• James Eichenlaub

It's Not Just A Hill, It's Redhill

Redhill, if you're old enough and grew up in Altoona, PA, you may recall as the sled riding center of the universe.

Sled riding in Florida is no fun at all. Even if you can find a hill, you grab your sled, get a good running start to gain speed, you throw the sled down and dive on top, and WHAM! The sled STOPS, and you shoot right off the front face-first into the grass...because there's NO SNOW, which makes seld riding so dang frustrating here, where we live!

Ah, but Redhill. Do you recall those times when you were small and pee'd yellow smiley faces in the snow? What choice was there? There were absolutely no restrooms on Redhill. When you spent three or four hours in a snowsuit in the freezing cold, and you're a kid aged anywhere from four or five years, up to fifty-five or better, what're you supposed to do, hold it? Oh, but nay, nay! When one must go, one must. Peeing into a snowsuit on a cold, cold day is not an option.

But, let me not digress; it's not like the hill is strategically hidden. You just drive sort of north on 18th Street toward the Buckhorn, and as you pass the Mill Run Road turnoff, you watch on the right, and you can't miss it! A big, empty hillside blanketed with snow, and on those days, covered with anything that would slide on snow! Of course, not everyone had a Rosebud, you know, so you had to make do!

Somewhere in the mid to late '50s, my outlaw brother-in-law, who was clearly a bit 'non compos mentis,' threw us kids into the back of his pickup truck along with the engine hood (bonnet, if you're British) from an old wreck in his junkyard and drove us from Pleasant Vally Boulevard, over to Redhill. I assume the five of us riding in the truck's open bed ensured our acclamation to a day of playing in the cold snow. Or, maybe just to see how many of us would survive! We were never sure.

The vehicle model from which the old engine hood was taken is inconsequential, but it was narrow at the front and very wide at the rear and could easily accommodate eight or ten small bodies laid in like cordwood. We could slide down a hill on it, or, with some minor adjustments, we could easily be placed upon it in a mass grave, which as the day went on, seemed the more likely possibility.

There are those children who seem to derive some perverse joy and excitement from near-death situations. Something that adults fail to see the fun in at all! For example, a hole was beaten through the tip of the old, rusty bonnet using some blunt instrument, like a cold chisel or hammer, which left large jagged edges protruding toward the five fragile bodies of the occupants. Which didn't mean anything unless, instead of being thrown free of the hood, one laid and slid suddenly forward. It's these small details to possible injury or death that make it so enjoyable to survive!

The "tortionnaire d’enfants" (my brother-in-law) inserted a thick rope with a large knot tied at the end to keep the rope from slipping out through the hole when used by the five of us children to haul the heavy metal death bed back up the hill after each and every survived descent.

Survival meant no bones were broken, you had both eyes functioning, and the bleeding stopped. Unlike today's candyass youth that wears armor for such things as simple as riding a bike! Figure it out: If the kid is too dumb to ride without injury, don't buy him one! That seemed to be the general consensus back in those days, anyway!

(I keep digressing, sorry!) We turned the rusted metal slab at the top of the hill until the pointed (and what we perceived to be the most logical) end was facing downhill. One of us stood in front of it, holding it in place until all were on board and ready to die! The 'launcher,' giving it a tug to get it moving, then jumped into the front and, Heeeeere we goooooo! So excited were we as we uncomprehendingly took our lives into our own hands!

My nephew, Richard, was at the helm, and his little brother immediately behind him. Those two could reach either side with a firm grip. The two little nieces were behind them on either side of me, each gripping the side with both hands. In between them, although the oldest and supposedly smartest, sat the village idiot, me, holding onto nothing. Supporting myself with both hands braced against the inner surface of the death slide, I was in no way protected from ejection should anything untoward happen! Oh well, "Make it so, number one! Warp factor 9!"

As we gathered speed, we lost control. "Oh damn," at least one of us (I) thought to his or her self. "We have no way to control either speed, direction, or which-end-is-up!" How high was that hill? Sixty, eighty, a hundred feet? Calculating mass times the speed of light squared divided by five, small, heavily clothed bodies, our facial expressions froze into horrified grins that only the grim reaper saw! We careened onward without a single thought of brakes, turning, or what impact our bodies could endure should the skimming mass of metal meet another solid object.

