It was so long ago that I really don't remember which one of us neighborhood kids made up the game. I think it started as a dare and turned into a game we played as often as we could. Who was the bravest? It was thrilling and scary and if you didn't play the game right; it was very dangerous. We were just little kids, and all of our parents forbid us to play the game because they knew one of us could be killed. Killed for being the winner.
Our family was living on Maple Street, here in Houlton, which is flanked by North Street on one side and Highland Avenue on the other. The area behind the house was a great big field that went all the way to the river. There was a flat area about the size of a baseball field we used to play in during the summer. On the side towards the river there was a very steep hill. It went straight down for about fifty feet and had a small break; a flat area about twenty feet wide. From there it dropped straight down about eighty feet before coming to the next small flat. At the edge that flat was a service road, and then a short steep bank down into the river. During that February vacation we'd had a couple of warm days followed by a deep freeze. No matter how cold it got there were always spots of open water, fast flowing spots where the frigid water roiled and foamed out over the ice.
“Stay away from that river!!” was our Mothers' mantra as they dressed us in four or five layers of warm clothes, pushed on our rubber boots, and tied scratchy wool scarves tightly around our necks to keep out the cold and snow. Our eyes twinkled with innocence as we solemnly promised we wouldn't go near the river. We all went outside believing that this time we would mind our parents. We wouldn't play the game again, especially after we had such a close call the last time we agreed, as we towed our sleds to the top of the hill. We were allowed to slide down the first hill but we were supposed to stop before the big hill. The first hill was iced over and fast, so fast most of the kids were afraid to go on down the big hill. We stood at the top of the first hill, arguing as children will about who was the bravest and if flying saucers were really faster than sleds.
Finally someone said, “Wanna slide down all the way down?” “Nah, it'll be too close to the river, my Mom would kill me.” “She won't know; nobody caught us yesterday.” A couple of the other kids said no too, they didn't want to get into trouble. “Come on let's do it! Nobody's going to get hurt or anything.” Finally some of us agreed and we moseyed to the top of the hill and looked down. “Who's gonna go first?” “Not me.” “Not me.” “Why you guys chicken? Bock, Bock, Bock!! Look at the chickens!!” Usually we went no farther than the service road. Occasionally we might end up in the middle of the service road if the sliding trail was really well packed and icy.
One of the boys decided he was the bravest, hopped on his sled, and whizzed down the first hill; but he pulled up at the top of the big hill. A couple more kids did the same. Finally someone hopped on his sled and down both hills he went, rolling off his sled well before the service road. Another kid yelled, “I can go farther than that!” He jumped on his sled and went a little further. And so the game had begun. Who dared to go the closest to the river?
I hopped on my saucer and flew down the first hill. I stuck my tongue out at the first boy as I sailed by; never slowing a bit before I plunged down the big icy hill. I hung on as I gathered speed thinking, “I'll show them how much guts I got and they'll never tease me for being the littlest again!” Man I was flying, just like those bobsled guys on TV. I was continually gaining momentum all the way down the icy trail. I hit the bottom, slid across the flat in a second, and hit the tip of the snow ridge at the edge of the road. Suddenly I was in the air! Instinctively I clutched the canvas handles as I marveled at the feeling of freedom. I glanced down and realized I had cleared the road. “Wow!” I thought, and then with a big thump I hit the peak of the bank on the other side of the road and began sliding down the riverbank. I wasn't going as fast, but it seemed as if the open water was crawling towards me, not me rushing towards it. It took a couple more seconds to realize I wasn't going to stop. When I hit the glare ice of the river, the waxed bottom of the saucer kept me sailing towards my deadly destination. Horrified by the realization I was going to slide right into the water, I felt my hands grip the handles even tighter. “Oh my God, I can't let go!” I wailed out loud. I twisted and thrust my body to the right in an effort to roll off the saucer. My left hand finally slid out of the frozen mitten and released me, I rolled off but I was still sliding towards the water on my stomach, with the saucer in the lead. I gripped the ice with my hands and dug the toes of my rubber boots into the ice. I slowed to a crawl and finally stopped.
The five foot rope that was tied onto the saucer was wrapped around one ankle. I felt a strange tugging sensation and looked over my shoulder; to my amazement the saucer was bouncing merrily on top of the wild water. I ducked my head and took a couple of deep breaths. I was so scared I felt like crying. I wasn't going cry and get laughed at, or worst of all get called a crybaby for the rest of my life. I glanced up the hill and everyone seemed frozen in place, just staring down the hills at me. Everything was strangely silent except for the bubbling and gurgling of the water. I started inching my way back to shore sliding on my belly, the saucer leaving a small wet trail behind me. I finally reached the shore and stood up in the snow. I was shaking so hard my teeth were chattering. I kept taking deep breaths to keep from crying and watched the kids coming towards me. They slid down the first hill, but ran down the path beside the trail on the big hill. “Chickens!!” I thought archly, “Nothing but a bunch of chickens!!” They even fluttered and cooed around me like a flock of chickens. They were full of questions. “What was it like?” “When you were going so fast were you scared?” “Were you scared out on the river?” I gave them my most superior look and said smugly, “If you want to know, see for yourself.” and held out the rope to the flying saucer.
No one would take it. I wiped my nose on my left sleeve and held up my mitten to munch casually on some snow and then it hit me. There was no mitten!! Oh no! I was going to be in trouble, I'd lost my mitten. Well it wasn't exactly lost, I knew where it was. It was in the river! I sure couldn't tell Mother how I lost it! She'd tan my hide! It was getting dark and everyone wanted to go home. They all knew I was in big trouble because of my mitten. They all wanted to know if I was going to tell.
I put my saucer on the porch, and paused to consider my dilemma. What was I going to say? Then I had a brilliant idea. I ran into the house crying, and told Mother some dog had stolen my mitten. I told her we'd chased the dog to North Street but we had to stop when it ran across the street. I got a good scolding for taking off my mittens and putting on the snow bank, but nothing else happened. Now if the other kids just kept their mouths shut everything would be OK.
Everyone did and to this day my parents have no idea they came within five feet of losing their only daughter when I was just seven. Mother would still tan my hide if she knew about that incident, that and a few other death defying games we regularly played as kids. Who was the bravest?
Written by Debra Cone