Philadelphia, PA – Mid to Late 70s.
When you’re in school and there’s a threat of a snowstorm, it’s a joyous occasion. Nowadays, they’ll close the school for some flurries and a little bit of ice. But back in the 60s and 70s, you needed at least 6 inches for them to close the schools.
I’d be home watching TV the night before and I would head downstairs every hour or so to look out the front porch windows. I’d look up at the street lights to see if any flurries were starting to fall. If they had begun then there was a good chance the snow was on, but more times than not, it didn’t. We’d go to bed and hope for the best.
The next morning I’d wake up and look out my bedroom window. I couldn’t see much because I slept in the middle room of our house. All I could see was the house next door. So, I’d flip on the radio just like I did every morning to listen to music to start my day.
Listening to music on the radio is where we got most of our music back then. Two stations. WMMR and WYSP. It was all rock and it’s where I found about whatever was popular at the time. I remember hearing the song, Roxanne by a new band called The Police back in 1978. We Will Rock You, and We Are The Champions by Queen were also a pair of firsts on the radio one morning.
But today I would flip the switch on my clock radio to AM from FM to get the local news. KYW News Radio 1060 was the go-to station for all local and national news. Normally on a snow day, they would list all of the schools and state-run buildings that were closed that day. The announcer would read through a list of dozens and dozens of school numbers to say which ones would be closing due to the inclement weather.
But the one thing we wanted to hear was this statement: “All public and parochial schools are closed.”
When you heard those words, you went from a sleepyhead kid who didn’t want to go to school, to a completely energized youngster with sudden boundless energy and excitement.
We all usually played outside as kids, but when it snowed, it was as if our neighborhood was briefly transformed into a day with endless possibilities and fun.
I’d call my friends and we’d make our plans for the day. The schools were closed to keep children safe and off the streets during inclement weather. But we did the exact opposite.
I’d get dressed and come downstairs to have breakfast with my sisters. Captain Crunch cereal, bacon, toast, and a small glass of orange juice to start the day, all courtesy of mom.
After breakfast, it was time to suit up for the day ahead. Heavy coat, hat, boots, and gloves.
Within an hour I’d meet up with my friend Michael and we’d head down to Rising Sun Avenue. Trudging through the snow with our snow shovels. We’d inquire inside a couple of small businesses and ask to shovel their sidewalks. It was an easy gig because there were no steps or driveways to shovel. Quick and efficient, we’d make between $5 and $10 each. Then we’d stop at the little corner store on the corner of Rising Sun and Gilliam Streets, called Kushners. We’d buy some cigarettes and candy. Cigs back then were $0.60 a pack. $0.51 at Rite Aid! Super cheap!
Once we were finished shoveling a couple of walks we’d head back home and drop off the shovels with no thought of doing our own steps or driveways. I’d go into the garage and grab my sled.
I had recently gotten it for Christmas and it was a beautiful Flexible Flyer. An elegant vehicle you could steer that was sturdy and swift. To add to its ability to dash down a snow-covered hill, I’d take an old candle and rub it along the blades of the sled. This made it even slicker and faster.
My little sisters would be out in the driveway, completely bundled up and they would ride their little sleds up and down the driveway. But the older kids knew of a place where the real fun lived on a snowy day.
That place was the Melrose Golf Country Club. https://www.melrosecountryclub.com/
My friends and I would walk south on Hasbrook Avenue to Levick Street. We’d walk west until we reached the crest of the hill that bordered Cheltenham. Across the bridge, over the railroad tracks, and around the cyclone fence that led into the Melrose golf course. It was obviously closed this time of year because the whole place was buried under a blanket of snow. I’d only seen it once before not covered in snow.
When we got there it was already full of kids and families from all over who also knew about our secret. The whole course was somehow built on an enormous series of hills. Easily a quarter mile to the bottom down to Tookany Creek. I don’t know about other parts of the country, but I’ve never seen a better place to go sledding in my life. The hills were enormous and steep!
The cool thing was, you saw everybody who knew about this place from around your neighborhood. There were no bullies, no victims, no school rivalries. Just kids all playing together with one goal in mind. Have the best day ever in this winter wonderland made just for us.
