Christmas in Iverhill: The Black Oak Elementary School Sledding Championship

NOTE: To read Chuck Miller’s book “The Robins of Iverhill: A Minor League Fairy Tale,” as well as the short stories in the “Christmas in Iverhill” series, visit this link.

Wednesday, December 19, 1973.

Iverhill’s public schools seldom, if ever, closed for a snowstorm.  If heavy snow was scheduled to arrive, so then were the snowplows and the salt trucks – all the way through Iverhill and into the Otswego Valley.  There were too many people in town who needed to get to work, and too many jobs that relied on their employees getting into the office on time.

So when WIVR-AM announced that Iverhill’s elementary and secondary schools would be closed for the day, a collective “Hurray!” and “Yippee!” echoed from every child’s bedroom in the town.

And almost instantly, every child in Iverhill knew where they had to go.  And they knew what they had to bring with them.  They went in their basements and found the old sleds and toboggans that languished in the snowless summer.  Then each child bundled up – coat, mittens, boots, scarves, hats, snow pants – every kid knows that the snow pants are the most important part of this event – and they trudged their sledding equipment to the one place in Iverhill where every sledder desired to claim the coveted championship title.

The sledding hill behind Black Oak Elementary School.

Black Oak Elementary School was built on the steep side of a hill, and a few years ago, one fourth grader challenged a third grader as to who could slide the farthest down the hill on their sleds.  Words were exchanged, dares were submitted, wagers were confirmed, and at noon on that chilly day, the two challengers placed their sleds at the top of the hill.

They climbed aboard, and at the count of three, both sleds sped down the hill.  The goal was to reach the woods at the bottom of the hill, but the hill’s base leveled out to about 50 feet from the trees.  Despite several attempts, neither boy was able to reach the trees from the top of the hill.  An overanxious teacher saw the kids in their downhill competition, and fearing for their lives – what would happen if one of the kids got hurt on school property – she convinced the school board to forbid sledding down the hill during school days.  Weekends were off-limits, as well.

The loophole, which every kid figured out in a few days, was that nobody could stop the sledding on weekdays when school was NOT in session – essentially, on a snow day.

For the next few winters, kids would wait for the first truly snowy day, a day when even the snowplows dared not take the roads in Iverhill.  Then they would walk to Black Oak – walking was required, and you must carry your own sled or toboggan.  If your parents drove you to Black Oak on this day, you were considered a “warm weather wussy” and not allowed to compete.

The rules were simple.  Place the sled on the top of the hill.  Climb aboard.  You could have as many as two of your friends push you.  Then it’s a steep drop 75 feet to the bottom, with another 50 feet of flat ground to reach the trees.  No child had ever reached the trees on their sled.  The closest anyone ever came to the trees was last year, when Lester Parchek flew down the mountain on his brand new flexible flyer – his sled actually stopped five feet in front of the trees, but Lester lost control of the flyer and, halfway down the mountain, he fell off.

The first kids arrived at Black Oak.  Lester Parchek brought his flexible flyer again, hoping to hold on this time.  The Soutière brothers, Isaac and Joshua, brought their saucer-sleds, two metal discs that looked like giant bowls.  Eventually the other competitors made their way to Black Oak.  Maria Tolley showed up with her pink-ruddered sled, and Ernie Scanlon brought the old wooden sled that once belonged to his father.

Five competitors on the hill.  This could be the year someone reaches the trees.

“Okay,” said a heavily-bundled Lester Parchek, “we all know the rules.  Start at the top of the hill, and slide down to the trees.  First person to reach the trees wins.”

“I’m going first,” said Ernie Scanlon.

“In that old thing?” snickered one of the Soutière boys.

“Yeah,” Scanlon piped.  “This was my father’s sled, and he told me it was the fastest sled in Iverhill when he was a kid.”

“Okay,” said Parchek.  “You can try it.”

Scanlon placed the wooden sled on the hill’s snowy overlook.  Then he climbed on.  “I need a push.”

“One person or two?” asked Parchek.  This is tradition.  Most people ask for two pushers.

“I need two.”  The tradition was upheld.

The Soutière brothers stepped behind Scanlon’s sled – Isaac would push the sled, Joshua would push Scanlon’s shoulders.  The sled glided down the hill with a whoosh.

The kids watched with glee as Scanlon rode down the hill.  “You can do it!”  “Come on, Ernie!”

Down to the base.  And then toward the trees.  But although Scanlon’s sled initially had enough speed to make it to the tree line, the sled stopped 25 feet from its goal.

“You didn’t make it,” shouted Parchek.

“I know,” Scanlon shouted back.  “This must be soft snow.  I think it got stuck in my sled rudders.”

“At least it was white snow,” laughed Parchek as Scanlon picked up his sled and climbed back up the incline.

Scanlon laughed, as did everyone else.

“Okay, who’s next?” Parchek called out.

“Can I try?”

Parchek and the others looked.  It was a new kid, Parchek thought he recalled seeing the boy at school, but wasn’t sure.  “What’s your name?”

“McCall.  Andy McCall.”

“Haven’t seen you around here.”

“My father just got a job at Magedoma Lumber, so we moved here a week ago.”

Parchek nodded.  Everybody he knew had parents that worked for Magedoma Lumber, the largest employer in Iverhill and in the surrounding Otswego County.  “Do you know what we’re doing here?” Parchek asked.

“You’re sledding down the hill.”

“Right.  First kid to reach the tree line at the bottom of the hill and stop in front of the trees wins.”

