Grandma had no TV when John was little, just a piano. And John had the 93rd Street Gang.
Due to our age difference, I can’t tell you the names of all the 93rd Street Gang members of John’s era. Some things never change, however, so certain surnames kept repeating. Judy’s brother, Rob, was part of the gang as were Kurt’s brothers, Max and Karl, whom I idolized.
Max and Karl Kriegel built Canarsie’s most spectacular luge run, and they recreated it multiple years. Of course, all this occurred in those ancient times when New York City received two dozen feet of snow every winter, schools never closed, and we all trudged a mile uphill (both ways) to get to class.
Only two other times in my life have I felt the sheer exhilaration and absolute terror of sliding helplessly over a snow-packed hill. One was as a young adult in his first and last attempt at downhill skiing. That winter night, a few members of the church I attended in my early twenties decided to go skiing. They had experience; I had enthusiasm. After mastering the bunny slope in just two attempts, I felt ready for the next level.
On the lower slope I knew slow side-to-side skiing and a deft snowplow move could get me safely down the hill. How much trouble could I get into when descending only slightly farther at a mildly steeper angle? Not much, unless the falling temperature created an icy lane on either side of the hill, which it did.
About halfway down the hill I wanted to slow my descent and widened my path. Turning left I entered the icy patch and began an uncontrolled downhill slide reminiscent of Franz Klammer, when he was maybe three years old. No, the great Klammer probably skied better at three than I did at twenty-three.
Realizing I was going to die, I began jettisoning any and all sharp objects. First I tossed my poles, not wanting to be impaled by them. I forgot they might be helpful in regaining my side-to-side safety route. My gloves came off with them.
Then I decided my legs stood less chance of breaking were they detached from their long, flat, knifelike extensions. I kicked one off, learning immediately that one does not snow ski on one foot as easily as on water skis. (As I write this, I realize that kicking off a snow ski is next to impossible, so this part of the story may be inaccurate. I do, however, distinctly recall losing one ski somewhere on the way down.) Risking what I thought might be only one, not two, broken legs, I executed a picture perfect hook slide into third base. If baseball was played on one ski on the side of a hill, and I’d been a skilled base runner, it might have looked better than it did. Who am I kidding? I looked like a terrified beginner bailing out halfway down the easy slope.
Sliding to a stop, with one ski and all body parts still attached, I stood up. Thankfully, it was closing time. As the last skiers passed me, I walked up the slope collecting my ski, gloves, poles, everything but my dignity. That still lies somewhere in York County, Pennsylvania.
My other hill of horror was also in Pennsylvania, at a Grace Church youth retreat during winter break my sophomore year of high school. The church camp sat high on a hill near Geigertown. The road to it meandered upward through the woods and, oddly like the Kriegels’ sled run, featured two 90-degree curves. Sledding down it involved first a right and then a left. The right, if missed, would leave you in an open field where you’d eventually come to a stop. The left, farther down the slope, entered a drive bordered by a stone wall and a drop off of unknown depth.
The three days of winter youth retreat came after a significant snowfall in eastern Pennsylvania. Of course the snowplow left a ramp of snow against the stone wall alongside the drive. Of course we sledded at night when the curves were scarier. Of course, the first time down the hill, I and everyone else negotiated the curves to perfection. Of course, I wanted to go again, attempting more speed. Of course, I took the first turn with aplomb and readied myself for the second. Of course, I missed it.
In the dark I failed to turn my Flexible Flyer in time. I hit the snow-ramp leading to the stone wall and launched helplessly into the night. I’d always heard in situations like that, with death a distinct possibility, one’s whole life passes before one’s eyes. I think mine did, and I remember thinking, “what a boring life I’ve lived.” After the autobiography had finished, I was still in the air, and only a second or two had passed. Then I learned the mysterious drop off was only about two feet. I hit hard on my belly and then stopped. It was over. I’d survived. All that was left was picking up the sled, tossing it over the wall, and climbing back. Once I’d revealed the secret of the wall, everybody found a way of missing that curve.
Max and Karl’s 93rd Street sled run was that terrifying to a seven year-old. I tried it once. Want to know a secret? I’m glad the big kids of the 93rd Street Gang wouldn’t let us on their hill. I didn’t really want to do it again.
What’s the worst possible thing a sibling could do to you? Next week, read about what my big brother, John, did to me in Episode Eight of Tales of a Canarsie Boy.
To hear this episode, please click the YouTube link below.