Folks were sledding down the slopes on everything imaginable. Mostly standard sleds, but there were some people going down the hills six-strong, on toboggans. The crazy brave on their plastic or metal disks, flying over the moguls sometimes backward!
I even saw some kids all piling onto an old car hood flying down the hill to certain disaster. It was insane!
Think of the exercise we were getting back then as kids. Sledding down huge hills and then dragging our sleds back up the steep hills to do it again and again. All-day long!
We’d immediately get down to the business of having a great snow day. There were several different hills of varying sizes, so there was something for everyone there. Technically it was private property but in all the years we went there, we never had any problems. We’d start off with some of the smaller, less busy hills and then move over to the one main area where most kids were playing. It was an amazing hill. It began with a steep decline so you’d build up speed rather quickly. Midway through the folks who had to build the course had cut a road horizontally through it for the golf carts to navigate along. So this road created the first jump, so to speak.
So when you hit it at high speed, you’d literally become airborne for a few seconds. You had to hold on tight.
Then the descent became even steeper and you flew down the final few lengths. Near the bottom was a couple of inverted moguls in your path. So, basically, you could go around them or be bold and run right through them. The spot was so famous it became known as The Nutcracker. Because if you hit those dips at high speed you dipped into the first one and then became airborne only to land in the second one with a bang. Hence the name coined by the boys in the area.
It was a large course so we were always looking for new hills to sled down. On one trip we happened upon a spot south where you could sled along the golf cart road they had cut through the hill. It zig-zagged down the hill diagonally and then continued on a sharp curve just as it came to a flat wooden bridge for the golf carts to cross over a small brook. The brook led down into Tookany Creek that ran north and south a quarter of a mile west of where we were.
The hill hadn’t been done before because there weren’t any footprints or sled tracks in the area. So we would be first that day. Me being the cautious one was apprehensive about traversing unknown and potentially dangerous obstacles. But fortune favors the bold and my fearless friend Michael on his tiny, lightning-fast sled said he’d go first. God bless him!
It was a small sled, and he had to lie on his belly, bending his knees, curl his legs back towards him. Not only did he have the guts to go first, but he also got a running start. Holding his tiny sled in his hands he dashed towards the edge of the slope. He threw it down, leaped upon it, and began his rapid descent down this uncharted hill.
We all cheered him on as he flew down the hill, zigging and zagging along in perfect formation. We watched in amazement as he perfectly navigated what seemed like a very tricky hill. He got smaller and smaller as his distance increased from the hopeful onlookers.
His ride was brilliant and we all couldn’t wait to take our turn.
That is until Michael reached the flat wooden bridge. You see, the thing about bridges is they are free-standing structures. The rain, snow, and wind whistle around them and they are not only colder in temperature than the surface of the land, they usually freeze.
So, Mike hits the bridge, and instead of going across it, the moment he exits the curve and his tiny sled hits the frozen surface, he flew right off the side of the bridge and disappeared.
It was a terrifying moment as we all ran down the hill to see what had happened to our brave companion. When we finally reached the bridge, there was Michael climbing up the other side of the embankment. He was a little banged up but no worse for wear. He had flown off the side of the icy bridge, didn’t hit the water, but was going so fast, crashed into the opposite side of the embankment. A brilliant “Evel Knievel” moment. We all helped pull him back up to safety.
The world needs kids like Michael. Those in the tribe who are willing to risk life and limb and leap forward to explore new ground. But the world also needs people like me, to stay behind in case something happens to him. I can live another day, to spin the tale of the great Michael around the fire to the surviving tribal members.
We’d stay on those hills and sled most of the day. Sometimes staying out in the cold for more than six hours. You started to know when it was time to go home. Your whole body hurt from being battered on the slopes, and your speech became slurred because your face was so cold. (Either that or we were in the early stages of hyperthermia!)
We’d all trudge home and go to our respective houses to dry out and rest. I’d lie on the floor and put my stocking feet against the radiator in the living room. My feet actually started to itch from the blood and nerves returning to my frigid limbs.
But it was all worth it. A day off from school to spend with my friends going on a snowy adventure. Satisfied, I’d quietly reflect on the day and sip a mug of hot cocoa provided by my mom.
I miss Michael. He was a good friend.
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