Friday, February 14, 2014

Need For Speed

Need For Speed

Unlike the Lynchburg, "City of Seven Hills", Roanoke is ringed by mountains.  The valley floor is gently rolling, providing many opportunities for winter fun.  Sledding in the valley, is a celebrated winter activity.  Roanoke doesn't get enough snow for snow to become mundane or an annoyance.  Rather, it's viewed as a gift from God; one to be celebrated and enjoyed.

Back in the frigid, snowy 1960’s, Roanoke received many excellent winter storms that allowed for extended sledding.  My neighborhood was a sledding Mecca.  I lived on the Cove Road side of Garstland Drive in Roanoke County, near what is now “The Countryside Land-use Squabble.”

Priming the Sled

In the winter, many a dare-devil child raced his runner sled through the tangled brush and completed a jump off the top of the cave onto the floor of the pasture ten feet below.

Whenever a snowstorm approached, my father would walk out to the “barn’ and unhook the sleds from their spots on the wall and carry them into the basement sled laboratory. I used to follow him watching his every move. First, he’d make his way to the back of the small shed past the roto-tiller and lawnmowers and carefully take down our three sleds. The small nameless ancient runner sled was the first to come out, and I usually got to carry it. Its wooden slats were discolored, aged, and primed with splinters. Next out was the super sleek Lightning Guider. What a beast. It stood against the wall with an air of cocky arrogance. It knew it was fast and had nothing to prove. The last sled on the hook was the long family sedan. It was the sled young kids rode with their father. It never traveled faster than a turtle thanks largely to the inwardly bent runners and shaky construction.

My father passed along all I ever needed to know about how to care for a sled properly. The runners were THE key to successful sledding he used to profess. My father taught me patience in the sled shop. First using medium grit sandpaper, we’d address the runners taking the crusty layer of rust off. After making a few passes with the paper, a clean towel buff and then it was on to step two. Next my father would go to a fine grit paper and work on smoothing any blemishes on the runner surface. He was especially keen to get corrosive bubbles that would erupt from time to time on the steel blades. After another quick buff, he’d move on the steel wool phase. I used to love this part. I’d get some steel wool and rub it back and forth along the runners. After a few passes, they would begin to glisten. After wiping them, I’d run my finger along the blade. My father taught me that if your finger coasts along the runner with no resistance, then the blade was ready for the final application. Finally, we’d get out the candles. Dad used regular broken candlesticks. He wasn’t too picky. We’d rub the candle along the runner, applying a thin coat of wax to each runner all along the course of the blade. When all steps had been completed, the sleds were ready for fun.

You knew you had a fast sled when you attached a rope to it and pulled it behind you to the sled run. If the sled followed effortlessly and passed you in a hurry on the way down hills, then you knew you were in for a fantastic evening.

Sledding was something that I lived for. Around my house, a multitude of runs had been developed. The Garst pasture near our Garstland Drive house was home to four solid runs. Many a dare-devil child raced his runner sled through the tangled brush and completed a jump off the top of the cave onto the floor of the pasture ten feet below. Our community mainstay, however, was the Garstland Drive hill. Every so often, a storm would lay down the perfect track and the neighborhood would come out at night to burn some tires and train down the hill. I spent many happy and thrilling hours sledding on and around Garstland Drive.

The Ultimate Plunge

It’s a terrible thing to live in fear.”
 ~Red Redding, The Shawshank Redemption

In the summer of 1976, my family moved from Garstland Drive, fleeing the effects of forced annexation by Roanoke City and the associated school changes, neighborhood racial make-up changes, and home price changes.  I really didn’t want to move, because I really loved my neighborhood and my friends, but these decisions really weren’t mine to make.

We moved to a new subdivision in the wilds of Bonsack called LaBellvue.  My parents chose a one story brick ranch almost at the corner of East Ruritan Rd, Coachman Circle, and Donagale Drive.  Little did I know at the time, how my sledding fortunes would ratchet upwards.

The winters of 1977 and 1978 were a bit strange.  They both had some intense cold streaks with tiny snows that fused into white ice on the roadways.  The ice refused to budge and Roanoke was essentially paralyzed by 2” of snows.

