Ted loved his new company car with leather upholstery a high-end music package and the special Bose speaker system, but he hated the idea of spending another day driving in it hours north into the West Michigan sales district. The Western Michigan rep was down with appendicitis. A key account had to have attention and they wouldn’t wait until the first of the year.
The external temperature readout was dropping with the miles as he drove north into Michigan and away from his home. He turned the radio on in time to hear the weather report. “Temperatures will dip into the upper twenties tonight and we can expect to see some white stuff around West Michigan. If you’re out on the roads tonight slow down or leave early to allow yourself time to arrive on time and safe.”
“Slow down,” thought Ted, “that would be nice, but it’s not an option. You can’t coast if you expect to be a partner in the business someday. In this business you can’t live on handouts. You have to go out and make things happen to prove you are worth their trouble.” Only producers get promoted, he thought. It was his oft-repeated mantra. What am I thinking, only producers survive. He accelerated into the dark highway ahead.
He ignored the loud protest of his stomach when he drove steadily on through his normal dinner hour. He needed to get to Jenison in time to prepare his presentation before sleep swept over him.
Ted hadn’t been back to Grand Rapids for years. The highway he was driving was only a few years old when he lived with his family in an old, humble, clean neighborhood just to the north. He was too preoccupied with his present challenge to take much time to remember or really even consciously pay attention to where he was.
On a hill on the east end of Grand Rapids on the north side of the highway stood a huge cathedral. A few blocks further was Harland Street. It was there he lived when he had his first Christmas thoughts. None of this even occurred to him as he jockeyed appointments with this cell phone and went over the details of tomorrow’s presentation while trying to keep the car on the road in slippery conditions. If he had looked up he would have recognized the Dutch Colonial home on the crest of the hill at the top of Harland Street, but he didn’t. He drove past without looking and without remembering.
While he talked, ignoring his childhood neighborhood, his cell phone beeped and he could see it was home office trying to get through. He pulled to a stop by the side of the road to concentrate on the call and assure that he would not drive out of range.
“Ted. Murphy at home office, where are you?”
“Grand Rapids. The lights of the city are just coming into view.”
“You made good time, Ted.”
“I was trying to beat a winter storm so I stood on it and skipped dinner.”
“Well that’s good because I have good news and bad news for you and the good news is that dinner is on the company tonight.”
“What’s the bad news, Murphy, I usually put my meal on account when I’m on the road.”
“Well, we’ve had a change of plans in with the Jenison account. Their CEO is going to move his Christmas flight up to keep from getting held up by the weather. He just called to cancel.
Ted poked his phone “off” and stared for a moment looking at the city lights. He was five hours from his snug home and family, hungry, tried and irritated that his opportunity melted away in a moment like the snowflakes hitting his windshield.
Off in a field north of the highway movement caught his eye. A trio of boys was unsung an appliance box for a toboggan. They also had plastic disk to slide down the hill. Only two at a time could ride. They were taking turns. Ted watched the boys for a while before he realized why it seemed like he had been here before. Suddenly recognition swept over him. This was the park of his boyhood. At least of a couple important winters of his boyhood.
He was surprised to feel a tug on his heart as he watched the boys in the park.
First he saw himself many years before in this very place… it came to him. The park was Highland Park. He remembered like it was yesterday climbing that very hill over and over again and running and doing a hard belly-flop on his Red Flyer sled. Sitting in the warmth of his car he could almost feel the sting of the snow in his face with the memory.
His sled was no molded plastic embarrassment that passes for a sled today, he thought. He pitied the boys with the box. Sad-he thought.
Ted remembered walking in the back door to see his Dad standing there with a big smile on his face.
“Son, I have a business proposition I would like to discuss with you. It’s behind the door.”
“What is it Dad?”
“Son, it’s your own business and I got it for the modest sum of just five dollars.”
“What is it?”
Well, don’t just stand there. Take a look.”
Ted remembered looking behind the door. Leaning in the corner was a now shovel with a wooden shaft and an orange plastic handle.
“Ted, if you hustle and do a good job you can make a lot of money moving snow in a town like Grand Rapids. If we get enough snow and you get out there and hustle you could earn enough to get a Red Flyer sled of your own from Thrifty Acres.”
Then Ted remembered the snow coming that year in great storms one coming on the tail of another. Every night he bundled up and padded out into the snow up and down the streets offering his snow removal service.
One day he came in from the cold. His face and hands were read and his feet felt frostbitten. After warming up next to a bowl of his mother’s chili his dad said, “Well, Ted. Let’s see what you have there.”
He put all the money he had earned on the table. It came to twenty-three dollars. A lot but not enough.
“I only have half. It will be spring before I have enough.”
“Well, Ted why don’t I pay you for the times you have helped me clean the garage. That will give you just enough to buy the sled.”
Ted smiled when he thought of the old Meijer Thrifty Acres and it’s wide sweeping curved roof. It was probably one of the original Meijer stores. It was where, in his sixth summer, his Dad bought him his first real leather ball glove. It was the day the last snow of winter melted and we were all pinning for spring.
Ted had given his dad the money and they went together to the store and bought the sled. Back home Ted’s dad turned it on it’s top and began to put paraffin on the runners. This is an old trick. Now watch how it goes. Teddy, if you get a running start at the top of the hill you can beat the Tigers to spring training in Florida.
Ted smiled again when he remembered his dad’s patient way and the knack he had of turning everything in to an event. He wondered if his boys would have memories that would make them smile in thirty years.
