Along with the Olympics, we are having record snowfalls this month. As I type in the late afternoon, the sky has darkened again and the flakes are whirling down. I don't know how much is out there: not as much as Virginia got earlier in February, but more than enough for me. Maybe a foot and a half? Maybe more? It was enough that we canceled tonight's monthly Legal Clinic for the first time ever.
As I shoveled again this morning, clearing away the packed snow that the City threw into our driveway when it came through with a plow sometime during the night, I couldn't help but think that weightlifting belonged to the Summer Olympics.
All this snow, combined with the presence of Bob Costas every night, has lead me to reflect on the Winter Games of my childhood. No, not Peggy Fleming in Grenoble, but the sports events of our own contrivance that were the hallmark of the season.
A biathlon is a sporting event made up of two disciplines. The Flax Street biathlon brought together downhill sledding with target shooting. This was a team event. Both sides had a limited amount of time in which to make up a supply of snowballs. One team got the snow fort at the foot of the hill in the backyard; the other team got the sled. The Sled Team's objective was to launch the sled (with a solo driver) from the top of the hill and ride towards the snow fort, launching snowballs when within range. Other Sled Team members followed on foot, screaming at the top of their lungs while they too fired snowballs. Team Snow Fort had to repel the attack without leaving the walls of the fort. If the Sled Team breached the walls (with either bodies or sled), it won. Otherwise, decision for Team Snow Fort.
This was performed at an out of town venue, my grandparent's farm out on Hogback Road. There was a pasture out behind the barn that tailed off sharply towards a small creek (pronounced "crick" for those foreign competitors who didn't understand the local dialect). In one location, the creek was only a foot and a half wide, very shallow, and would freeze solid, allowing the sled and its occupant to sail over the water and glide to a halt on the relatively smooth and flat bank on the other side. The course was marked by random objects - a discarded implement, a large rock, some scrap lumber - that were often hidden under the snow and that a competitor had to be sure to steer around while traversing the course. If one were lucky enough to avoid injury upon collision with a random object and kept hurtling downwards, one always ran the risk of being off course. This resulted in either (a) breaking through the ice of the creek at a slightly deeper spot and getting wet or (b) crossing the creek at a bank that was undercut and so sat several feet higher than the other side, thus causing the sled and its driver to become temporarily airborne. Points were given for "hang time" in the event of the latter.
This event was performed at the Olentangy River Arena, which was a block away from our house and right in the backyard of my older cousins. Our parents would allow us to skate on the river when it froze hard enough. "Hard enough" was always determined by an older cousin - late teens - testing the ice depth by chopping a hole in the ice. If he ascertained it to be safe, anyone old enough to skate ran to the river. Our skates were usually hung around our necks by their knotted laces, flailing our chests as we piled down the hill to the river. Once on the ice, we all (my brothers, a couple of older cousins (also male), myself, whatever friends we had joining us) practiced our compulsory figures ("Look, I'm skating backwards!") until one of the cousins would come flying by in speed skating mode, grab an outstretched arm, and "crack the whip" to send the hapless skater sailing out of control across the ice. The other event was a group event, consisting of all the skaters skating in fast, tight formation downriver and under the Central Avenue bridge, daring one another to skate as close as possible to the low head dam further downriver. At the last possible moment, the older skaters in the group would wheel around sharply, screaming "the ice is breaking!," and skate back upstream as swiftly as possible, leaving the younger skaters in panicked disarray.
My cousins had a toboggan, which was a fairly exotic sled for our neighborhood in those days. Their house was on the side of a moderate hill; the street turned sharply left, while the hill continued into a small field. The toboggan was built to hold three, but if one were willing to be squashed, as many as four or five riders could fit on it. This event had a bobsled quality to it as the last person on the sled would push off (from a run) and then jump aboard for the ride down. This was probably the tamest event of our Winter Games. A side event was putting the youngest kid in the front spot, making sure there was an extra forceful push to maximize speed, and then every other rider bailing out on the way down so that the remaining rider was left in an empty sled careening down the hill while the older kids laughed uproariously.
The competitors broke off a selection of large icicles from low hanging eaves, choosing them for length and girth. They then faced each other at arms' length and commenced to duel with the icicles until one icicle was too shattered to continue. Obviously, this was an event in which the height of the competitor made an enormous difference in the outcome. The taller one was, the easier one could reach (and manage to break off cleanly) more icicles. I regularly lost this event to my older brother Dale and cousin John growing up, but even in my early years of competition routinely captured the bronze by besting my younger brother Michel.
***********My friend Patricia and I managed to get a morning walk in on Monday, despite the snow and the unshoveled sidewalks. As we walked, she commented on some of the enormous icicles hanging from the gutters of the houses. Patricia was speculating about the damage to the gutters and potential damage to the house. I was listening, but I was thinking not of gutters but of the past glories of the Winter Games.