”
Mom then did a big smile, and her eyes twinkled as she moved her eyebrows up and down. “Unless you want to stay here with David while Coop and I go”, she said.
“Well”, dad said, nodding slowly and wrinkling his nose and pushing his lips together, “Maybe you and Coop should go next time!”
Mom laughed and shook her head this time. “That’s a deal Eric. You guys go and have your fun.” Then looking at me she said, “So Coop, when you’ve mastered the basics and are ready for the head first stuff, I’ll show you the ropes!”
I just nodded. I knew mom and dad were talking to each other with their eyes and their faces, not just their words, but I couldn’t figure out all the secret things they were saying without using words.
Dad and I went out the side door to the car, dad carrying the sled and then putting it in the trunk. The “weather” was that word the grownups used, and dad had been singing to me since it had started being winter…
Oh the weather outside is frightful
But the fire is so delightful
As long as you love me so
Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow
The “weather” was cloudy and gray, and the branches of the spruce trees wooshed in the wind, but not the maple tree or the bushes, maybe because they didn’t have any leaves. But it wasn’t super cold, like when the inside of your nose would sting and feel like it was getting sucked together when you tried to breathe in through it. There was snow on the ground, but not a lot, and it was all mushed down.
Dad drove the car down the street by the park toward the stadium that Molly and I had gone so many times on our tricycles on the sidewalk part. He turned on the radio and listened to this guy talking.
…and newspapers in Cuba have been ordered to publish a so-called “clarification”, written by the pro-Castro printers’ union, at the end of any articles they publish critical of the government.
“Jesus!”, dad said, sounding mad. He quickly reached over and turned off the radio. I wondered if that was the same “Jesus” we sang about in those Christmas songs. Dad did get mad about stuff, but he didn’t talk about it much. I was asking mom and dad a lot of questions now, but I wasn’t going to ask why he was mad.
We got to the end of that street at the big street next to the stadium, which had that big silver fence all around it. We turned left on that “main” street, which I guess meant it was the biggest or the best one. It went past houses but also “buildings”, that had doors and windows like houses, but didn’t have the “roof” part at the top.
And then we turned right on a street that went across the railroad tracks that had that special black and white sign like an “X”. I always liked driving over the tracks because it made the car bump. We drove up past bigger “buildings” in the “campus” place where dad went to school somewhere. We drove by that giant rock that I had seen before but was always painted different colors. We had to stop below that “light” thing, which was what grownups called it, way up above the streets hanging from a pole. You weren’t supposed to go until the red light at the top turned off and the green light at the bottom turned on. But I remembered one time when dad waited a long time, got mad, and went under it when it was red.
Grownups called that “the light”, though streets had lots of other lights at the top of poles that they didn’t call “the light”. I couldn’t figure them out sometimes!
Then we turned left on a street with just houses and no buildings until it ended, and dad “parked” the car. It was strange that grownups used that word “park”, which was that big place across the street where kids played, to also be stopping your car and getting out of it. We got out and took the sled out of the trunk, and after looking both ways for cars, crossed over to the part where you went into the “Arb” place.
I knew I had been here before, but I couldn’t remember what it looked like. We walked along a flat part and dad pulled the sled with the rope, but I pulled it some too. On the left of the flat part it went up and there were lots of trees. On the right side it went down and there were some trees too, but not as many. Some trees didn’t have any leaves, because it was winter, but others did, because they were “evergreens”, like the spruce trees in our backyard. I liked the sound of our boots crunching on the snow as we walked.
“Geez”, dad said, “I hope there’s enough snow to sled on. We haven’t had much this year!”
I was figuring out that if I asked mom and dad more questions, at least questions that didn’t make them worried about me, that they’d talk more and I’d learn more about stuff, about everything.
“We haven’t?” I asked.
He pushed his lips together and took off his glasses to rub his eyes, then put them back on and shook his head. “Nope”, he just said, which didn’t help me figure out anything. So I kept asking.
“Why not?”, I asked.
“You know, Cloob”, he said, looking up at the trees on either side of us as we walked, “I don’t really know. I’m not a science guy. My friend Walter, remember he’s the guy that got you all those Tom Swift books for your birthday, now he IS a science guy and he probably could at least give you an informed opinion on that question.”
“An informed opinion?” I asked.
“Yeah”, he said, “He’s studied how weather works with the Earth spinning and the atmosphere, you know, all the air up there”, dad waved his arms above his head, “And what causes it to snow more or less around where we live. Something about ‘lake effects’ I think.”
