Archives for October 2014

The Bobsled and the Next Big Snow

–This is a true story–

In December 1942 when I was twelve years old, my Mom, Dad, sister, and grandmother lived in two rooms in the back of my grandma’s little corner grocery store at Davison and Prange in north St. Louis. World War II had started the year before and all of the essentials for living were hard to get: meat, cigarettes, toilet paper, gum, and candy, but because my grandma had the store, we always seemed to have enough to eat, and the store was warm and cozy with the little pot-bellied stove glowing dull red in the kitchen, while in the front store another pot-bellied stove kept the store warm.
At the time, like most kids, I didn’t realize we were not well off, but my grandfather had died two years before, and we all moved into the store with grandma when she sold the little house in which we lived three blocks away. Mom and dad both worked at outside jobs, and grandma ran her little store for our mixed neighborhood of Polish, German, Jewish, Italian, and English — talk about integration! I used to deliver groceries for customers in my wagon, and for small orders, I would ride my bike with a wire basket on the front.
In the north end of St. Louis where we lived in Walnut Park were several fairly steep hills, and grandma’s store sat like a fortress at the peak of three great hills — two on Prange in both directions, and one on Davison Avenue — great that is for sleigh-riding whenever the next big snow came.
Every winter we had at least two or three big snows, and kids from all over our neighborhood would gather to taste the thrills of belly-flopping on their sleds and zipping down one of the three hills.
Everyone’s favorite hill was Prange Hill beside grandma’s store. Sometimes on a snowy weekend, my dad would stand in the back yard of the store or climb on the roof of the garage in the rear and have snowball fights with the sledding kids.
But this winter I had no sled.
Several days ago when grandma called me in to make a quick delivery for her, I dropped my sled at the curb by the street, planning to get it later after the delivery, but when I returned, I found my sled crushed by one of grandma’s delivery trucks. I felt as crushed as my sled for I could see that there was no way to fix it, and my folks couldn’t afford a new sled.
And Christmas was almost here.
And so on this dark snowy night with the snowflakes tapping my face, I stood on the sidewalk and watched with envy as my friends whizzed down the hill on their sleds shouting at each other and racing to see who could be first to the bottom. The snow had started to melt, and by tomorrow sledding would be over — until the next big snow.
After an hour, my fingers were stiff from the cold, my feet felt frozen, and my face was stinging from the frigid wind, so reluctantly I went inside, took off my mittens and laid them on the cross bar of the stove while I held my hands over the welcome warmth. My grandma came in from the store.
“Ray, I have a deliver to Mrs. Friedman on Beacon. She wants this roast for dinner, so you have to get it right over to her.”
“Aw, grandma,” I said with a pout. I shrugged, put my warm mittens back on and pulled my coat tight around me for the three-block bike ride to Mrs. Friedman’s house. I knew she was always good for a dime tip.
As I rode away from the store with the roast in my basket, I could hear the happy yells from the sleigh-riders on Prange Hill.
The streets in our area were arranged with concrete alleys behind the houses accessible from houses on both sides of the alley. I used the alleys often as a shortcut on my deliveries. It was fairly dark, but I knew my way and pumped my bike up a hill and delivered the roast to Mrs. Friedman.  As I rode home, I stopped in the alley to rearrange my stocking cap, and from the lights of the nearby homes I glanced into several of the yards — and that’s when my eye caught a long sleek shape sitting in the middle of a back yard.
Curious, I propped my bike against a concrete ash pit, opened the rear gate. and waited for a moment to be sure no dog charged out at me. I crunched through the pristine snow to the dark shape and realized that it was a big sled about ten feet long.
A bobsled!
I had seen pictures of them and saw one in a movie at the Lillian Theatre. This one was painted blue and red and had a sleek look to it.
The seat was a two-inch thick board rounded at both ends and smoothed on the edges. On each side of this seat was a foot-rest board mounted lower on brackets under the seat and extending the full length of the seat. Under the seat were two sets of sled runners about two feet long, the metal runners formed and screwed tightly to wooden frames at both ends of the sled. The rear frame was mounted rigidly under the seat, but could rotate on an axle up and down to take the changes in the terrain.
The front runner frame could also rotate, but had a four-inch-diameter rod sticking out the top of the runner frame and protruding up through a ball bearing plate mounted under a hole in the seat. This rod was attached to a steering wheel with a dark leather cover on the outer rim, and in front of the wheel was a cowling made of wood with canvas stretched tight over this frame and painted red. I mounted the seat behind the wheel and tried to turn it, but the runners were stuck in the snow which had melted to ice.
“Pretty old thing, isn’t it?”