To look at it today, one would not think that there was not much growth near the bottom of Redhill. However, in those days, there was just enough to impale oneself upon if you rode inside an uncontrollable sheet of molded metal that was apparently designed to reduce the population of one's household.

As we tore into the shrubs at the bottom of the hill, or somewhere close to, small bodies flew in all directions. This occurred primarily because the broadest and heavier part of the hood turned toward the bottom as we glided speedily along the surface. Meaning we were all facing the wrong direction when we met a group of small trees at the speed of a runaway freight train! Once we were all able to breathe again, we could hardly wait to get back up the hill!

At the end of that first run, and watching from the sidelines at the bottom, my hydrocephalic brother-in-law was busting a gut laughing as he saw our limp bodies sprayed among the barren limbs of the trees and shrubs that broke our fall, or should I say, broke our flight?

Of course, like all indestructible children of that era, we grabbed the rope and headed back up the hill. In this more modern and perfectly sane society (said tongue-in-cheek), the caregiver would have been arrested, and the children would have ended up in a foster home receiving "a proper upbringing."

Anyway, I'm digressing again. Back up, we went! The second launch was planned by me, and this time, from a more strategic location. A much safer ride, and I took the helm, both because I was the oldest and I didn't want to die! Yet. (Maybe next ride.)

Unfortunately, we had yet to understand the reason for the craft's slow rotation during descent, and off we took from a steeper angle toward a more open location at the bottom. With me in the ship's nose, speed gathered, and as we opened into warp-drive, the ship again began to rotate.

The anchorless anchor line had bounced free and was now dragging behind the front as we again descended bass-ackwards. I was now clinging to the pointed bow with hands gripping the jagged, rusted metal on either side and straining my neck to look behind me at what was in front of us. About halfway down the hill, we struck something. Hopefully, not another sledder, but whatever it was, it kicked the right side up, and we lost one of the nieces. Out she bounced, but there was no time to mourn! C'est la vie! We couldn't stop!

The bottom was approaching...FAST...and not a tree or shrub in sight. The ground flattened, but the speed held steady. Evidently, as the metal surface against the snow moistened and iced, the less friction it felt, and more efficiently it maintained momentum.

As I looked over my shoulder, I noticed that our guardian angel began running. Once more, a bump, but this one smaller, causing the magnum opus of sledding to rotate again slightly, which was when I realized why our G.A. was moving toward us!

Instead of trees, shrubs, or even a building to stop us, there was nothing, nothing but Route-36. Although there was little traffic, there was no way to know who we might meet, or in what fashion, should we launch across the highway. There was also no way he would reach us in time to do anything about it. Not in this snow!

Suddenly, there was a loud crunching sound, and I was once more in the air, but not for long. The berm of the road slopped downward where, beneath the blown coating of snow, was gravel and dirt. It appeared that the uncontrollable craft rotated just enough for the corner at the wide end to dig into the embankment instead of launching up over.

Once more, the remaining bodies became airborne at the unplanned and sudden stop, but only short distances. Fortunately, nobody made it as far as the plowed and salted pavement of the road. By the time my outlaw-in-law made it to us, we had gathered ourselves, and the niece, the one we lost along the way, came trudging towards us.

Hey, we didn't die that time either, which meant we had to keep trying. Opportunities like these seldom knock, so we all headed to the rope to begin another ascent. At that point, our guardian made his appearance and, being that it was nearly two hours since his last beer, it was decided for us that we would come again another time.

Back into the pickup, we piled on top of the old hood the same as we came. Arriving home feeling groggy and worn out by the biting winter air, we tore off snowsuits and headed for the kitchen. We pulled the Nestle's Quick from the pantry and the milk from the fridge, and as we watched for the pan to boil, the sting of the cold slowly left our noses and ears.

The old hood went back to the junk pile, and the five frozen amigos never rode again. Still, many more and much dumber things than this were accomplished by each of us. We're all retired now and telling those stories to people like you who look at us and say, "It's easy to tell you're from Altoona."

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