“Like that ‘sunny’ guy on TV that tells you about the weather and tries to be silly?” I asked.
“Well”, dad said, shaking his head, “I think that guy is more of a comedian than a scientist.”
“A comedian?” I asked.
“Someone who makes people laugh”, he said, “You know, like Jackie Gleason.”
“Jackie Gleason?” I asked.
Dad pushed his lips together. “You probably haven’t heard of him”, he said. I shook my head.
“Like that kid that comes to Molly’s parties, that’s older than you”, he said.
“Ricky?” I asked.
“Yeah him”, he said, wagging his finger in front of his face, “That kid’s a comedian!”
I chuckled and nodded and said, “He is funny, but he thinks he knows everything even when he doesn’t.”
His eyes twinkled and he said, “We call that a ‘know it all’.”
“Even if he doesn’t really know it all?” I asked.
“Yep”, he said, nodding his head and smiling, “ESPECIALLY if he doesn’t!” That didn’t make sense, and I wrinkled MY nose and looked at him.
He did the laugh through his nose and said, “It’s an IRONIC name!”
“Ironic?” I asked.
“Yeah Cloob”, he said chuckling, and seeming really happy, “When something’s ironic, it can be the opposite of what you expect. Like calling a really big guy ‘Tiny’.”
Hmm, I thought. Maybe this was one of those grownup tricks for telling secret things that kids couldn’t figure out.
“Now, though I’m not much for explaining the weather, if you asked me why Shakespeare wrote in iambic pentameter, I could give you an answer”, he said, chuckling some more.
“Why did he?” I asked, figuring if he wanted me to and he was so happy, I’d better, to keep him that way. I didn’t know who “Shakespeare” was or what that other “I” thing was.
“Now we modern people just have our theories really, our smart guesses that is, since none of us were alive when Shakespeare was, to ask him”, he said. “But one thoughtful guess is that it made it easier for the actors, the people who were saying his words out loud to other people who were listening, to remember those words without having to read them out of the book.”
“Another, is that it matches your heartbeat when you feel really happy or sad”, he said, reaching over with his finger and touching my chest. Then he put his hand over his own chest, and moving it back and forth just a little bit said, “Duh DAH duh DAH duh DAH duh DAH duh DAH. If MUsic BE the FOOD of LOVE play ON!”
I nodded. I figured that grownups talked in all these sneaky ways that weren’t like regular talking. I was wondering what to ask next, when we got to a place where he stopped.
“Here’s the first sled run”, he said, then holding out his arm and pointing his hand down the hill, “And in iambic pentameter, ‘And HERE’S the SPOT where YOU and I can SLED!”
I figured it would be stupid to ask, “Is it?”, so I didn’t.
I looked down and the ground wasn’t flat like where we were walking, it went way down instead, between these two “hill” parts. We were actually up high, because you could see down to this whole lower part with trees and parts with just the white snow and other kids walking around with their sleds, or going down those “hill” parts ON their sleds.
I was just figuring out what these “hill” things were. When I piled up all this dirt in the backyard and made a fort for soldiers on the top part of it, dad looked at it and said it was a “hill with a fort on top”. Mom and dad said that “hills” were all over town but I couldn’t really see them. Yeah some streets went down, and if you went the other way they went up. There was that one street we drove here on, that they said was a “hill street”, but it didn’t look like a hill to me, because you couldn’t see the top part and the bottom part at the same time. But here in the “Arb”, I guess the hills were smaller, so you could see the top part and bottom part at the same time.
“Well”, dad said, “Shall we?”
It looked kind of scary, but boys and men weren’t supposed to be scared, and dad didn’t look scared so I nodded even though I wasn’t sure. I wondered if he’d think I was a bad kid if I said I wasn’t sure, one of those “sissies”. I wasn’t going to ask him about THAT!
“Okay then”, dad said, sitting down on the back part of the sled and putting his feet out to the front part against that “steering bar” thing that mom had talked about. He then patted the top part of his leg and said, “Climb on Cloob”.
I just made myself stop thinking and just sat down on his lap. He didn’t seem scared at all so that made it a little better. Part of me wanted to close my eyes, but that felt like it would be even scarier. Better to see what was happening if we got wrecked. His arm wrapped around my chest and his other arm pushed the ground so the sled moved, and then I could feel us moving even though he wasn’t pushing anymore. That other arm wrapped around me too, as we started to go faster, I could feel wind on my face that felt more cold. I saw dad push the bar with his foot on the right side and the sled turned a little bit to the left so we kept going down between the hills and not up one of them.
