they really the good old days?
by Mary Cook
Cartoon by Mark Doney
Careening down a hill on two narrow pieces
of wood has never been my idea of a fun time. Especially in
this modern age, when better and faster ski equipment can
cost as much as a mortgage on a house, and is still no guarantee
that you are going to get to the bottom of the hill unscathed.
Now, take the equipment we used in order
to have a good time when I was growing up on a farm decades
ago. There certainly was no money in our family for something
as frivolous as store bought skis! But nonetheless, the West
Hill was a place of sheer joy on a cold winters day
after church on a Sunday, or when we got home from school
early enough to beat the sinking sun.
I guess to be truthful, you really couldnt
call it a hill. It was more of a mound. But it was high to
us, and was of an unusual shape, meaning you could struggle
up one side to get to the top or, if you wanted to, you could
walk around to the hind end, and you would be at the top.
I could never figure that one out. At any rate, the West Hill
was a place where our neighbour friends met us, and we had
great and glorious times on makeshift equipment that wouldnt
even earn a spot at an antique auction today.
Most of it was homemade. Father was quite
adept at building something out of very little. Take the only
sleigh I can remember. It was fashioned after one we saw in
the hardware store window called the Red Flyer. Father went
into the store many times with a stub of a pencil and a scrap
of paper, and crudely drew what he considered a reasonable
facsimile of the Red Flyer. Then he holed up in the drive
shed for days on end, with the little cylinder stove with
the pipe poking through a hole in the side wall churning out
heat, and proceeded to duplicate what he had seen in town.
He even painted it red.
We flew down the West Hill on that sleigh
like people possessed! Especially if it had snowed, and then
rained, and a crust had formed. Our friends on the next farm
had an old sleigh that had been handed down from one generation
to another, but it never did take the hill like that Red Flyer.
And then one day a rich uncle came from
New York. We knew he was rich because he drove a big black
Buick with a brass eagle on the hood. He said he thought we
should have a pair of skis. He made no mention of skis for
each of us. Just a pair of skis. I could see a battle royal
ahead. But Uncle Lou anticipated this, and in a very methodical
way, decided who, when and how often each of us would have
I remember those skis well. They were
as wide as the boards on the side of our barn! And the harness
was nothing more than a set of leather straps which we laced
around our gum rubbers.
The first time I had them on, and was
poised at the top of the hill for the downward slide, I was
absolutely terrified. I vowed if I ever got to the bottom
and had the wisdom to stop before heading on into the Bonnecherre
River, I would give up my privilege of taking my turn on the
My brothers, who were born fearless, fared
better than my sister, Audrey. The first time Audrey put the
skis on, she ran into a boulder at the bottom of the hill,
and decided then and there she would stick to the old cardboard
box we got at Briscoes General Store instead.
Yes, a cardboard box. I have no idea what
came in it when it first arrived at Briscoes, but it was big
enough that two of us could get in it at one time. And of
course, you couldnt see a thing, and you depended entirely
that whoever was pushing you for the start, would point you
in the right direction. But I felt safe in the box. The sides
protected me, and even if I did crash into something, I didnt
think I would be maimed for life, which I was sure was my
fate on the store-bought skis, or on the old fender from an
abandoned car which my brothers thought was right up there
with the Red Flyer.
The fender was rescued from Thackers
garage in Renfrew. It wasnt very wide, but scooped up
back and front, and could easily hold the three brothers at
one time. The bravest had to sit at the front with his feet
sticking straight out. The second one sat with his legs wrapped
around the first, and it was the job of the one bringing up
the rear to keep the fender on a straight path. My brothers
loved that old fender. And after every use, it was hauled
back to the summer kitchen, wiped clean of caked-on snow,
and made ready for the next excursion to the West Hill.
Steel-edged skis, ski wax, snow boards,
and boots looking like they had fallen off Mars, were yet
to be invented. And of course, so were ski lodges, tows, and
chair lifts. But I can understand and appreciate how the love
of skiing can get into your bones. What I cant understand
is how I still feel a sense of nostalgia for those good old
days when a cardboard box, a homemade sleigh, and one pair
of skis for five of us gave us so much joy on a hill that
would be called a knoll today. I guess it has something to
do with the sense that the world is moving too fast for me.
And it has a lot to do with the fact that you can replace
that make-do equipment with the most up-to-date trappings
on the market today, but you will never replace the sheer
joy of warm memories of another time...another era.
This is an original story,
first published in The Country Connection Magazine,
Issue 48, Winter 2005. Copyright Mary Cook.
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