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The Beast and Other Memories

Submitted by Editor on March 20, 2013 – 2:20 pm | Print or Email »One Comment

Words and memories by Brad Mueller
Photo: stock

THE KIDS

I lived on the Eastside Hill from the day I was born in July 1960 until 1975. Our family lived in two different houses, both on Chauncey Street. Until 1969, we lived in a small house in the 1000 block of Chauncey Street, between Highland Avenue and Lyndale Avenue, and close to Forest Hill Cemetery. My father grew-up on the Hill and attended the Second Ward School, or Boyd School, as I knew it. His parents completed construction on their house located at 1615 Lyndale Avenue in the early 1940s.

Our neighborhood gang in the mid to late 1960s (I use “gang” in the most positive sense, like the “Our Gang” short films made famous by Spanky and Alfalfa) consisted of the core members: myself; my younger brother, Kurt; our alley neighbors, brothers Peter and John, and Mark and his younger sister Ann. Like any neighborhood gang of kids, there were peripheral or associate members; I think there was a Johnson boy that materialized occasionally, depending on the activity. Mark was the oldest and Ann was the youngest. Ann had two significant strikes against her, she was the youngest and she was a girl. Ann was the little sister that none of us, except for Mark, ever had and pretended to never want. At the time, we boy kids would never have admitted it, but I’m pretty sure we took turns watching out for Ann. Likewise, the older brothers fought with and were sometimes annoyed by younger brothers, but mostly us older guys watched out for the future of the neighborhood gang.

That was our Chauncey, Highland, Lyndale axis with the common thread being an alley, the greatest of all neighborhood connectors. The artery of neighborhood life. Alleys run deeper and are more essential to a neighborhood’s being than the cold, formal nature of the named streets, which form our addresses. Much like an individual person, our neighborhood’s character and identity received life from within-the alley. Even today, in my own family’s suburban Chicago neighborhood, we are closer friends and neighbors with the households we share an alley with than with the people across the street.

It seemed like our little gang existed over a lifetime, but in reality the group as listed above was in existence for only three to four years. In 1969 our family moved about 3 blocks north to the 700 block of Chauncey Street and in effect broke up the gang. Three blocks is not that far unless you are four to nine years old and most of the time were required to stay within shouting distance of at least one of the gang member’s houses.

Our small and close knit Eastside Hill gang from the 1960s was a sheltered and naive bunch, and thankfully so. We were kids living in a dynamic world, not yet aware of the significance of the social changes and world events taking place in the adult world around us. Our little world still seemed like a pretty straight forward and simple existence. We did not have even a tiny hint of the magnitude of assassinations, cultural revolution, and the Vietnam War. We still believed that war was a necessary conflict between good and bad, right and wrong. The United States always won. We played “army” in those days and pretended that we were American soldiers patrolling the Mekong Delta as we darted in and out of the backyards that bordered our alley. Our innocent mouths spat out imitation M-16 automatic rifle fire to kill an imaginary enemy. Kent State and Watergate were yet to come.

THE BEAST BITES BACK

There was a day during that simple time on the Eastside Hill that I remember like yesterday; actually, at my age, probably better than yesterday. It was December 1968 or maybe it was January 1969. The neighborhood gang, or some variation thereof, had gathered at the Forest Hill Cemetery sliding hill during Christmas break. Just like we did almost every winter day that we didn’t have school or we weren’t ice skating at the Boyd Park outdoor rink.

The “Seven Bumps” sliding hill was located, and still is in a more refined state, at the southeast end of the Forest Hill Cemetery grounds. During the Spring of 1967, the landscape around the sliding hill was unmercifully decimated by the massive removal of the hill’s sandy soil in order to construct levees and shore-up barriers to combat the flood waters which attacked the low lying areas of town within reach of the over flowing Chippewa River banks. Even though I considered myself to be a fairly compassionate child, it always bothered me that our sliding hill was significantly altered to protect the property of those foolish enough to live and work next to a river.

The Seven Bumps sliding hill proper was a treeless and rather modest slope-even in the 1960s. Although not the “bunny hill” it is today. Just north of Seven Bumps the slope was steeper and wooded. Within the wooded hillside was a narrow, tree-lined path that us neighborhood kids called “The Beast.” I believe The Beast was also referred to as “Suicide Run” or “Suicide” something or other.