I jumped off the seat and turned. A man was standing in his back doorway watching me. He smiled.
“It’s okay, son. Yes sir. She’s a beauty. Was my son’s sled. He made it from scratch. Cut all the pieces himself, sanded them, and painted them. Robbie loved that old Bobsled.”
He turned away and I heard a sniffle.
“Does he still use it, sir?”
He dropped his head for a moment, and raised it to look at me with his sad face.
“Robbie was a gunner on the Navy Destroyer U.S.S. Ward. He was killed at Pearl Harbor. He was about to come home when the Japanese attacked Hawaii.”
His voice died away and I shifted from foot to foot in the cold snow.
“I’m sorry sir. He must have been a good wood-worker to build this. Sure is a fine bobsled.” I turned and started for the gate.
“Have to get back to my grandma’s store. See you sir.”
“Wait!”
His voice was like a sharp crack.
“How old are you, son? What’s your name. I’m Arny Kowalski.” He shook my hand and I felt a weakness in his. “I remember you from Davison’s Grocery. That your grandma?” I could feel him sizing me up. He had a stern direct gaze.
“Yes sir, my grandma. I was twelve in November. My name’s Ray.”
I heard that sniffle again, and he took out a handkerchief and wiped his nose.
“Robbie was about your age when he built that bobsled, Ray. Used to take it to Forest Park in my truck and had every kid in St. Louis riding with him.” He laughed half-heartedly like he had a lump in his throat. He kept staring at me and I felt uncomfortable.
“Old thing’s been sitting there for a couple of years now — since Robbie joined the Navy. Needs a lot of work. The runners are pitted and need a lot of elbow grease to smooth them out again.”
He bent over the sled and tapped the wood of the runner frame.
“Still good and solid. Just needs a boy like you to tune her up. Think you are up to that, Ray?”
I looked at him without understanding, a question in my eyes. I shook my head.
“You mean you want me to fix it for you, Sir? I can’t afford to buy a bobsled like this. I don’t have any money.”
He laughed and patted my shoulder.
“Heck, I don’t want nothin’ for it. It’s yours if you want it. Better than letting her sit here and rust and disintegrate. I’d like to see you boys having fun with her again.”
I looked up at him in disbelief. “You mean you’re giving it to me, sir?”
He nodded and touched my shoulder. “Yeah, Robbie would have liked that. Fix ‘er up and take all the boys for a ride when the next big snow comes. You may have to get a couple of your friends to help you tow it home. It’s pretty heavy and the runners aren’t in good shape.”
“Yes sir!” I shouted. “I think I can handle it okay by myself if I can break the runners free of the ice. Maybe I can get my dad to help me.”
He turned toward the door. “Whatever. You have fun with Robbie’s bobsled. He would be happy to see her being used again.” He used his handkerchief again and wiped around his eyes as he hastened into his house.
I looked at the beautiful blue-and-red bobsled and let out a whoop! I ran back, closed the gate, hopped on my bike, and flew toward home. I felt like I was riding on a cloud. I had to tell my Dad.
I stopped, rode back, re-entered the yard, and stood there looking over — my bobsled. I couldn’t believe my luck. Mr. Kowalski was right. I would have every kid in the neighborhood riding with me on Prange Hill when the next big snow came.
Two days later after a lot of tugging and pushing, I had towed the sled to my grandma’s back yard by myself and stowed it under the back porch so I could work on it. I was busy with the big metal files my dad had in a small earth-floored shop in the back under the store. When Dad saw it, he pointed out what needed to be done and found two pints of paint, red and blue so I could touch up the old paint. Dad gave me a small can of grease for the big ball bearings on the steering wheel housing, and I also greased the two big screen-door springs that returned the steering wheel back to neutral when the wheel turned.
I smoothed the last of the runners with steel wool as Dad had suggested and applied the varnish he gave me.
“This will keep them smooth for the rest of the winter, Ray. Let it dry and give them a second coat. Just make sure there is plenty of snow or you will scratch the runners and slow the sled.”
A week later I was finished at last, and I stood back and admired my handiwork. The blue seat and runner frames and the red running boards on the sides glowed in the evening light. I pulled the sled out from under the porch and pushed it across the yard. It glided smoothly over the snow and I had to hold on tight or it would keep going.
I laughed. The bobsled was almost as anxious as me to get on Prange Hill. The snow was melting and was getting patchy in spots. I would have to wait for the next  big snow or I would ruin the smooth metal runners like Dad said.
Winter moved along but without snow. I began to think we would see no more snow this year. I looked at the bobsled every day, feeling like she wanted that next big snow as much as me.
