A small group of children walked slowly through a silent world of falling snow. Everything was hushed by huge snowflakes floating softly around them and accumulating in piles on ranch-style houses that lined the street. A few cars appeared without a sound, half covered in snow, they sloshed on past the children and disappeared into a curtain of white. Children have pulled sleds down roads for centuries but this particular time was Christmas 1967.
The youngest boy trailed behind the others, stepping on huge clumps of slush left packed by passing automobiles. He could feel the heavy chunks slowly smoosh under his snow-boots. To a small child, the world is a magical place, much like being awakened from a long dream; it's very hard to tell what is real. As a six-year-old boy, I was in that state of mind. I trudged along following the group of sled-pulling children; they were my brothers and sisters. To me, they all seemed like adults except for, Twila Lou, a tiny dark-eyed, raven-haired sister with a cute dimple. We teasingly called her, "Bird legs," due to her tiny, stick-like limbs. Twila Lou was closest to me in age and in friendship. We were the same height even though she was two grades ahead of me. Our older siblings referred to us both as the little kids, which annoyed her. Our family was quite large, but I never did the math to figure out how many of us there were. Later in life, I came to find out that there were seven of us at this point. My two younger brothers would arrive in the next few years.
Living in Michigan, Midland to be exact, winter meant snow and cold, but we were young, and this was Christmas Eve day, and we were going sledding. I had heard about this grand place we were walking toward, a wonderland with huge hills perfectly matched for our purposes on that day. Secretly, I was afraid. Only my older brothers had been to this legendary sled-park, and their stories struck awe and fear in my imagination. My oldest brother, John, always the leader, told grand stories of how steep and high these sled-hills were. I knew my mother would not be there to scold the big boys if they pushed my sled down one of the mountains. Yet, wild horses couldn't have kept me from joining this expedition.
"Come on Tommy, hurry up!" They kept calling back at me. I couldn't pull my sled fast enough to keep up with the big kids, so John, grudgingly put my sled on his giving it a piggy-back ride. Without words, I followed. They were all talking about school, boys and girls, things I couldn't understand and didn't care about. I was huffing and puffing like a puppy following big dogs. I could see my breath in the cold December air. I watched it billow out and mix with delicate snowflakes. As a small child, I was easily distracted by little details older children didn't think about anymore. After all, they had lived through many winters, but this was the first one I had noticed. Possibly other winters I had been too young and Mother wouldn't let me go along on such outings, or maybe I was at the age where memories from previous years were still vanishing. At one point we all pretended our smoke-like breath was from cigarettes and puffed on our little imaginary stogies like we had seen "worldly" people doing in town. If our Mother had been around, we would have had a lecture. I stopped to watch big flakes falling downward, toward my face, but although I stuck my tongue out all the way I couldn't get many to land on it. "Come on Tommy, keep up with us, would you?" They yelled at me again.
We walked past our Church, where we spent an eternity every Sunday morning and evening. Our churchhouse windows, golden with light, seemed to be watching us like big eyes on the face of a brick building. Up to this point in our sled journey, I had been very comfortable. We had walked to church often, however, as we passed that familiar place we were forging out into uncharted territory. Dark woods stood on either side of the road, full of bears, wolves, or maybe even abominable snowmen. My older brothers marched on, unafraid, so we followed them. My toes and fingers began to freeze and get stiff from the cold, and they were all I could think about for the next leg of our journey. "Hurry up, Tommy, we are almost there," they called. My face was too frozen to answer them. It felt like the stone statue that stood in front of our county courthouse and judging by the others, my cheeks were probably rosy as well. I was forced to continually lick my upper lip because my nose insisted on running, and out in the wild there are no Kleenex boxes anywhere. I was shivering and coming to the conclusion that I could go no further when the big kids began to run and shout. We had arrived at that fearful, dreaded place in the wilderness, a golf course.
