- Historic Sites
A Michigan Boyhood
SECOND OF FOUR INSTALLMENTS A FAMOUS HISTORIAN RECALLS THE COUNTRY WHERE HE GREW UP
April 1972 | Volume 23, Issue 3
We did a good deal of skiing, in a makeshift sort of way. All of the skis were homemade—a local carpenter would produce a pair for a modest sum—and they lacked modern refinements; there was simply a leather strap on each ski to put your toe through, with nothing to go around your heel and bind you firmly to the skis. Maneuvers that are taken for granted by present-day skiers were utterly beyond our reach, but we could go swinging down the open slopes at a great rate, and glide across country in fine style, and since we did not know that we lacked anything, we were completely satisfied. It never entered our heads that we ought to wear special costumes, or that to go skiing was to indulge in a sophisticated, socially rewarding activity. We did it because it was fun.
The best sport of all in the winter was coasting downhill. Go where you chose, from the center of the village, and you soon came to a road that went down a long hill. The one to the west went down such an easy slope that it did not offer much; and the one to the north was too dangerous, because it was steep and it led straight into the main street of Beulah, where some farmer was apt to be pulling away from the curb to make a U-turn with a two-horse team and a heavy wagon box on runners just as a bobsled full of youngsters, moving at better than thirty miles an hour and all but out of control, came barrelling along for a disastrous collision. In the end the village council made coasting on the Beulah hill illegal, and the rule was pretty generally observed.
The east hill road was equally steep but less dangerous because there was no town at the foot of it. There was a railroad crossing there, to be sure, but the Ann Arbor railroad did not run many trains and we had a fair idea of the schedules, and there were massive drifts along both sides of the highway in case one had to bail out in a hurry. When a bobsled ran into one of these drifts at high speed, there was always a hilarious mix-up; the sled would come to a most abrupt stop and the five or six occupants would be catapulted off into the snow, landing head downward as likely as not. One time Robert and I took our mother down this hill, because she had never gone coasting and wanted to see what it was like. Just as we went down the steepest part, whirling along at a prodigious clip, she concluded that it was like nothing she wanted any more of and she firmly ordered: “Robert! Robert, stop it! ” We were dutiful sons and always did what our parents told us to do, so Robert obediently guided the sled into a deep drift. As anyone but Mother would have known, the sled stopped but its passengers did not. Mother, who was no lightweight, shot through the air like a rocketing partridge, going completely over Robert’s head and coming down wrong end up in five feet of powdery snow. It took us several minutes to get her out, because she was laughing so hard that she was unable to act in her own behalf. I do not recall that she ever went coasting again.
The best coasting was down the long road that went to the south. Here the slope was more gentle, but when the snow was packed right you could move fairly fast, and you could go on almost forever; with luck, a bobsled could reach the Betsie River bridge, a full mile from the starting point. That meant a long walk back, to be sure, but nobody seemed to mind. Going down the long slope was effortless and silent; and since we were not more than eight inches off the ground, the speed seemed ever so much greater than it really was. A ride like that was worth a long walk.
I remember once some of us went down that hill after dark. We went all the way to the bridge, and as the .sled slowed down to a halt we sat motionless as long as there was the least chance of gliding forward another foot. We gave up, finally, turned the sled around, and started pulling it back uphill. It was cold, and a north wind was whipping dry snow off of the surrounding fields with a soft, rustling noise. The wind seemed to come straight down from the North Pole-- really, there was nothing between us and the Pole to stop it—and it came out of the emptiness of the everlasting ice, as if the old darkness once again was sliding down from the top of the world to swallow everything; perhaps that was what made the ghostly creeping little sound out across the snow drifts. I shivered, not because I wanted a warmer coat but because I wanted some sort of reassurance, which did not seem to be forthcoming. Yet overhead all the great stars were out, and on the frozen road I could hear the sound of laughter.