The Magic of the Flexible Flyer

It snowed on Tuesday evening. I realize in some parts of the country, that bit of news isn’t really a big deal. But I live in the south, and in the south, a snowstorm is a big deal because they are fairly rare. In fact, this week’s snow was the first significant snowfall the Raleigh area has received since December, 2010. Oh, sure, we get dustings here and there and the occasional 1-inch covering the ground, but to get enough that it turns the entire landscape white is another deal all together. And when we get a snow like that, something magical usually happens. And this week’s storm was no exception.

Best Christmas Gift Ever: The Flexible Flyer

It was Christmas of 1980. I was five years old and there was a special gift waiting for me under the Christmas tree that year. When I walked into the room, I saw it right away. It was laying on its side among several other gifts, but this one was special. As I drew close, I could see that the wood was crisp and clean. It looked as though it had just come from the milling process and assembled in my family’s living room that morning. It had shiny red rails firmly attached to the wood. Across the mid section there was a large American Bald Eagle proudly holding its head high. And across the yoke, which doubled as handlebars, the name “Flexible Flyer” was proudly proclaimed for all to see. This was my sled. This was my Flexible Flyer.

Flexible Flyer sleds have a long history. The inventor, Samuel Leeds Allen, created and patented the sled in 1889. Mr. Allen gave American children (big and small) something they’d never had before: a sled they could steer. In today’s world, that may not seem like much of an accomplishment, but in his time, it was a pretty big deal. So big, in fact, that it became a pretty good business. And it wasn’t long before the name “Flexible Flyer” became a household name.

I’m told that the Flexible Flyer sleds being manufactured in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s weren’t as good a quality sled as those made in previous generations. But to a five year old kid, that didn’t matter. What did matter is that Santa had brought me a sled. My very own Flexible Flyer. Now, I only needed the snow and I’d be in business.

The Perfect Sledding Hill in Garner, NC

I grew up in a nice little neighborhood in Garner, NC. Our home sat right on one of the main intersections in the neighborhood, the kind where everyone had to drive through to go into or out of the neighborhood. And that was pretty neat because you always saw lots of people coming and going. But there was an added bonus to that intersection. It led to the best sledding hill in the entire neighborhood. Edgebrook Drive had a cool feature. There was a small segment of the street that had two hills that converged at an intersection with Dubose Street. And one of those two hills had just the right pitch to make a perfect sledding hill in our neighborhood. And on those occasions when it snowed, this is the place that all the kids in the neighborhood converged on. Everyone would walk there. Bundled up in our jackets, hats, scarves, snow boots and gloves, we would lug our sleds up to the top of Edgebrook Drive to the intersection with Kenbrook Drive and take our place in line to sled down the hill.

Of course, I couldn’t wait to get out there with my Flexible Flyer. And I wasn’t the only one. Lots of kids had Flexible Flyers. But I had mine and it had a nice rope tied off through the holes in the yoke that made it easy to pull behind me as I hiked up the hill. When I got to the top of the hill and advanced to the front of the line, I found a nice set of tracks that had been laid down by other sleds. Being one of the younger kids, I was told “just keep your sled in the tracks and you’ll be fine.” So, that’s what I did. I’ve never been one to be afraid of trying new things, so I laid down on my stomach, used my hands to propel myself forward and away I went! While I don’t recall the date of that first trip on my Flexible Flyer, I do clearly remember that special feeling. That feeling of gliding. That feeling of watching the neighborhood go by, slowly at first, and then faster and faster and faster. It was magical.

I followed the tracks and made a sharp turn onto Dubose Street where I soon glided to a halt. It didn’t take long before our group of kids had decided to make a contest to see who could go the furtherest down Dubose Street. One by one we’d make our attempt and then proudly call out just how far we’d made it. “I got to the Jackson’s driveway!” One would yell. “I went further than that,” another would proclaim. On and on this went, all while we were oblivious to the cold around us.

The Arrival of the Dads

When the daylight started to fade, all of us knew we needed to head for home to warm up and get dinner. And that’s what we did. But that’s also when something special would happen. The dads would come home. And that meant another round of sledding. My dad would come home from work, eat dinner with us and then excitedly get his snow clothes on while encouraging us to do the same. Once we were dressed, we all headed to our special hill on Edgebrook Drive. It was so neat being outside at night in the winter, in the snow, with our dads.