It was fun, because we went pretty fast but not fast enough to be really scary, and I liked the feeling of the cold wind on my face. Even when we weren’t going down any more the sled still kept going for a little bit before it finally stopped.
“Well, what do you think?” he asked.
I nodded, and then decided to say, “It was fun.” I usually didn’t say stuff like that to grownups, even mom and dad, but just to other kids. Grownups didn’t usually tell kids when THEY were having fun, so why should we tell them. It would make them feel like they were in charge of us, in charge of our fun.
Dad nodded and smiled, and he helped me climb off his lap and get up on my feet. I saw other kids, older than me, going down the different hills on their sleds all by themselves. THEY weren’t riding with their mom and dad. They did it by themselves. That’s what I had to figure out how to do, though I wasn’t sure yet I wouldn’t be too scared.
“Again?” he asked and I nodded. He pulled the sled by the rope and we walked back up the part we went down. It was hard to walk up, and dad showed me how to make my feet point out to the sides to make it easier where the snow on the ground was hard and kind of shiny, “slippery” was the word he used. We went down together like we had before, except I wasn’t worried so much and I really watched how he pushed his feet on the bar to make the sled turn. It was strange that if you pushed with your right foot the sled went to the left, and if you pushed with your left, then it went to the right. I guess you had to be careful, some things didn’t work like you thought they would work.
Again, I didn’t see other kids going on their sleds with a grownup. I wondered if they were looking at me on the sled with dad and thinking that I was scared to do it by myself. I wondered if dad would be happy or sad if I said I wanted to try by myself. I just stood there for a minute and I could tell that dad was trying to figure out what I was thinking.
“You want to try it by yourself?” he asked, and I couldn’t tell if he was asking it in a sad way or not. I just stood there for a minute but then started to nod my head just a little bit.
“All right”, he said, sounding happy now and not sad, “Maybe your first time we’ll just walk halfway up so you don’t have to go as far and as fast.”
Not worried about him anymore, I did a regular nod. We walked back up part of the way but not all the way. He turned the sled to go down, then got on his knees behind it and held the two metal parts in the back that touched the snow so it wouldn’t go down by itself.
“Climb on”, he said. I looked at the sled and wasn’t sure it would be okay.
“You’ll be fine”, he said, figuring out I wasn’t sure, “It’s just a short ride down and it won’t be very fast.”
Even though I still wasn’t sure I figured I better get on or dad might be worried about me and not let me do other things I wanted to do by myself. I sat on the sled and put my feet on either side of the bar like he had.
“That’s good”, he said, though he moved each of my feet around a little bit against the bar like he was making it better. He hit the side of my left boot with his hand and said, “Now push with this foot if you want to go that way”, and he pointed to the right. Then he hit the other foot and said, “And this foot to go the other way. Got it?”
“Just try it once”, he said, then his hand hit my left boot, “push the bar.”
I pushed with my foot. It wasn’t easy to make the bar move but it finally did, though my bottom kind of moved backward on the sled when I did.
“Okay”, he said, “But also hang on to the sled on either side so you don’t slide off the back.” He took each of my hands in his and moved them down to each side and I held them.
“There ya go”, he said, patting my shoulder, “Just hang on. You ready?”
I figured I just had to nod and do it. If I got wrecked it didn’t seem like it would be too bad.
I felt him push the sled a little bit before he let go. And I was going down, all by myself, just like all the other kids who I could see and who could see me too. I decided I would just worry about hanging on and not try to steer with my feet. I didn’t go very fast or very far but I was happy.
Dad came down to where I stopped. “How was it?” he asked.
“Okay”, I said, nodding, figuring I wouldn’t tell him that I was happy that I looked more like the other kids on their sleds.
We walked back up to that same spot and I went down a couple more times.
“You want to try from a bit higher up?” he asked.
I nodded and we did that. It was a little bit faster in the middle part and I went farther, but now I wasn’t even worried anymore.
When we went up to do it again. I got on the sled and he said, “Now one time you should try falling off, on purpose, so you see what that’s like, and then you won’t be afraid of that happening.”
I looked at him like that didn’t make sense. Why should I try to fall off? Isn’t that what you didn’t want to do?
“Fall off?” I asked, “On purpose?”
He smiled and his eyes sparkled, and then he pushed his mouth together and nodded. “If you know that if you get in trouble, like you’re headed into a tree or the bushes, you can fall off and not get hurt, then you won’t need to worry about anything and just have fun and even get more daring.”
I kept looking up at him, still not sure.
