The enemy is fear. We think it is hate; but it is really fear.
The story begins when Jude and I flew up to my childhood home in Naperville, Illinois on Christmas Day to see what Santa had brought. It’s a tradition, he said, and he was correct. However, when I was married, we used to spend Christmas proper at home in Nashville, the three of us. But, one of the first things I set out to do in my new reality as a single dad, was build new traditions. This was one of them. My folks were particularly happy about this; he was their pride, their only grandson and, in an unexpected turn of events, the divorce enabled them to spend more time with him, not less. You never know. On the other hand, I’d also created a new tradition for myself, namely that I wouldn’t fly alone. I was never afraid to fly, per se, but I didn’t want to take any chances on Jude growing up without a dad.
Chicago was hit with a proper northern snow just before our visit, so the city was blanketed in white when we arrived, in a Currier and Ives sort of way. The temperature was low enough to keep it on the ground, but warm enough, if that isn’t an oxymoron, to make it bearable to be out and about. And, because the snow had just fallen, it was yet to be sullied by delivery trucks, school buses, and other slush creators.
Christmas night, Jude and I gathered with my brother and my parents, who sat joyfully watching him open his loot, games, science kits, legos, and books. It would’ve been dinosaur books at that time, if I remember correctly. The next day he engaged his grandparents in board games. They were good sports and loved it, although my mother could never understand the point of the newfangled “collaborative” games we sometimes played. “Doesn’t there have to be a winner?” she would say.
“We’re all winners, mom,” I would respond.
After game time, Jude read a bit about the Mesozoic era, and then told me he wanted to take a walk on the Riverwalk to “enjoy the beauty of the fresh snow.” His words. His choice. I was proud of this and, for a moment, I imagined him as a young man, courting a young woman who would understand guys who liked to slow things down, a girl who would appreciate sensitivity and thoughtfulness and would love my son for who he was. But that was a long time away.
My folks’ house sat on a cul-de-sac, on the perimeter of old Naperville, and our next-door neighbors’ backyard ran down to meet the DuPage River, where I used to play hockey with my friends when the ice was frozen smooth and solid. One of the end points of the Riverwalk began a few hundred yards away, and followed the bank of the river past trees and parks all the way downtown, two or three miles away. Jude and I bundled up and headed off down the paved path, taking pictures, throwing a snowball now and again and watching birds hop from tree to tree, occasionally landing on the alabaster snow, leaving dark dotted footprints as they searched for seed.
Newly fallen snow seems to make the air clean and the world silent. And, just as every snowflake is unique, every moment in that landscape is unique and magical. But it isn’t just the snow. Every day when I made breakfast for Jude and got him ready for school, I’d put a note in his lunchbox with some happy words, and I’d tell him that it was a magical day ahead. I got in the habit of doing that because of my role as a father, and I’d talk about the magic even when I felt less than magical. But after a while, it became natural, and it made me feel better, as giver and receiver. Why not? If you find the magic in those simple things, you are in the moment, present, unafraid. Snow on the branches, ducks waddling along the path, kids skating in the park. Chalky perfection surrounded us.
Close to downtown, we arrived at the Millennium Carrolon, a giant bell tower the city built as testament to itself, bordering a vacant swath of land known as the sled hill. Often it’s just a place to picnic or listen to music by bands the park district brings in to try and keep the kids off the street. The “mad youth,” as my Dad called them, after which he would chuckle and add “What are they mad about?’ On this particular day, however, the hill echoed with the sounds of laughing, screaming, and shouting, as sleds raced across the snow, from the parking lot at the top, across the Riverwalk, to the edge of the frozen river. A wide swath of snow acted as the fast lane for sledding, while on either side, a rope acted as a borderline and hand rail for participants trudging back up for another run.
Jude and I watched for a moment.
“Let’s get a sled, Dad.”
So, we turned around, hurriedly walked back to my folks’ house, and drove over to Ace Hardware, where I bought two plastic sleds, a little round plastic one shaped like a saucer and a two-man narrow green toboggan. Jude took the round sled out for a trial run in my parents’ yard, and my dad set up a chair by the window so he could watch, smiling, likely remembering his childhood and mine, holding the memories in his now-shaky hands. Up and down Jude went, creating a path from the side of the house to the fence. Soon he was ready for the sled hill, so we packed up the sleds and drove to the high school across the street to park the car.
There was a small crowd gathered at the top of the hill, teenagers and families excitedly but patiently waiting their turn. The gateway to sledding was marked by a large wooden sign that read, “WARNING. DANGER. NOT LIABLE FOR BODILY HARM.” They were huge letters, foreboding, followed by lots of fine print excluding the city from any liability. The only responsibility lies with you, the sledder, about to take what was apparently a great risk.
