Snow Days @ Dead Mans Hill

Brunswick Snurfer

It’s a part of everyone’s childhood who grows up in Chicagoland, a joyous and almost miraculous occasion that one cannot predict, only enjoy to its fullest potential – The Snow Day.

O how I would wait at the large round antique oak table in my parents kitchen, chewing down a bowl of Lucky Charms while listening to another caller on the small black am radio say “Hello Wally?”, hoping and praying that the Barrington 220 school district was going to be announced as closed the next time the news person ran down the list.

“I’m not sure Patrick, I think you better go put your uniform on just in case” Mama Capone would say while leaning over her sweet avocado colored stove frying up some bacon and eggs for my ol man. Those sadistic nuns at St. Anne’s and their stupid blue polyester uniforms complete with plaid clip on tie, blah! To this day I have a problem with uniforms.

You see, if by luck, if by the grace of the gods, my friends and I are awarded the coveted and rare snow day, well, this will be the greatest day of all.. you see, I had found something amazing on my way into town and I couldn’t wait to give it a try.

Earlier that week, while taking my usual path down the sidewalk of Lake Cook road into downtown Barrington, most likely to score some candy bars from the Jewel, I saw something I had never seen before.

At first I thought that this odd looking device sticking out of a garbage can was a water-ski, it looked exactly like one. It was made by Brunswick and had multicolored brown laminated wood with a white nylon rope fastened to the tip. Little white plastic bumps that reminded me of cleats stuck up from two separate places where you would put your feet. The tail section was gently molded into a slight v shape, similar to the hull of a boat, with a 6 inch metal blade creating the contact point at the very bottom. This was a very cool score for a young kid. I wasn’t really sure what it was, but I knew it was going to be cool. The sticker on the top of this amazing contraption revealed its name as “The Snurfer”.

Back in moms kitchen Wally’s newsman was reading out the closings again. Aha! I was sure I heard it in the list this time and a quick look to my mom confirmed it. It was official, a snow day! Hey, if its on Wally Phillips, it’s the law. The next caller was already on the line “Hello Wally?” He probably would give them a dinner for two at some Italian restaurant just for calling. Why do my parents listen to this I thought?

I quickly ran to the hallway by the door to begin the ridiculously long process of putting on my snow gear. Snow pants over jeans. Check. Extra sweater. Check. Plastic lunch bags over gym shoes and then pushed into rubber boots. Done. Clip metal latches. One won’t work. Damn it. Sweat starting to flow now. Big down jacket on. Mom zips it all the way up to my chin removing a little neck skin on the way. Jesus ma. Gloves. A Blackhawks knit cap. And out the door I went.

I anxiously grabbed my new discovery that was leaning by the front door, the Snurfer, threw it over my shoulder and began the long walk for Dead Mans Hill. I think every town has a Dead Mans Hill. Our Dead Mans Hill was about 50 yards long, very steep, with a wicked lip in the middle that made for some seriously dangerous jumps. The whole hill is covered in oak and maple tress, so veering off the narrow cleared path that runs straight down the center can get you killed.

It didn’t take long for all of the kids in the neighborhood to come and check out this odd ski that I was going to brave down Dead Mans Hill. They all thought I was crazy, and looking back, I’m pretty sure they were all right. Of course, I kept my cool and acted the fearless champion daredevil.

After a great deal of show-and-tell it was time to put my money where my mouth is and ride this new contraption down the narrow packed snow covered path the laid before me. I would be a hero if I could pull this off, and there was no turning back. I looked down the frighteningly steep hill with the confidence of an Olympic Ski Jumper. The large group of kids stepped backwards away from me and the hill became deathly quit. A smaller group had gathered about half way down the hill, right at the peak of the natural lip that would surely launch me and my Snurfer skyward. Everything was in place, it was time.

I wrapped the white nylon cord that attached to the tip of the Snurfer around my wrist like a professional bull rider. There was no way it was going to get loose. I dropped the board to the ground and put my left foot on the forward area of white plastic cleats that rose up from the wood. I slid the board back and forth a couple of times to see how fast it would glide. It had no friction. This was going to be a very fast ride. I knew the minute that I lifted my right foot to the back of the board that gravity and the incredibly steep slope would take effect and my quick descent would begin. I took a deep breath and bent my knees. I held my right arm behind me, raising my hand as if to give the signal that I’m ready. I lifted my right foot from the snow and instantly began to accelerate to an amazing speed. I barely managed to place it on the back cleats. I was off.

The wind rushed by my ears. I pulled the nylon rope tighter and bent my knees to an almost crouching position. The trees were blurry as they whizzed by on either side of me. I could barely hear the cheers of my friends as the board skimmed across the top of the snow faster and faster. My eyes began to focus through the tunnel vision on the upcoming jump. This is way too fast. O my god. Stay calm. My balance was perfect. The board was amazingly fast. My speed kept increasing faster and faster. Jesus. Here comes the jump. Get ready.