Two weeks later as I was walking home from Walbridge School, snow was hitting my face and I could taste the icy flakes as they melted on my tongue. The snow had started mid-morning and had been snowing all day while I was at school.
“Yes!” I shouted and threw my hands into the air.
The snow stuck to the grass and was already creeping out into the asphalt streets. I hurried home to see if grandma had any deliveries.
By early evening the streets had three inches of snow and it was still coming down. I looked out the bedroom window facing Prange; several boys were already sledding down Prange Hill. I wanted to get right out there with my new bobsled.
“Ray, wash your hands. Dinner’s almost ready,” yelled Mom. I could hear my grandmother wrapping meat in the big slick white paper from the huge roll on the rear counter by the meat case; I hoped she didn’t have an order for me to deliver. Dad was putting small lumps of coal into the stove.
I sat impatiently and ate, not sure what I was eating; I wanted to get out and try my new bobsled — now!
Dad watched me and grinned. “Flo come on, Ray has to show off that new bobsled of his. He worked his tail off smoothing the runners and painting it. Give the boy a break. Forget the dishes. I’ll dry them tonight. There’s a great big snow on Prange Hill.”
My mother stopped washing the pan and looked at him in surprise.
“YOUwill dry the dishes?”
Dad laughed and nodded.
“Okay, Ray,” Mom said, “you can go play with your big sled. I may have to watch that thing, too. I’ve never seen a bobsled before. How many boys did you say it will hold?”
“About six or seven if we sit close together. I’ll find out pretty quick,” I said with excitement.
And with that I had my boots, coat, and mittens on tight, and was out the door before I was given something else to do.
The snow came down and swirled in the cold wind. I breathed in the frosty air and pulled the bobsled out from under the porch and slid it along the narrow hallway between the store and our neighbor’s house next door.
The boys on Prange had put up orange dunce-cap warning cones at the top of the hill so traffic would not interrupt our sledding. Folks knew to steer clear of Prange Hill whenever it snowed. On those days this hill was OURS!
As soon as I had the big sled on the sidewalk in front of the store, a half-dozen boys gathered quickly around and began to look her over.
“Wow! Ray, where’d you get this sled? It’s a beauty! I saw one like this at Anderson’s Hardware Store last year, but it wasn’t for sale; it was just a display model. Gosh! How many of us can she handle?”
I was beaming at the attention although nobody was looking at me, but only my bobsled. Jack Scully threw his leg over the rear and sat on the bench seat.
“Neat, Ray. Let’s get her on Prange Hill!”
I pulled the tow rope and we guided the sled to the top of the hill. My best friend, Amedeo Fiore put his sled down and hopped on behind me as my Dad sauntered over. We had to hold it tight because the sled wanted to get at that hill right now. I could almost feel the life that Robbie Kowalski had instilled in her as five boys climbed on behind me. Joe Rizzo, the tallest of all, took the rear seat and we were ready to go. My Dad was bent over holding the rear of the sled while we got settled.
“You boys ready to go?” Dad asked. “I can hardly hold her still. This baby wants to go right now,” he said with a laugh.
“Let her rip, Dad,” I yelled as I gripped the big steering wheel.
I could feel the forward push as he gave us a shove at the hill, but the sled knew what to do. I could feel her gather momentum as we plummeted down Prange like a Flying Fortress bomber being airborne, and we raced down the hill past two boys on sleds. I could hear the swish of the runners as they sped over the packed snow and ice. The steering wheel was easy to control. The first ride was exciting and all of us yelled as we zoomed down Prange Hill at break-neck speed. I was happy as everyone helped me pull and push the sled back up the hill time after time.
After about an hour, I noticed our neighbors, men and women home from work, standing with their kids on the side walks watching and yelling encouragement.
One of the men even rode down with us once, but his wife scolded him when we got to the top again.
“Evan, come on. This sled is for the boys. I remember when Robbie Kowalski built that bobsled. He was about Ray’s age. His dad used to take us to Forest Park on those big hills by the Museum. I was one of Robbie’s gang in those days.” The woman looked behind her and I followed her glance. Standing by the side of grandma’s store was Arny Kowalski, his hands in his pockets, watching us, smiling and nodding. The lady waved at him and he waved back.
“Hi, Mr. Kowalski,” I yelled and waved. “I got her tuned up like you said.”
He strolled over and walked around the bobsled, studying her with a keen eye.
“You did a fine job, Ray. Robbie would be proud.” He patted me on the shoulder and walked away with an occasional glance back at me, the bobsled, and the boys.
I said to my Dad, “I sure wish Robbie could be here to see this.”
He put his hand on my shoulder.
“Maybe he is, Ray. Maybe he is.”