I grew up in a part of the country known for its winters. Endicott, N.Y., was not in the heart of the snow belt, but it was close enough that winters usually delivered lots of snow. School rarely cancelled, despite heavy accumulations, given the everyday realities of the climate. The town was predictably prepared for significant snow removal. Eight to 12 inches might deliver a day off, but it all depended on the timing. If the snow ended too early in the overnight hours, snow crews could make most roads passable enough to keep us in class. If I heard the plow passing down our street in the early dawn hours, I knew our hopes for a day off were dashed.
The neighborhood I lived in bordered the Susquehanna River. It was a great place to be a kid. The bank of the river adjacent to us rose quite high above the water (perhaps 30 feet or so) and was heavily wooded, making it perfect for forts and secret hiding places. Down the street a bit further, however, was a small town park that was wide open to the river and yet had a nice steep hill set well back from the river's edge. It was perfect for sledding. It was a not a long slope. The elevation dropped quickly and then provided a flat area for draining the momentum of the ride.
Through the eyes of a small grade school child, the hill seemed enormous from the top. It often took a great deal of coaxing to get the youngest of the bunch to brave the hill for the first time. Once down to the bottom on the inaugural run, smiles and laughter accompanied the triumphant on the climb back to the top for another try. It was so much fun. I loved being there.
For the older and more competitive kids, the usual contest was to see how close one could get to the edge of the river. Few ever made it to the water. It required perfect conditions and considerable weight on the sled. I was not one of the successful in the attempt, but I always carried with me a bit of caution about succeeding. The river was very shallow at the bank and little danger was present. I just did not want to get too wet and have to head home to change and lose precious time on the hill.
Invariably rules of etiquette would be enforced as they were passed down by earlier generations. This form of self-perpetuating governance was led by the older children who learned from their sledding forebears about how the best shared experience could be preserved. The most important of these was to not walk back up the hill in the groomed pathways for sledding. When fresh snow appeared it was the responsibility of the experienced leaders to select a few pathways that offered the best courses. There were some with bumps or drops following the contours of the ground beneath the snow. Some areas were a bit longer, allowing for more freelancing. On certain occasions when we had "good packing" snow, the future engineers would design and construct a small snow ramp, creating a jump area for the adventurous.
The steepness of this hill taught all of us a lesson that I remember every winter. The downward acceleration you felt once you pushed off the top was a bit like a very small roller coaster. Most of us braving the slope for the first time made the same mistake. We jumped off halfway down the hill. It was never the right choice. The consequences were always worse than staying on the sled. In the end everyone reached the bottom it was only a question of how we landed.
I've thought about that lesson often through the course of my lifetime when things begin to accelerate downhill in life. We all face such times. There is a great temptation to "jump off the sled" in the middle of the hill. When we do this, however, the error in judgment is focusing on the speed of the descent and giving in to fear. We forget the sled provides greater stability and safety than flailing arms and legs can accomplish in a vain attempt to slow the momentum. Gravity makes the end result inevitable, but our choices about how we arrive there determine our condition when the downward acceleration ceases and the ride down eventually comes to a stop. When we stay in the sled, we retain our ability to steer and avoid an uncontrolled spin. We can then turn around and begin the climb up the hill again. By staying in the sled we at least carry some sense of triumph for remaining in control on the ride down and turning things around safely.
May you find peace and joy in this Christmas season as you journey upward to the next hilltop.
Mark Putnam is president of Central College in Pella