LaBellvue was just being developed back then, and it was progressing up Read Mountain steadily every year.  Just around the corner from my house, Donagale Drive intersected Coachman Circle.  Coachman then went almost straight up the side of Read Mountain from an elevation of about 1200 ft to 1400 ft with only one gentle bend to the right.  I figured that it was about a tenth of a mile between each intersecting street until you reached Summit Ridge Road.  That was the ceiling of the subdivision back then, but it goes on almost to the top of the mountain now, but utilizes switchbacks to get there.

Being young, daring, and stupid gives one feelings of invulnerability. At least, that’s what it did for me.  I remember prepping my sled and trekking up Coachman on those frozen nights.  You actually couldn’t walk on Coachman because the road was ice-glazed and reflected the porch lights like a mirror.  Instead, you had to walk in the yards beside the road, shuffling across driveways in order to stay vertical.

Summit Ridge was the launch point, just over 1/3 of a mile from the intersection with Donagale.  The idea was to get a running start at Summit Ridge and hurtle down the mountain at break-neck speed.  Depending on my sled and the road’s ice conditions, I could attain perhaps 40 mph or more.

The bottom of the hill was fraught with split-second decisions for me.  Just before the STOP sign, the road bent to the left.  On the right side was a huge concrete-lined ditch. The first decision I had to make was to determine if I was positioned to make that gentle leftward sweep and avoid the ditch.  Immediately afterward, I had to determine if any cars were coming from East Ruritan to turn onto Donagale. Actually, it was smarter to do the latter first.  If all was clear, then I was a-okay to blast through the t-intersection at 40+ mph.

The last calculation needed really never happened because distance passed too quickly to make it.  On the other side of the road, there was a driveway that went steeply uphill.  If I was centered in the course, I would fly across the intersection and up that drive, slowing to a gentle stop at its top.  Of course, if I was off center and managed to avoid the ditch on the right, I’d most likely strike the utility box beside the driveway.

I got pretty good about knowing when a bad run was happening early on.  I might glance up through the blinding sleet or freezing rain and see headlights of some foolish car traveler trying to get home, and I’d have time to bail out.

My bail-out move was something I perfected on that hill.  Once identifying pending doom, I would smoothly slip off the side of the sled with my arm remaining across the sled as if I were escorting a date into an elegant restaurant.  My polyester winter coat was sledding material in its own right, so to avoid becoming a human missile; I’d fan my legs and arm out causing as much surface friction as possible.  I’d rotate my body and my dance partner’s runners so that I could use them as metal brakes.  I could usually stop at the STOP sign with this method, except when I couldn’t.

I can’t recall getting any serious injuries from wrecks back then, but I do suspect I had a few concussions from hitting the ditch or utility box.  I seem to recall a sled passing under a car once, but I had slid aside just in time like Tom Cruise away from a bomb blast.

I don’t know if people still sled down Read Mountain, but I can assure you, it was a true speed thrill.  The walk back up was always long, but the view of the entire valley, lit up at night was worth it alone.  “It’s a terrible thing to live in fear.”

Part one of this story was written in 2009 about ten months before my father passed away. I finished it the day after Roanoke’s historic 22” snow in February of 2014

Sunday, February 02, 2014



The picturesque cottage sat in midst of a rolling pasture.  Lazy cows grazed and shooed flies.  Dogs barked in the distance.  A dull drone from the nearby highway infringed on the solitude.  Mom in her wheelchair, Dad in a patio chair, and Libby lounged in front of the white, black-shuttered homestead which was ringed by mountains.    Dad’s manicured flower gardens framed the house. The front porch was an excellent place to sip tea and watch the world go by with idle family chat.

The view was amazing from that spot.  I could see all the way into downtown eight miles away. The mountains that late spring day were fresh and young. I could almost identify each individual tree atop Read Mountain from my seat on the front steps.

My own house is situated across town near the airport, so I’m always subconsciously tuned into the comings and goings of aircraft. For example, every night at 10:23, the “giant” UPS jet takes off with a thunderous roar that seemingly lasts for days only to return in the morning at 6:57. That’s why I immediately looked up when I heard the sound of a different aircraft, one with which I wasn’t immediately familiar.

A droning sound, one that I’d heard before…long ago; the workhorse grunts of a McDonald-Douglas DC-3.  Struggling against the sky, twin props straining, the ancient relic defied gravity and cut against the air as it impossibly stayed aloft.  But it wasn’t alone in the sky.