His face changed from a smile to the way he looked when he was thinking. “Well Cloob”, he said, “You do what you think is best, but trust me on this one, you’ll be ready to take on the world!”
There was that “trust” word that grownups used. They would say “trust me” when they wanted you to think that they were right and you were wrong. Even Ricky, who liked to pretend to be a grownup sometimes, would say “trust me”, but that didn’t mean he knew the right thing.
But then I also thought about Molly and how she always liked to get wrecked and blown up when we were playing and pretending, and loved to fall down on the ground. Or when we went on the merry-go-round in the park, she always wanted to jump off even if she fell down and got kind of wrecked for real, or at least all dirty and scraped up. I usually could figure out what she was thinking, but not when she did stuff like that.
So I was thinking maybe I WOULD try falling off the sled, so I could tell Molly I did it and maybe figure out why she liked to do it too. But I didn’t want dad to think that he could make me fall off by telling me to “trust” him.
So he got me ready to go down again by myself and said, “So ya gonna try falling off?” I shook my head. If I did fall off, I wasn’t going to do it because he told me to.
“Okay”, he said, and I could tell he was trying to sound extra happy so I wouldn’t think he was sad or mad that I didn’t want to do what he said. He gave me a little push and let me go and I headed down the hill. I didn’t try to, but somehow I was pretending Molly was there on the sled with me. When we got to the fastest part she said, “Fall off Coob”, but I didn’t do it. Then she said it again louder, and I DID. The side of my bottom hit the ground and my snow pants made a squeaking sound as I slid down the hill, but not as fast as the sled which I could see ahead of me. As I slid I fell over on my side but put my left arm out which kept my face from hitting the snow. I slowed down to a stop while the sled went down to the bottom by itself.
Dad ran down toward me. “Are you okay Cloob?” Sitting in the snow I nodded. I couldn’t wait to tell Molly what I did.
I thought he would ask me if I did it on purpose but he didn’t. He just said, “I’ll get the sled”, and walked the rest of the way down the hill. He did seem happier though. I got up and walked down to where he and the sled were.
“Shall we do some exploring?” he asked. I nodded. He started to walk away from the hill we had been sledding on. There were a couple other kids sledding on it now, and other kids on the bigger hill next to it. Some were sitting on their sleds like I did as they went down, but others were lying down on their sleds like mom said. I saw how they could steer with their hands instead of their feet. I watched them for a minute but then ran to catch up with dad.
“Let’s see”, he said, scratching his face, “In iambic pentameter that would be, ‘shall YOU and I exPLORE some MORE…”, he stopped talking and I could tell he was thinking. Then he said, “OutDOORS”, and laughed through his nose. I didn’t think grownups could be silly unless they were at those parties where they drank that special stuff. I couldn’t remember the last time dad was silly!
We walked up another hill and when we got to the top we could see that there were kids sledding down the other side and a couple other grownups too sitting and talking to each other. Farther away we could look down at other smaller hills with trees all over them.
“Take a break?” dad asked, looking down at me but looking like he was thinking. I nodded. He put one knee down on the ground and then his hand, then made a funny noise as he let his bottom land on the back part of the sled, and then he pulled his legs up so they were crossed. I sat next to him on the front part of the sled and looked out at all the stuff we could see down below us – trees, hills and kids with their sleds. I could tell he was really thinking hard about stuff.
He looked up at the sky, which was gray instead of blue.
“You know”, he said, “This place, at least in the winter, always reminds me of where I was in the war when our unit first saw action. It was in the Ardennes in Luxembourg and Germany after the Battle of the Bulge.” He looked around but didn’t look at me.
“Your mom said I should wait to tell you about the war until you’re old enough to ask”, he said. I nodded, and he turned his head just a little bit toward me and I think he could see me nodding, but he didn’t look right at me. So I figured I shouldn’t look at him either, and I just looked out in front of us. When mom wanted to say something really important she always looked at me, but when dad wanted to, he didn’t look at me. Like that one time he got really mad at me and hit me on the bottom.
I remembered when dad and I had talked about the war in the basement. I was always wondering about that war thing, and now he was saying he wanted to tell me, so I figured I could start asking questions, even though I didn’t want him to think I was asking because he told me to. So I didn’t ask a question right away.
“Yeah”, I said, “You blew up those eighty-eights.”
He laughed through his nose and shook his head. “If we were really lucky and I did my job.”
“Your job?” I asked. He nodded and pushed his mouth together.
“I was the spotter”, he said, still not looking at me, “I had to head out in front of my unit and figure out where the German guns were. Usually someplace up high but also kind of hidden in the trees. I would radio back to my guys and tell them where to shoot.”
