Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Cemetery Hill

Christmas 1959 passed with no ill effects. It was the last year I believed in Santa Claus. The winter of 1960 was mostly unremarkable except it began my practice of sledding at Cemetery Hill. The winters of the 1960's were above average for snowfall in South Jersey. South Jersey normally gets perhaps one big snow a year that melts within a day or so. The 60's were filled with snow which for a young boy was a god send. With the first great dumping of snow our father took us to Cemetery Hill to go sledding. After this year we went on our own.
My birthday had a tenuous relationship with snow and winter. My father insisted I was born in a blizzard though the NWS shows only a five inch storm that day. It really doesn't matter. Winter isn't winter without snow and the removal of snow and playing in snow. My father loved shovelling snow and he instilled that love and it's precision in his sons. It may be that when we were very young we thought he was nutty as a fruitcake but now whenever it snows I want to shovel. I'll clear any walk, anywhere, for free. I never hurt my back or over exert but my walk is clear throughout a storm. My father was a guru of two things. Snow removal and lawn mowing and I share both.
He was also a man who loved to play in snow. In Woodbury when I was in kindergarten there was a huge winter storm. He helped us make an igloo and showed us how to make snowballs. In Wenonah he grabbed his childhood Flexible Flyer from the garage and dragged Mick and I across the Mantua Creek to Wenonah Cemetery (in Mantua) to go sledding. Wenonah Cemetery is where my mother's bones are at rest. It overlooks the Mantua Creek, a thin ribbon of swamp water where over the next nine years I would spend most of my best moments. They all began that first winter's day.
There were basically two hills in the cemetery. One on the south side and one on the west. I think. You'd start at the top of a hundred foot hill and hurl yourself down on your sled. Then you'd trudge up from the bottom to do it all again. You'd get wet and tired and sweaty and cold. You'd try dumb things like sled surfing (standing on your sled holding onto the rope to maintain balance and stance) or practice sled battles with other kids. You sledded between row after row of tombstones. Remember my mother is buried there and not without deep sentiment. Not for the place but for the sledding and the creek and the swamp.
On the one side, I believe the south there was a large statue over one grave of a doughboy. It was once featured in Weird New Jersey. I knew the names of most people in the cemetery, if not the first, certainly the last. I can remember kids in a toboggan toppling more than a few headstones during one heady Saturday run sometime in the mid 60's.
If it was cold and icy and really snowy you could hurl yourself down the road of the cemetery. This was a quarter mile run of great peril given that some person of sorrow might be driving up to visit a loved one. Nonetheless it was a heady rush of speed and cold and ice and joy.
As we got older we went on our own. In the years to come we got our own Flexible Flyers. Short or long. But always sturdy and dependable. We'd wax the runners and trudge the half mile or so to Cemetery Hill. Chris and Terry, Gary and Robbie, Mick and I. Ted and his friends Joel and Robbie and Evan. We shared the hill with kids from Mantua and the smell of new snow and the feeling of frozen toes was univeral.
Fuck problems. Who cared about homework. Who worried about being odd or not fitting in. We just stood on top of the hill and threw ourselves down. Like small rockets in blue jeans and hooded sweatshirts. Sledding was a complete joy. There was no competition. There was no status. There was no position. The snow would be there for only a day or two and you had to sled while you could.
Among the graves and decaying flowers and lost loves we hurtled down small hills in a town without hills screaming with joy.

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