McCall looked at the assortment of sleds, saucers, toboggans and flexible flyers.  “Anybody get there yet?”

“No,” replied Parchek.  “Nobody’s gotten there yet.”

“Can I try?”

Parchek looked at the kid.  “Where’s your sled?”

“It’s over here,” said McCall.  “I have to get it.”  With that, the boy trudged around the building, to the front of the elementary school.

“I bet it’s another flexible flyer,” said Scanlon.  “Maybe he’s got a stronger grip than you do.”

“I hit a bump,” snapped Parchek.  “I didn’t see the bump.  If I had seen the bump, I would have gone around it and I would have reached the trees.”

“Right,” laughed Scanlon.  “I wonder if his parents drove him here.”

“I don’t know,” said Parchek.  “He’s kinda bundled up, and I didn’t see a car.  You think he’s a warm-weather wussy?”

“Might be,” said Scanlon.

Just then, the kids noticed that McCall had returned, carrying with him a long blue semi-flexible plastic sheet.  A plastic yellow handle was bonded to the front of the blue sheet.

“What’s that?” Scanlon laughed.

“It’s my sled,” McCall piped.  “It’s called a Mini-Boggan, and my parents bought it for me when we moved here.”

“It’s got no rudders,” said one of the Soutière brothers.

“How do you steer it?” asked the other Soutière brother.

“I don’t know,” said McCall.  “I’ve never tried it before.”

“Okay, new kid,” Parchek laughed.  “You want a chance, you get a chance.  Put your – mini-boggan, ha ha – on this ledge.  When you’re ready, let us know.”

McCall put his plastic platform on the edge of the hill.  He then sat on the mini-boggan, then grasped the yellow handle.  “I’m ready.”

“How many pushes do you want?  One or two?”

Both Soutière boys walked over to McCall.

“I don’t know if I need a push.”

Parchek snickered.  “How you gonna get down the hill without a push?  Isaac – Joshua – give him a push.”

The Soutière brothers stood on either side of McCall and the mini-boggan.  Two pairs of hands on McCall’s back.


“Uh-huh,” shouted McCall.


And with that, McCall went flying down the hill.  “Wheeeeeee!”

Parchek, Scanlon, Tolley and the Soutières watched with interest.  And then they realized.  This kid and his mini-boggan are going really, really fast.  Faster than the speeds any of them achieved on their sleds, saucers or flexible flyers.

And then, they watched as McCall and the mini-boggan reached the bottom of the hill – and went shooting toward the tree line.

Twenty feet.  Fifteen feet.  Ten feet.  “Come on, McCall!” Scanlon shouted.  “You’re gonna do it!”

Just then, Parchek noticed something.  McCall wasn’t just heading toward the tree line.  He was heading for the trees themselves.

“Can he stop that thing?” Parchek asked.

“I don’t see any brakes on his sled,” replied Scanlon.

“He’s gonna hit the trees!” shouted Maria Tolley.  “He’s gonna get hurt!”

The kids shouted down the mountain, hoping that McCall would jump off the sled.  No such luck.  McCall was on a collision course with the forest.

And then – just then – the blue mini-boggan and its passenger skidded INTO the forest, between two pine trees.

At that moment, the kids scampered down the mountain – Parchek and Scanlon and Tolley running as fast as they can, the Soutière brothers sliding down on their saucer-sleds.  “McCall!  Are you all right?  McCall!!” they shouted.

They ran towards the tree line, following the path of McCall’s mini-boggan.

One by one, the kids entered the forest.  It was then that they saw McCall’s mini-boggan, braced up against a tree.

“McCall!” shouted Parchek.  “Where are you?”

“I’m over here,” McCall whispered.  “Shh.”

And there, standing next to one of the trees, was Andy McCall.  The kids were relieved – McCall was all right, not the worse for wear.  McCall then pointed over to a part of the forest, where two deer, oblivious to the group of two-legged intruders, were gnawing on some tree bark.

“Wow,” whispered Parchek.  “Two deer.”

“Yeah,” giggled Scanlon.  “You ever see deer up here?”

“Shh,” said McCall.  “We don’t want to scare them away.”

Just then, one of the does looked up.  And in an instant, the two deer scampered into the forest, away from the children.

“Wow,” Parchek said to McCall.  “That’s so cool.”

“Yeah,” said McCall.  “My daddy used to hunt deer, he’d go on hunting trips all the time.  I think he took this job up here because he could hunt deer and other animals all year in these mountains.”

The rest of the kids nodded, as their fathers and uncles all hunted or fished in the plentiful Adirondacks that surrounded Iverhill and Otswego County.

As the kids left the woods, Parchek took a closer look at McCall’s mini-boggan.  “You know you’re the first one to reach the trees on that thing, right?”

“I guess I am,” McCall smiled.

“Well,” said Parchek, “I’m gonna be the second.”  And with that, a smile on his face, he grabbed the mini-boggan from McCall’s grasp, and sprinted up the hill as fast as he could.

“I get next turn,” shouted Scanlon.

“I’m next,” shouted one of the Soutière brothers.

And for the rest of the day, the members of the Black Oak Elementary School Sledding Club slid down the hill on Andy McCall’s blue mini-boggan.  Every one of them reached the trees.  But even though they never saw another deer or woodland creature for the rest of the day, they still had the greatest time of their young lives.

G:DATAATTORNEYJEMBronfmanNXIVM Harris Beachhb3.docx