Saturday, December 4, 2021

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Joe's Neighborhood

The sledding hill


“Dad says it is your turn to go down the hill with me.”

The young girl, her right side dipped in snow, her stocking cap covering only one ear, and a plastic blue sled trailing in her wake, looks up expectantly at the group of three moms standing at the top of the hill. It appears the infamous “dad” is somewhere down at the bottom of the hill. Flat on his back is my guess.

All three women have their arms crossed tightly against their layered coats. They gaze out at the bedlam overtaking Waveland Golf Course. The moms have clearly done their part to get the children out sledding. Coats, boots, mittens, scarves, hats. Check, check, check, check and check. And then they’ve packed the kids into the car and gotten them safely to the hills. Quite a chore. Whew. Unfortunately, the young girl does not realize that the moms are now off the clock. They are drinking coffee and hot chocolate. They have done enough for today. Responsibility over. One mom helpfully clarifies the situation.joes 1 1.14

“Tell Dad that it is still his turn.”

A sledding hill has two perspectives, depending upon where you’re standing in the arc of your life. When you’re at the top and young, the hill is about the excitement of going down, the anticipation of speed, the rush of wind, the loss of balance, the delight of falling. When you’re at the bottom and not so young, the hill is about making it once more back to the top, the heavy slog through the snow, the leaden drag of the sled, the sound of air harshly drawing through your nose and mouth, and the fear of falling on the icy slope.


Yup, because for every delighted child, there’s a dad (or mom) at the bottom of the hill. He’s rubbing that sore hip as he lies on his back wondering if this is the good death of which the heroes of old spoke. Probably not. And, on top of his awareness of his lack of heroic dimensions, and the equally hard realization that he’s not going to be doing the bobsled run with Lolo at the next Olympics, all he can hear as he rests in the snow is the peel of children — loudly laughing, delightfully screaming and excitedly shouting.

It’s hard for him not to smile at the joy of it all. Or is that rigor mortis setting in?

Let’s pause for a moment while Dad recovers. In January of 1920, the Iowa Supreme Court faced a slippery issue involving sledding. The facts were not complicated, if you ignore the legal mess.

“The coasting party was made up of seven or eight young people who were making use of one or more small sleds carrying but one or two riders each, and a so-called ‘traveler,’ which consisted of two narrow sleds coupled tandem fashion with a plank or board laid lengthwise over them. This vehicle would carry four or more riders.”

There are our sledders. And the bad guy in this drama?

“On the evening in question, with a covered buggy and team of two horses, [a young man] had driven to the house of a neighbor, where his companion, a young woman, joined him for a ride.”

Ah, all the fixings for a Downton Abbey-type disaster. Coming down one side of the road, a horse and buggy, and coming down the other, sledders. The young man in the carriage, probably attempting to impress the young woman (and perhaps texting?), ignores warnings that the tandem sled is coming.

“[The young man] does not seem to have realized the peril of the situation, until the coasting party was almost upon him. He then reined his team, or the team in its fright swerved of its own motion, to the right, and as it turned the ‘traveler’ with its load of coasters came in contact with a wheel of the carriage.”

Out of this collision, one young sledder breaks her arm. Thus the lawsuit.

Unfortunately for the young man in the carriage, the 1920 Iowa Supreme Court was made up of sledders. Chief Justice Weaver not only wrote a unanimous opinion in favor of the sledder but also saw non-sledders as fun-haters. Referring disapprovingly to a similar case in another state, he said:

“[The Maine Supreme Court suggests] that a boy dragging his sled to school may lawfully mount it and ride so far as a friendly hill in the road may carry him on his way to the schoolhouse, yet, if he so far forgets the strict rules of Puritan propriety as to stop at the foot of the hill and trudge back again to the top for another slide for the pure fun of the thing, he becomes an outlaw or trespasser in the highway, bereft of the privileges and protections of an ordinary traveler.”

Chief Justice Weaver, with his sarcastic pen sliding lightly behind him, thought the Maine Supreme Court was nuts. Duh. The Iowa Chief Justice obviously went sledding “for the pure fun of the thing.” He’d certainly be sledding today.

This brings us back to the sledding hill.

The top of Waveland Golf Course becomes more and more busy as the day gets on. Bill and Carla Orr show up with a passel of kids.

“We’ve kind of been cooped up over the weekend, and we are just ready to get out and have fun.”

Carla Orr is laughing and talking to me, while her kids and the neighbor kids she brought along are running around, asking her questions, and just in general wanting her attention. Then suddenly, off the kids go, flying down the hill.

“The kids love to get fresh air. We have twins and triplets. So if we stay inside too long, we are going to go crazy.”

Amen to narrowly avoiding that disaster.

joes 2 1.14Bill and Carla Orr watch their brood rush down the hill. And they pause momentarily at the top, posing in the moment of quiet.

And what after this?

“We will spend the afternoon out here, and then we’ll go home and have hot chocolate.”

Of course you will.

Carla laughs softly. She and Bill bump against each other. More smiles. Then down the slope they go. Mom and Dad chasing the kids.

Hmmm… so much for the strict rules of Puritan propriety on the sledding hill today. CV

Joe Weeg spent 31 years bumping around this town as a prosecutor for the Polk County Attorney’s Office. Now retired, he writes about the frequently overlooked people, places and events in Des Moines on his blog:  

One Comment

  1. tim florer says:

    Joe, I laughed so hard I had trouble catching my breath. Raising 4 kids, and now 4 grandkids, I have lived the sledding experiment. Our 4 year-old grandson has a favorite expression he uses while sledding, ” Again!!!”

    Thank you, Tim Florer

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