Following closely behind the DC-3 was another relic, a B-1 Bomber.  This airship, capable of hauling nuclear tipped missiles deep into enemy territory, was all but disowned by the US Air Force in favor of its darling baby brother, the B-2 Bomber.    Moving slower than rationally possible, the B-1 seemed tired as if it was being lead to some unknown doom.

Our conversation stopped mid-sentence, and I leaped up to get a better view and the planes came closer and closer.  I couldn’t believe how low and slow they were moving.   Then, as if a puppet master cut his string, the B-1 stopped flying and started dropping.  Coming right at my parents’ cottage, it passed barely above the roof and crashed into the pasture just beyond and burst into flames.

I ran toward the crash site and rounded the corner of the house just in time to see the pilot in full flight suit walk out of the flames talking with his cell phone to his ear.   Standing in the middle of the field with the ball of flames behind him, he was having an animated conversation with someone on the other end of the line.  I couldn’t make out what he was saying through the noise of the destruction. 

He cut a striking image standing in that field framed by flame. 6'4", trim, scuffed face with rosy cheeks, tan flight suit with lots of buckles and with his sandy hair combed neatly aside, he was a sight in the middle of that field. I shouted over and over…”ARE YOU OKAY?”  But he just kept talking on his phone, completely ignoring me.

I pushed past him and ran through the field to the crash site.  The ball of flame had suddenly given way to neighborhood curiosity seekers, local trophy hunters, police, and FAA agents.  I watched, dumbfounded, as grinning zombie people walked into the smoldering wreckage and came away with communications gear, headphones, and missile parts while the police struggled to cordon off the area in yellow tape.

A team of officials with FAA badges affixed to their navy blue blazer lapels, picked through the debris carefully making notes on clipboards.  I decided that I had to share my eye-witness account, so I found the nearest agent.  I waited patiently beside her as she finished noting something, then I introduced myself and told her that I was probably the only actual eye-witness to the crash.  Her interest peaked; she introduced herself as Agent Marci.

Bearing a striking resemblance to Scully from X-Files, Agent Marci had me sit down on a field rock as she probed me for information.  She was especially interested in my description of the pilot, but she wouldn’t say why.  Her questions increasingly became hushed, as if we were conspirators in some horrible crime. 

Without warning, the radio in her coat pocket beeped twice.  She froze, then leaped up and shouted, “RUN! GET OUT OF HERE! GO!!! NOW!!! DON’T LOOK BACK!”

I ran, but I did look back.  That, I suppose was my mistake.  My foot found a rock and I went down hard, turning my ankle severely.  Pain swept through my body coursing in tandem with fear and flight.  I tried to scramble to my feet, but my ankle wouldn’t hear of it.  So I began clawing forward on all fours.  It didn’t take the large men in dark suits more than a few moments to surround me.

They slammed me onto my face, cuffed me with my arms behind my back, and dragged me to the back of a beaten old truck trailer.  Rudely, they threw me into the darkness, and I struck something unusually soft; another human form. As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I realized that I wasn’t alone. A bluish glow cast a pale shadow of light throughout the prison.  At the light’s origin, the pilot was jabbering away, unaware of his surroundings.  Other human forms were scattered about.  Some in FAA blazers; some in t-shirts.

As fate would have it, I found myself next to Agent Marci.  Her screaming eyes were wild and unfocused, like she had just experienced something so very wrong and alien.  With focus coming back to me, I reared back and rammed my head against hers in an attempt to snap her out of her terror.  It worked. She snapped back to the present and we began to plot our escape together.

Hope was fleeting, however, as the doors to the trailer groaned open and the black suits stepped inside.  They went right for Marci and jabbed her with a hypodermic needle, injecting a greenish fluid into her body.  Then they grabbed me, tossed me against the trailer wall and injected me with the same.

I don’t know what happened next, and I don’t know what happened after that.  As I sat in the far end of the forum awaiting the speech, I became aware of my surroundings.  The arena reminded me of the Roman’s Circus Maximus.  We were seated at the absolute opposite end of the arena from a throne.  A man, dressed in glittering clothes that would have made Michael Jackson and the Emperor of Star Wars envious, sat there, supreme in his authority.  He was being showered with golden gifts and parading subjects.  All saluted and hailed him.  Only then did I realize that I was seated next to Marci and the pilot.

I nudged her, startling her from a deep concentration.  She, in turn, nudged the pilot, who for the first time wasn’t talking to an imaginary person on a cell phone. With just nods and winks, we made our escape plan.

On the nod of heads, we slipped away.