I remember standing at the top of The Beast, barely able to see the distant bottom. The snow on the tree covered hillside was dotted with brown, crispy dry Oak, Elm and Birch leaves left by November. Mostly “scrub oak” I believe. There were a few mature trees on the hill, but most of the trees were only a few years past the seedling phase of their lives. The opening in the trees allowed the unimpeded flow of snow to the ground creating a solid white three to four foot wide path. At the bottom of The Beast’s path was a three foot high jump created when a bulldozer pushed dirt and sand back into the pile just below the hill during the flood battle in 1967.

Toward the end of daylight on this particular day, I announced to the rest of gang that I was going to ride The Beast. I really, really was. Heck, I was eight years old, in the third grade, with little fear and even less common sense.

There were two approaches to reach the top of The Beast. You could walk along the gently sloping ridge that formed the top of the cemetery hill, or you could walk straight up the unforgiving spine of The Beast. I chose to sneak-up on The Beast by taking the longer, less direct route along the ridgeline. Perhaps I was trying to give myself extra time to reconsider the foolishness that was about to transpire. Perhaps I did not want to face The Beast head-on. Had I climbed directly up the path, I may have had second thoughts, causing me to back out after my declaration of bravery before my fellow sliders. In actuality, no one cared whether I ran The Beast or not-except me.

In order to run The Beast, one needed a ride. My sled was the metal runner type. The kind all kids had in the 1940s and 1950s. By the late 1960s, the metal runner sled was rapidly being replaced by the more modern flying saucer (still metal) and the deceptively simplistic rolled sheet of plastic with a piece of nylon rope knotted through two holes on one end to form a handle-one of those “wish I’d thought of that” inventions. My sled’s metal runners and supporting frame were red. The frame was somewhat rusted and the red paint was flaking off in spots. At the front of the sled was a wooden handle bar with holes on each end through which a three to four foot piece of rope was threaded and secured with knots to form a pull rope. The pull rope could be used as “reins” to steer the sled if you were to ride it, as the gang would say, “little girl style,” sitting up on the sled and pulling the rope to one side or the other to steer the sled much like pulling on the reins when riding a horse. The sled was steered the same way if you were laying belly down using your hands to move the handle bar. Steering was not very accurate and depended greatly on the depth and hardness of the snow. Icy snow was actually the easiest to maneuver because the sled’s blades could cut into the ice and respond quickly to the curved front runner’s slant.

It was time to take a practice run in order to get a feel for the speed and the natural course the sled would take without any steering. I was not going on the practice run; my sled was going solo. If my sled veered off the path, no problem, no damage, no crying, no shame and no excuses. Only relief from the resulting wise and prudent decision not to ride The Beast.

With care, I aligned my sled with the path to give it the best chance to take a straight line between the trees. I placed my sled on the sparsely snow-covered flat launching pad area at the top. The snow was unpacked as no one else had any reason to go to the top of The Beast. Only a slight push was needed to get the test run under way. Without any weight on the sled, even the slightest of bumps caused the sled to go airborne while the rope handle whipped and jerked back and forth, side to side, as though it was trying to keep up with the sled. Even without human control, the empty sled stayed on course all the way to the bottom as it floated off the jump and landed harmlessly on the snow covered gravel.

I ran down the path, pushed by the hill’s momentum, and retrieved my sled. I returned to the top of The Beast where I stood for a few minutes like a prize fighter waiting for the bell to ring signaling the moment to leave my corner and commence with the bout. The ring announcer in my head exclaimed, “In this corner, the challenger, Bradley, a fearless eight year old hailing from Chauncey Street. And in the other corner, The Beast, millions of years old, created by God and modified by man.”

A wisp of cold air snapped me out of my daydream. I pulled my mittens up tight, adjusted my headband to cover my ears and made sure my glasses were secure. The gang had gathered near the jump at the bottom to watch the last run of the day. The grand finale if you will. I straddled my sled and carefully laid stomach down on to the sled’s worn, narrow planking making sure to keep my toes dug into the snow to prevent a premature launch. The rope handle was securely tucked under my body. First my left hand, and then my right, gripped each end of the smooth wooden handle bar at the front of the sled. I carefully positioned the sled to provide the best natural-and hopefully straight-course down The Beast. I just wanted to be able to hold on during the run, most likely I would not have time to make any significant course adjustments. My plan was to let the path do the work as it had during the unmanned test run.