My brother's sled hills lived up to the tales that had been told. Large and bold, these steep slopes stood not far from the roadway, daring young children to test their courage. My brothers plunged headfirst down into the depths of a gorge while we watched. My step-brother, Steve, tried to lure me into following him off the summit by insulting my pride. "Sissy," he jeered. Steve was between my age and John's. We shared a bedroom but that was all he ever shared with me, and he did that under orders of our parents. One of my big sisters shooed him away from me and offered to let me ride on a sled behind her. I'm not sure which sister but looking back, having known them all for many years, I'm guessing it was Joanna. Joanna was kind and gentle, she was my "other mom," looking out for me when Mother wasn't around. She always seemed to know what was good and right, correcting me and the others often. All of my sisters had deep brown eyes, but Joanna's were the kind ones.
Joy, the sister just younger than Joanna, was a topic all her own. Her brown eyes were beautiful, yet flashed with sparks that could catch the eye of any boy and yet strike fear in his heart. Her long silky hair was exactly what every girl wanted back in the mid-nineteen-sixties. Many a girl with naturally curly hair sacrificed half of their lives straightening their locks and still couldn't compete with Joy's shiny waist long hair, accented by her cute figure. It turned out that Joy was the middle child, so, it stood to reason that she was always the center of attention. She was funny, cool, and could pick on us little kids as much as our brothers. She would have been the fun one to ride down a hill with, but I was too intimidated by her natural coolness to try to buddy up with her. This is why I would guess that safely behind Joanna, I took my first ride down the monster hill.
Fluffy and creamy, the snow-covered hills were like marshmallows on hot cocoa. After falling from my sled into a soft blanket of snow, I soon realized I would not actually die, and my courage began to grow. Hours had passed before I started to listen to my fingers and toes that were screaming at me to get them into someplace warm. The older sisters, Joanna and Amy, were the only two sensible enough to make the decision, "We really should be heading home before it gets too dark." Although my big brothers were the leaders, they didn't think that far ahead and were having too much fun to use common sense.
Amy, my new sister, acquired through my mother's second marriage along with Steve and my step-dad, was in my mind, a full grown woman. She was second in the sibling lineup and as tall as John. She was quiet unless she got started talking about her books that she was always reading. My parents said, "If Amy is reading one of her romance novels, she won't notice if the house is on fire!" I can still remember watching Amy's face as she read. Huge smiles gave away sweet moments in the story she was reading, totally oblivious to the real world around her. I worried that she would die in a house fire, but it never happened. Steve, her younger brother, joined our family feeling that his life's purpose was to make our lives miserable. It seemed fitting for a reddish-haired, freckled faced big brother. All big brother's picked on younger siblings in those days, anyway. I could write a whole book about my adventures of torture by John and Steve but this was Christmas time and even they were more good-natured during this short season.
By the end of the day, I was no longer afraid of the hills, we had tamed this wild place. As we walked away, I stopped to look back at what I once feared and now had conquered. I could see our sled paths, snow angels, and footprints where we had tromped all over the face of the once terrible hill. We headed back toward our church, which stood firmly on the corner of our town. The town that I loved even though we had only moved there one year ago. We came from a far away place called Ohio and before that an even further away place named Iowa. Those places were so far beyond the sled hills I couldn't have any idea how to get there, partly because I had fallen asleep during the move from both places. This was where I had awakened, and it was a friendly clean place. Now, as a result of this adventure into the wilderness, even the sled hills were added to the realm of safe places that I knew as a child. We walked through our peaceful neighborhood. Some of the houses had big fat, red and green Christmas lights hanging on them, the only kind of Christmas lights that existed back in 1967. A happy-looking snowman stood in one yard and watched the group of children walking past. A cold wind blew against the snowman's red mitten, making it flap in a waving motion. Golden light streamed from our own kitchen window off in the distance, beckoning us to hurry home, with a promise of hot cocoa and a fireplace stoked with wood. Even Tommy kept up with the big boys as we rushed toward our yard and dropped our sleds into a pile.
The old moon seemed to be a large ornament, hanging over our home. That moon seemed wild and untamed like the sled hills had. A year later, we watched Neil Armstrong and some other guys on TV, taming the moon like we did the sled hills, running around in snow-like dust leaving tracks everywhere. Life was simple and sweet during Christmas, 1967.