I’ll never really know how fast I was going when my board hit the jump that day. Over the next few years my friends would compare the great launch to a rocket ship blasting off into warp speed. To me, time stood still. It was as if God had hit the slow motion button so that he could enjoy every sadistic microsecond of this amazing event.

The short ramp of the jump went by in a blink, and with it the slicing sound of the snow under my board had disappeared into an eerie howl of wind as I took to the air. The ground seemed to simply fall away as I continued my ascent. Higher and higher I rose, climbing further into the tree tops and farther away from the descending slope of the hill far below me. My eyes grew wider. The howling slowed. I was reaching the peak of my incredible trajectory and I knew that a rapid descent was immanent.

You see, the Snurfer was an amazing invention oozing with potential that would soon come to be realized by thousands of avid snowboarders over the next 30 years; however it was not without a few minor design flaws that had suddenly become very apparent to me. It’s true, that while the little white plastic cleats that my shoes rested on would surely allow me traction for turning while on the hill, there was nothing to secure my feet to the board while airborne.

The death grip that my left hand had on the nylon rope was now pulling the nose of the board towards me and well away from back foot. My inexperience with weightlessness combined with the fact that my muscles were now petrified with fear was beginning to take its toll. Both feet were now well off the board. I began to descend at an alarming rate.

Again the wind rushed by my ears as I continued on the downward slope of my arc. I was dangerously high and there was nothing I could do about it now. My body was frozen in the same crouched position it had acquired before lift off. The rope was still in my hand, but I had no idea how far away my feet were from the one thing that might allow me to survive the impending impact that was quickly approaching. My eyes were wide with fear. My mouth opened but nothing came out. The ground was now racing towards me. There was nothing to do but wait for the impact.

It’s amazing how fast the brain can think when you’re in a state of extreme panic. Within the smallest fraction of an instant, 100’s of harsh impact scenarios were running through my distressed mind. I envisioned sharp broken bones penetrating through my violently ripped skin whilst my body cart wheeled end over end. What have I done? I don’t want to die. This is it. O god.

All though I could not see it, the very end of the tail of the Snurfer would be the first to hit the snow, scraping along like the angle of a large jet liner on touchdown. A split second later, and with a mighty thwacking sound my rear foot and then front foot squashed the remainder of the board unto the snow. My left hand was still holding the white nylon rope in a panicked death grip. My body frozen in the exact position I had assumed well before the launch with my right arm flying behind me like a cowboy in a rodeo. I was back on the snow, and with a mighty Fwwwish I was once again racing down the remainder of the hill.

I was going too fast and would soon run out of hill. My flight had caused me to gain an incredible amount of speed and I had never even thought to learn how to turn, much less stop. I held fast as I blurred unto the flat area at the bottom of the hill. East Russell Street was now within view.There was no way I was going to stop in time.

The road had been plowed, and a slight pile of snow lined both sides of the street. In an instant my board and I were airborne as we lifted off the slight bank of snow. I quickly landed on the hard asphalt and slowly my board began to rotate counterclockwise. I had no traction on this surface. I was loosing my balance. I slid across the street sideways. Damn. Damn. I was too panicked to even look for the cars, not that it would have done any good.

The board and I grinded our way across the two lane road and crashed into the other snow bank. Smack! I flew up in the air, twirling and twisting from the harsh impact. Everything was blurry. I could see the world spinning around as I whirled about in the air. I abruptly stopped. Suddenly it was quite. Darkness.

I remained motionless. I knew that I had landed somewhere in the Church parking lot that was directly across the street from Dead Mans Hill. Why is it so dark? I waited for a rush of pain or even perhaps the warm dripping sensation of fresh blood. It never came. I sat up and wiped the snow that had caked up in my eyes. I was staring back up at the hill, the nylon rope still clenched in my hand.

Hooray! Hooray! That was so cool! My friends were all yelling and screaming as they ran towards me, their arms flailing about in the air. I rose to my feet and did a quick scan to check for broken bones. I was o.k., I had made it. I raised my arms in genuine triumph. I was a king. My Snurfer was still dangling from the end of the rope, in tact. She had made it, we both had made it. I held the board above my head with both arms and gave a mighty yell! Yes. Yes. Yes. That was excellent.

My friends all gathered around me in their multi-colored snow gear, yelling and screaming, patting me on the back, admiring the board in my hands as if it had mystical powers. They began to give me their extremely exaggerated perspectives on the mighty event. I held my head high and stared back up the hill. I had done it.

My friends would never know that it was pure fear that held my body in that cool tucked positions while in the air. To them it was pure poetry, natural skill and bravado. Who was I to deny them? My god that was cool. Let’s do it again. Snow Days Rock!

Patrick Capone

Patrick Capone