My Dad was very tall — 6 feet, 4 inches and he stood out from the crowd. He wore a Duke University “toboggan” (yes, in the South, we call knit caps “toboggans”; I realize that in other parts of the country toboggan is the name for a sled, but we’re special that way!) with a white puffy ball on the top. In my mind, it was always easy to see my Dad because all I had to do was look for that knit cap. But my Dad also liked to take a ride on the sled. And I was proud that he wanted to take a ride down our hill on my Flexible Flyer. He looked like a kid! A very big kid, but a kid nonetheless! And I know he was having as much fun as I did flying down that hill. The other dads (and I’m sure a few moms, too) took turns on their children’s sleds and we all had a blast. It seemed like we stayed out there on that hill for hours. And when it was finally time to go in for the night, we all begged for one final run down the hill, which, of course, was always granted. Those were magical nights on that sled. Magical nights with my Dad.

Rediscovering the Flexible Flyer

As is always the case, children grow up. They leave home and begin to create lives for themselves. They go off to school, get jobs, find that special someone and get married. It happened to my friends in my neighborhood. It happened to me, too. And while it was happening, my Flexible Flyer was relocated to a storage building in the back yard of my parents house. And that’s where it stayed. For many, many years. It missed the snows that fell in the area in the 90’s. It didn’t even get a single run during the big “blizzard” of 2000 when 20+ inches of snow fell that January. The Flexible Flyer sat there, quiet and rusting in the storage building, but always hoping for one more chance to get out there for one more run.

My Dad died in May of 2009. He died after a 6 1/2 month battle with brain cancer. I was devastated. He was my best friend. He was my confidant. He was my biggest supporter. It was the toughest time of my life. During the next year or so, my sister and I helped my mom clean up and clean out a few things. And that was when it happened. I rediscovered my Flexible Flyer. I saw it standing up against a wall in that storage building. It was looking a little faded from the years of neglect. The right runner was still slightly bent from the time my Dad, my sister and I tried to go down Edgebrook Drive as a “triple decker” with my Dad on the bottom, me in the middle and my sister on top. We didn’t make the turn onto Dubose Street very cleanly and we ran right into the curb and bent the rail. I was saddened, but the Flexible Flyer still slid and that was all that mattered to me.

I asked my mom if I could take the Flexible Flyer home to my house and my family. She agreed without hesitation and I took it home to proudly show my wife and children. I took a washcloth and hot water and wiped down the boards. I couldn’t do much about the rusting on the rails and the chrome, but it didn’t matter. My Flexible Flyer and I had been reunited. Now, all I needed was a little snow.

I had to wait a little more than two years, but we finally got that snow this week. On Wednesday morning, I proudly took my daughter and two sons out to a nice sledding hill in our neighborhood (my wife stayed home as she is due with our fourth child any minute now). It was dark (I waited until the temperatures froze the bottom layer a bit, which makes for great sledding on a Flexible Flyer) and we were the only ones out, but I proudly took my Flexible Flyer to the top of the hill on Riverport Road. And there, for the first time in more than 20 years, I laid down on the Flexible Flyer and began to propel myself forward. I started along slowly at first, but then I began to pick up speed and all of a sudden it happened: in an instant, I was a child again and I was flying down the hill as the cold air rushed across my face.

I took each of my children for a turn on the Flexible Flyer and they quickly found out that it is way more fun that sliding down the hill on a plastic sled. It’s not that plastic sleds are bad, but they just don’t offer the same kind of ride that a Flexible Flyer provides. My children squealed with delight each time we flew down the hill. Me riding in back and one child up front, with each taking a turn in order from oldest to youngest. We stayed out there for what seemed like hours. We had an incredible time. We had a magical time.

I took one final trip down the hill that night, this one all by myself. And as I slid past the driveways and my children, I couldn’t help but think of all that had changed in those intervening years since the last time I rode my Flexible Flyer. This sled, this precious sled that I received as a gift so many years ago. This very sled that I proudly rode with my Dad in our neighborhood growing up. This is the same sled that I’m now riding with my own children.

And that’s when I realized: It’s amazing how something as simple as a Flexible Flyer sled can connect three generations. But, then again, that’s the essence of magic.