I observed as we waited. People were racing down the hill, quite fast. Sometimes it was a single child on his or her own; or a mom and dad, holding tightly to their son or daughter. Some kids were stacked two or three high, going down on their bellies. Some teenagers decided to surf down on their sleds standing up, all arms and legs, making it only so far before tumbling and falling, rolling down the rest of the hill. Jude had come to me relatively late in my life, and although I was in good shape, I looked around at the other parents. They all seemed younger than me. I saw broken bones in my future. I thought of Jude and his safety.
Jude spotted me reading the sign, thinking.
“They’re just trying to scare us. It’s like the Grand Canyon.” He was correct, in that every time we visited a National Park, there was some sort of overblown warning like this one. Lots of graphics of people falling off things, with big round slash circles cancelling the stick person into oblivion. Good common sense prevails, but rules, regulations and legal counsel strike a fearful note.
Jude had always been a cautious boy, though, so I wondered how he could so quickly lose that aspect of his personality. Maybe he was 8 going on 14. But then I had an epiphany, namely that he wanted to go on the two-man sled with his father, a built-in shock absorber and, if need be, a human shield. Fair enough. The line moved quickly and when it was our turn, we set our two-man plastic toboggan on the hard packed snow, with me at the back, Jude in front. I took hold of the reins, wrapped my legs around Jude, and pushed off with my hands. Down the slope we went, quicker than I would’ve expected, bumping up and down, snow kicking up along the sides, splashes of wet flying in our faces as we laughed and shouted like every sledder around us. At the end of our ride, we spun a little bit, and cruised to a stop. Our spaceship had landed.
“That was AWESOME!” Jude shouted. “Let’s do it again!”
So we got up, brushed the snow from our pants, and headed to the walkway on the side, carrying our sled and holding on to the rope that bordered the runway and led back up the hill. And, we did it again. And again. And again. At first, we weren’t very good at steering, and I experimented with putting more or less weight on the sled and using my gloved hands to guide us. Sometimes our trajectory was straight and narrow and we made it to the bottom like a sleek racing car; other times we spun out like an Edsel, falling off the sled. We hit bumps in the path, where it felt like we were in a winter rodeo. My butt quickly became sore from hitting all those bumps, but I didn’t care. I had completely forgotten about the sign at the top of the hill. We spent the next couple hours in a free zone, where only the cold of the snow and the spin of the sled made us think of anything but the moment.
The next day Jude and I went into Chicago to visit the Shedd Aquarium. But the day after that, he played games with my parents, read some more (the Paleolithic era), and then asked if we could go back to the sled hill. Of course. This time it was a week day, and people were back at work, so the hill was less populated. It had also turned to ice with the drop in temperature and I knew the slope would be faster. I’d taken the precaution of wearing sweats under my jeans, to better pad myself. I also wore heavier gloves, as did my son. But, even though we were riding on a sheet of ice, I was determined to show no fear.
Jude loved it just as much as before, but he still didn’t want to go on the main hill by himself – only the two-man. This time, I noticed that no matter how fast people went down the hill, they almost always got off their sleds slowly, either laughing or shaken, oblivious to the speed of the oncoming sled traffic. On one occasion, a girl of about Jude’s age stood directly in our path and as we struggled in vain to veer off, we simultaneously shouted WATCH OUTTTT, at which point she finally darted away and we luckily swerved in the opposite direction. Many of the bumps in the sled path felt like small icy mountains, higher as well as harder, and one ride lifted us into the air like Olympic skiers, my butt taking the shock as the hard plastic toboggan hit the ground.
“That was AWESOME! Let’s do it again!!!!”
So we gathered our sled, walked back up the hill, and did it again. And again. And again. Every time we raced down the hill, we laughed and shouted. Every time we trudged back up the hill, we beamed. There was a sort of informal bonding going on with the community of sledders, as we watched each other spin out and get up, all the children and families taking the day off to come out and enjoy the ride before it melted away. Jude came relatively late in life for me, and once again, I looked around at the other parents. The first day, I thought I might be the oldest parent there. By the second day, I felt like the youngest kid.
Because it was AWESOME.
And I’d do it again. And again. And again.
Raised in Chicago and residing in Nashville, Doug Hoekstra’s short stories, essays, and poems have appeared in numerous literary journals and two book-length collections (including Bothering the Coffee Drinkers, 2007 Independent Publisher Award finalist.) He is also a musician, with eight CDs released on U.S. and European labels. https://doughoekstra.wordpress.com/