I grabbed my trusty Flexible Flyer sled and joined my friends walking from Mazeau Street to the summit on 72nd Street. We felt like birds flying south or salmon swimming upstream, but really were just noisy, loud, obnoxious kids unstoppable in our quest to reach Snake Hill. Finally, we were at the top. All of us guys stood around just like in the summer, but this time we were packed up in tons of clothes.
We watched the little kids do their thing with those disc-like hub cap sleds. The girls had pink and the young dudes had blue. They weren’t allowed to go far down the hill, just from one mountain to the next while their parents watched with field sergeant eyes. There was always one little kid that got hurt, and his or her father would pick them up, dust them off, and say, “It’s ok, go play,” while the other parents smiled or laughed in approval.
There was a definite feeling that we bigger kids were being monitored. The father’s job was to make sure we didn’t hurt the little folk, and they made that quite clear by shouting out, “You guys watch out for the kids! OK, you guys hear me?” and we had to answer, “Yeah, yup, ok!” – anything just to get them off our backs. Even at the age of 7-10 we had that Maspeth wise guy attitude, but with a hint of respect because in those days, parents didn’t fool around.
Unlike the summer bicycle races of 1, 2 or maybe 3 at a time, the sled downhill was 4, 5, 6, maybe 7 at one time. This was designed to be aggressive, war like. The main idea was to hold the sled to one side while running as fast as you could downhill with a ton of clothes on and belly flop onto the sled. This time we were not only dealing with gravity, our old friend, but now inertia, which for some reason we only spoke of in the winter sled runs. With our two friends and trusty Flexible Flyers we gained speed making sure we didn’t hit any mountains or manhole covers along the way.
Approaching the halfway point, the jungle, the sharp turn and Calamus Ave, we became warriors of destruction. We had no friends, no loyalty, no compassion, and it was every man for himself. Then it would happen. Someone to my left would try to ram me into the mountain on my right. I had to keep my nerve and hold the steer handle hard to the left in the hopes that I could force him over and maybe spin him out. This time I was lucky, he pulled away and I was again racing down Snake Hill. I noticed four other sleds and riders ahead. My eyes were tearing and my nose was running while my face felt frozen solid. I must have been doing at least 20 MPH. At this speed and low to the ground I had to stay focused.
Neighbors were still shoveling snow into the street while we were sliding down. We had no rights; we were kids and we all had clear heads. Obviously, the adults had to get their cars out of the driveway in order to go food shopping. We sledders had to deal with the obstacle they now provided and bust through new large chunks of snow while taking some of them right in the kisser. Most of the time that resulted in getting a bloodied lip, but there was no time to stop. I would deal with the damage later. I had to get to the bottom, and there were four guys ahead of me.
The two in sight began their attack on the other guy, both ramming into each other hard, over and over till one spun out, and the other was forced into a mountain. There were two ways to hit a mountain. The first was to catch the outer edge and flip over, separating you from the sled while doing a military roll into the path of the guy behind you which always caused cuts, bruises, blood, and a world of hurt…or not if you were lucky. The second was “the face plow.” This occurred when you hit the mountain from the side at its widest directly, and caused your face to bring you to a full and sudden stop. This always brought a laugh to all of us because of the way the poor slob hit. The second his face plowed into the mountain, his legs and feet lifted in the air and continued forward while doing a silly waving floppy thing, but if that wasn’t enough to bring laughter, the guy’s face would be completely covered with snow, like he was hit with a cream pie. Those were good times.
Now there were only two ahead of me, and I was catching up fast. They were approaching the forested area we referred to as “The Jungle” and the turning point. The ramming had begun between the two warriors and the one to reach the bottom, along with the honor that went with it, became obvious to both. Everyone knew that at this point on the turn you could make the move on your opponent hitting him hard and sending him into The Jungle, and for a while he would not be seen again. Watching a guy hit The Jungle was also a funny sight, some of the kids would stand on the sidewalk across the street just to see the crash. A lot of kids watched along the hill to see the crashes (these were our fans) but The Jungle spot was the best. The street was crowned at the start of The Jungle making it a slope down ward and towards it while making it an impossible return for a bicycle or a sled. The guy to the right slams into the guy on the left sending him into the slope and The Jungle’s waiting jaws. I could see the kid pulling hard on the steering bar to regain control. The snow was coming up from the front of his sled like the water being cut by a surfboard, but no luck, he was doomed – doomed, I say.
I could see the fans waving their arms and I could hear yelling as that poor kid hit the snow wall of The Jungle, only this time there was no roll or complete stop – there was total engulfment. I watched as he hit. The snow puffed up like a rock dropping into a pool of powder and then he was gone out of sight. The landscape was still and quiet with a slight bit of dust slowly settling, when out of nowhere he jumped up gasping for air falling to the left and right, coughing, shaking like a wet dog with tons of snow cascading down his back and into his boots and stuck to his winter jacket like powdered sugar on a donut, while the crowd went wild. Again, fun times!
Then it was just me and that last kid. I knew that he would emerge the winner. After all, he was getting there first, but there was nothing wrong in achieving second place after going down Snake Hill on a sled. Just getting down to that point without breaking anything was a victory.
He was maybe 20-30 feet in front of me when it happened. He pulled hard on his handle to bring his sled into a side slide; that was the way to stop before crossing Calamus Ave and becoming roadkill by way of cars or the Q45 bus. I couldn’t believe my eyes. This just didn’t happen. The sled blade may have caught an ice chunk that made it return to a straight forward direction. This was not good. The rider tried to bank off the edge of a mountain causing the roll technique, but it didn’t work. There was nowhere for him to go, but right smack into Calamus Ave. I thought to myself in a split second, “What I am about to witness is the first warrior ever to be killed by Snake Hill!” when a miracle happened. The traffic stopped while he crossed the street and plowed into the low snow wall and smashed into my friend Jimmy’s hedges. I started my handle pull and side slide bringing the sled to a perfect stop, all 10s, as an Olympic ending. I stood up, pushed my sled to the side, and ran over to see if he was all right. It was Ralph.
I said, ”Hey man, you ok?” Ralph was winded, but fine. The next thing I heard was Jimmy’s father yelling, “What the hell is wrong with you kids? Look what you did to my hedges!” We both did the “I’m sorry,” while bowing and moving backwards. Man, a kid just couldn’t catch a break. Ralph and I started the long walk up the hill filled with great pride, when Ralph said, “You won the run.” My reaction was, ”What?” He said, ”Yeah you won caused I wiped out.” He was right, I did win, and I had forgotten that because of what had just happened.
Snake Hill is still in my mind along with all those great friends and times, and it taught me never to give up because there’s always a chance that things will go your way. It’s amazing how the simple act of sledding down a hill as a kid changed my whole outlook on life!
Paul DeFalco grew up in Maspeth.