The already gray December sky turned a notch toward evening. Colors were dimmed. First my right foot came aboard and with one last deep breath, my left foot hesitated before providing a gentle send-off. Gravity is now in control. The Beast was steepest at its head and neck, creating a rocket boost of power just before reaching its broad shoulders with its muscle and bumps. Completely at the mercy of nature’s course. Past halfway, going way faster than expected. What did I get myself into? I could end this right now. I could let go and slide harmlessly off the back of the sled. A never before heard inner voice urged, compelled me to hang on and finish this thing.

The cold dry air caused my eyes to glaze over-even with my goggle-like glasses. I’m quite sure that if I’d been able to see clearly I would have bailed before reaching the base of the jump. Instead, I stayed put and gripped the handle bar even tighter. I meant it; I was going to finish this thing. Before I knew what was happening, the slope of the jump harnessed my momentum and flung me into the air. One of those slow motion moments in time. No connection to the ground. Except for the still tightly gripped hands, body separated from sled. Fear and exhilaration at the same instant.

The bottom started to fall out. Feelings of bravado and manliness beyond my years. What the heck, I couldn’t do anything about it now. Control was past tense. My eyes focused on the landing zone-an untouched thin layer of snow covering a frozen-hard, rugged base of sand and gravel. Until now, I had taken what The Beast threw at me. I was about to finish the fight. The sled was slightly ahead of, and a few inches below, my body with my arms stretched out as far as they could go. The sled hit the ground and suddenly and violently came to a complete stop. My body stopped a half second later as my mouth crashed into the curved metal crossbar at the very front of the sled. The shock itself hurt for only an instant. My top gum was numb. I opened my eyes. The surrounding black, white and gray environment was contrasted sharply by the bright red blood soaking into the snow below my mouth. I spat, more blood. I rose to my knees, blood continuing to flow from my mouth, now dripping onto the sled.  Still no pain in my face. Why no pain, with this much blood there must be pain?

I began to check for damage. I removed my right mitten and stuck my index finger into my mouth as a probe. Still no pain. Nothing felt weird or out of place until-oh my God-my front teeth, they should not feel like that. I immediately thrust my tongue to the back of my front teeth. Did not feel right. What happened? Realizing that all or part of my front teeth were missing, I began to search the bloodied snow for something; not sure what, pieces of teeth perhaps?

My fellow sliders began to gather closer to the scene; blood on snow will almost always draw a crowd. “Did you see how high he flew?” “I can’t believe it, man.” “No one’s gone that far before.” “I would never do The Beast!” Those were a sample of the comments circulating amongst the youthful mayhem seekers.

A sort of dazed disbelief began to take over. Still no pain. This did not happen. There’s no way my teeth are chipped, broken, cracked. It just could not have happened. It was so fast. So unplanned. So unnecessary.

The run home, without my sled-I was ticked-off at my ride for striking me in the face-was a blur of blood, crying, tears, snot and sniffles. Hand in mouth and out again. Maybe I imagined a chipped tooth? Tongue thrusting back and forth to the back of my front teeth. Still did not feel right. Reality started to set in. I reached the back door of our house. Sporadic gasping sobs. Still no pain. What did I do to my teeth? I kept asking myself, sometimes out loud.

Even as an eight year old, I understood the permanency of what just happened. My two front teeth were chipped. Unlike baby teeth, they were not being replaced. Rinse after rinse I stood in front of our bathroom mirror. Trying to convince myself that it wasn’t as bad as it felt with my tongue. It was. One front tooth almost half gone. A quarter of the other.

Times like these are when mothers shine brightest. Mine tried her best to console her irrational sobbing boy. She calmly discussed the facts and laid out the dental scenarios as best she could. As usually was the case with childhood mishaps in 1968 and still true today, caring hugs and soothing reassurance from mom somehow pulls us through-until the inevitable next youthful crisis.

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