A Winter to Remember

Read about how an afternoon of fun was marred by the loss of a cherished gift, which was then found years later.

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by Clell G. Ballard
Runner sleds can be steered. When the cross bar is pushed one way or the other, the sled runners are warped, allowing them to be steered either way. The rest of the time, the sled glides straight.

“Population density” isn’t a phrase that is associated with rural America. In metropolitan areas, many people live close together. I’ve read that some skyscrapers in New York City have their own zip code. Out in the country, statistics indicate that farming areas often have as few as one or two people per square mile. The wide-open space between points of human activity means nothing much happens there. Whatever one does in those unoccupied spaces is pretty much up to each individual.

In my youth, in a very sparsely settled area, one winter activity that young people liked to try was known as “hooky-bobbing.” In the simplest sense, that was the occasional unlawful grabbing on to the bumper of a slow-moving car in our little town, squatting down and skiing along on our feet on the snow-covered road for a block or so. It was always done after dark and we were never in any danger, since the car we were hooky-bobbing behind was the only one on the street. Of course, our parents didn’t learn what we were doing, because it rarely happened. Most of the time we had to be home after dark.

Since our area had long winters with a lot of snow, students in the pre-television era had to entertain themselves as best they could. That usually meant some indoor activity. Outside, one could cross-country ski (certainly a different sort than the modern version), occasionally try downhill skiing (but one had to laboriously climb up the ski slope first) and sledding.

Boys will inevitably be boys

As we got into our mid-teens, the usual sledding outing consisted of being pulled along a rural road behind a car. Two or more runner sleds would be tied behind a car. One person would drive slowly on the snow-covered roads while others rode lying down on sleds. Talk about exhilarating! With your face only inches from the road, a speed of only 10 miles an hour seemed like a hundred. People took turns and, since there was no traffic, an afternoon of fun was assured.

If it was just a bunch of guys, it was more fun to add a little competition. Runner sleds are designed to be steered a small amount by twisting the cross bar in front. That warps the runners so the sled can be directed out to the side as far as the tow rope will allow. The sled also can be directed the same amount in the other direction. By tying the sleds exactly the same distance behind the tow vehicle, a rider could reach over to the next guy and try to knock him off. They would zoom out as far as they could and come roaring back to attack the other sledder.

Some dramatic tussles could take place and usually one or the other fell off. Since they were so close to the ground, it just meant the loser was left behind on the road and had to get up and run as fast as he could to catch up. Of course, the car’s driver would stop, but he was usually quite a distance down the road. Obviously, he couldn’t back up. In the decades that cars were used to pull sleds in our area, there was never an injury of any kind.

A painful loss

On one occasion, however, a major problem resulted. In the early 1960s, my two brothers and I went sledding during our Christmas break from college. My oldest brother had recently married, so his new wife drove the car. Since we had only two sleds, we took turns riding. The rural road we chose had a snow-packed surface, but no new snow had fallen recently. After several hours of great fun, we loaded the sleds in the trunk and got in the car. It wasn’t until we arrived home that a shocking discovery was made. My wristwatch, a gift from my parents when I graduated from high school, was gone. During our scuffling on the sleds, the band apparently broke.

A loss like that was devastating. We went back out to look for it, but by then, it was almost dark. Early the next morning, we all went and walked the several miles we had covered sledding. Surely something bright and shiny would show up on that untraveled road. By examining the tire tracks, we could tell no other car had been down it. No matter how many times we walked back and forth, we found nothing.

Doing without a watch from then on was bad enough, but a certain amount of guilt made it worse, in that my carelessness caused the loss. Time went by. College and graduate school were completed. I had been on the job as a high school teacher for several years when a note appeared in our little local paper. It merely said “Found: a wrist watch several miles east of town. See LeRoy Packham and identify to reclaim.” There was no phone number nor address for the man who was to be contacted. In an extremely small community, everyone knew LeRoy Packham and where he lived.

Takes a licking, keeps on ticking

Since more than 10 years had passed since I lost the watch, it didn’t seem possible that it might be mine. Out of curiosity, I stopped by LeRoy’s house. He told me he found the watch along a barbed wire fence he was repairing. He asked me to describe the watch I had lost. That was easy! My parents had allowed me to choose any watch I wanted as a present. I chose a super-thin Gruen watch that had a white face with markings, but no numbers. Leroy looked at the one he had in his hand and held it out to me. It was my long-lost watch, complete with a broken band.

One of the selling points of the watch back then was that it was waterproof. The manufacturer meant what they advertised. My watch, exposed to the weather for more than 10 years, looked just like it did when I lost it. After a simple cleaning, it ran like a charm. LeRoy wouldn’t take a reward for finding the watch. Returning it was just considered the neighborly thing to do.

Trying to recreate the time frame since the loss, we assumed that even though we couldn’t find it in our search, the watch had been somewhere on the road surface when a county snow plow came along after the next snow and pushed it off. Truck-mounted plows in our area have dramatically curved plows that are designed, when traveling at a reasonable speed, to throw the snow being plowed some distance from the road. That keeps high banks from forming. Apparently, that happened to my watch not long after it was lost. It ended up not in the ditch, but clear over by the fence.

Decades later, every time I put the watch on, I briefly marvel again at the miracle that returned it to me. FC

A retired high school history teacher, Clell G. Ballard has worked on farms since he was in grade school, including 53 summers spent working on his uncle’s dryland hay and grain ranch. He also is a dealer of World War II era military vehicles and parts. Contact him at (208) 764-2313 (and bear in mind the time difference with Mountain Standard Time) or by email at cballard@northrim.net.

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