“Did the Germans shoot at you?” I asked.
He pushed his lips together and shook his head. Then he stopped shaking it and made a clicking noise with his mouth and said, “Well, once.”
As he sat next to me on the sled, he leaned his head toward me and his eyes looked at me for just a second, then back out in front of us. “Those German guns”, he said, “Like the eighty-eights, they shoot in a straight line. So they have to see what they’re shooting at. Our mortars don’t need to see what they’re shooting at, because they shoot in an arc, up and over things.” He pointed his finger and made it go up in the air above him and then back down. He even made a kind of whooshing noise and then a quiet boom noise after his finger came back down, spreading them out like something was blowing up.
He continued, “So our guys shooting the mortars can be hiding behind a hill or behind some trees, but they need the spotter, that’s me, to tell them which direction and how far to shoot. And the first shot is never right, but when I see the explosion, then I tell them how much to change the direction and and the range. That second shot is hopefully closer. Eventually we try to get close enough to take out the gun.”
“To blow it up?” I asked.
“Yeah”, he said nodding and looking ahead, “Or they might try to limber it and get it out of there. Or one time”, he put his hands on his cheeks, “They saw me and started shooting at me.” He laughed through his nose.
“What did you do?” I asked.
“I ran”, he said, his eyes opened extra wide, “That was the only thing to do. Their second shot landed close to me and knocked me to the ground. So I got up again and ran and tripped over some rocks and my face hit the frozen ground and it broke my nose. I guess they thought they got me because my guys had stopped shooting at them. So they stopped shooting at me.”
He shook his head slowly, and then looked at me and raised his eyebrows. “I got a medal for being wounded, and I didn’t even have to be brave, just scared and clumsy!”
Then I thought about the question I had been thinking about since I first heard about the war. “Why were we fighting the Germans?” I asked.
He nodded, then said, “Because their leader was a madman and he wanted to take over the world.”
“What was he mad about?” I asked.
“Well”, he said, looking at me, “When you’re a madman you’re mad about pretty much everything.”
When the older boys in the park talked about the war they talked about that “Hitler” guy who was in charge of the Germans.
“That Hitler guy?” I asked.
Dad looked at me and his eyes looked sad and worried. He closed them and nodded. He opened them again and asked, “Did I already tell you about Hitler?”
I shook my head. He looked at me like he was wondering how I knew about him. Usually I wouldn’t tell a grownup, even mom or dad, about what kids said, but I figured I should do it this time.
“The older kids in the park talk about the war and about him”, I said.
“What do they say about him?” dad asked, looking even more worried.
I wondered what he was worried about that the older boys might have said. Sometimes they made fun of that Hitler guy like he was stupid, but I didn’t want to tell dad that, because I had a feeling dad might think that was bad. So I said, “That he was the worst badguy ever.”
I could see he wasn’t as worried now, but still sad. “Yep”, he said, “That’s about right.”
We did more sledding after that. Some with me on his lap and some by myself. He even showed me how to do it myself “head first”, how to lie on the sled on my stomach and grab the bar part with my hands to steer. We just tried that on the flat part, not one of the hills. He crawled on the ground behind me to push me and had me try steering to the left and to the right with my hands. That was really neat.
“Well”, he said, “We probably shouldn’t try head first down a hill today. We’ll save that one for when you go out with your daredevil mother!” And then he laughed. A regular laugh with his mouth, and not one of those nose ones. I could tell by those last words he said that he really liked mom. Other times when he talked about her I wasn’t too sure.
Good stuff mate…
As a kid from Ann Arbor, raised at the same time as you, with similar parents, etc., I have enjoyed reading about the same experiences that I enjoyed. Little League, high school musicals, girls and drugs!
I was a Pittsfield kid, went to Scarlett and Huron and graduated at Michigan.
I have just tasted a few chapters but I like your writing style!
Dave… your comment made my day! This particular “memoir” (autobiographical novel really because I’m making up the dialogue and details and fictionalizing some characters) covers my life age 3 to 5. My goal, now that I’m retired, is to write about my entire childhood, youth and young adulthood, most of it spent in A2.
So, Pittsfield, Scarlett and Huron… you were a kid that lived on the other side of town that I am less familiar with the neighborhoods and parks.
Would love to hear more from you about my stuff and what it triggers in your own life! You can find me on Facebook at “Cooper Zale” (https://www.facebook.com/cooper.zale) or email me at email@example.com. I’m looking for everyone I can connect with about that period to help with ideas and to bounce stuff off from the times.