One thing was sure. They had both achieved expert status at video games but neither of them had ever felt the unmixed thrill of riding a Red Flyer down the big hill over in Highland Park.
Back on Vance Road in Ohio, Shelby was reading the boys a story when the phone rang.
“Shelby my meeting is cancelled. It looks like I will be home tomorrow. Do you have plans? ”
“Oh, I’ll cancel my plans if you are going to be here, Ted.”
“Good we can get our last-minute things out of the way together and take in some chicken noodles at Bob Evans.”
“That sounds great,” said Ted.
“What time will you leave?”
“Shelby I have a couple important stops before I get on the road and I am five hours out. I’m going to grab a red eye at Starbucks and try to beat the storm home. I’d like to fix you and the boys my famous Ranch Hand breakfast in the morning.”
Keep my place warm ?til I get home. If all goes well I’ll be crawling in beside you by 1:45 or 2:00. Turn the quilt back for me.
“Ted be careful. If the meeting is off why do you need to stop?”
“Shelby, you know it’s just two days to Christmas. If you ask too many questions you will force me to lie.”
“I love you, Ted. If you get tired stop. You’ll be home soon enough. We’ll all be together then.”
“I love you too. Tell the boys I’ll be making them breakfast in the morning. I should be starting home in about an hour.”
Ted drove slowly through his old neighborhood. Eastern Elementary looked as it had decades before. He drove past the little corner market. At the time it was owned by man named Ted who you could visit with every day over the counter. It made his mouth water to think of the sour cherry candies that used to sit on top of the meat case. And there was the house still painted white a little diamond-shaped window facing the driveway. It was smaller than he remembered.
He drove slow and remembered how his mother had gone to such trouble to make Christmas special for him even though they had little money. He stopped in front of the house. He didn’t want to make the current occupants nervous so finally he pulled away and drove out of the neighborhood.
Before leaving the neighborhood he had one more important stop. He needed to visit the park of his boyhood. He drove to the park and got out and crunched across the snow to the bottom of the hill. For a long time he stood there looking up into the clear dark toward the top of the hill.
He looked down at the boot prints of the little boys in the snow and thought of his own sons sleeping in their beds hours away. He felt a pang at the thought that he almost never took time to pray with them and talk with them at night when they went to sleep. He was usually returning calls or planning his day. He did take days off. They were too costly. He just couldn’t afford them. But there in the park that night just two nights before Christmas he thought it might be a good idea to reconsider that practice.
When the time and money were right it seemed that he had trouble thinking of good things to do with the boys. They were growing up fast. Suddenly and thought sprang into his mind and he turned from the hill and ran laughing through the snow across the open field to his car.
He got back on 96 and exited on 28th Street and made his way to the Meijer store. It was still there, you could tell by the shape of the roof, even though there had been modifications over the last three decades. He found what he was looking for and more. In the toy department were all kinds of sleds, most of them were molded plastic, but there was one retro Red Flyer that was just like the one he had had so long ago. He bought it. On the way out he saw a Starbucks shop in the front of the store. He got what he needed, jogged to the car, put his new sled in the trunk and headed south.
It was eight o’clock. The traffic was light and the roads were still clear, but the radio kept up its continual threatening of a winter storm.
By the time he was within sixty miles of home the snow was starting to come down hard and thick. What would normally have taken less than an hour took two but he finally did turn the corner and his house came into view. He could see there was a dim light shining in his room upstairs. The only other light was the tree in the family room. The light on his nigh table was on and the quilt was turned back. He thanked God for safe travel and for his family. Before his eyes grew heavy with sleep he prayed. He was thankful for the trip to Grand Rapids even if it was just to stand at the foot of the hill for a few minutes.
He was tired but he was still the first one up in the morning. The Christmas music was on as was the coffee and he was working away on a nice brunch by the time the rest of the family shuffled in. They enjoyed sitting on the stools at the counter and talking with their dad. Later they spent part of the day with friends while Ted took Shelby for the last minute gifts and food for Christmas. While they were out he told her of his new plan over chicken and noodles at Bob Evans.
She liked the sound of it. He said, “I’m not going to keep the pace I have been keeping any more. There is no time with the boys and they are getting big. I am just going to be satisfied with keeping the bills paid and I am going to spend at least one day a week with the boys from now on.
“O, Ted, that’s wonderful. I have always dreamed of you begin able to be with the boys more. They love you so and cherish the time they have with you. When do you think you will start?”
“Funny you should ask. I am going to start the day after Christmas.”
And he did. The day after Christmas they all bundled up and put the sled in the trunk and headed for Highland Park. It was a long trip but worth it. By nightfall the boys all jumped into the bed with Ted at the hotel and they were asleep within minutes. The boys always remembered it as the first of many spontaneous Father/Son outings. Ted always called them Adventures. Over the years they included trips to North Manitou Island, the Pictured Rocks, half-marathons in Ludington, nights on the Muskegon State Park beach, hiking in the Porcupine mountains and an annual trip to Grand Rapids just the remember the night he chose to let his job serve his family instead of forcing his family to serve his job.
Highland Park (Thirty Years Later)
Almost thirty years to the night later two young men meet in the same park. One of them drives a car with Illinois tags. The other one has an Ohio tag. They stride toward each other and their hand-shake turns into a hug. Their boys frolic while they enjoy some hot coffee. While the boys sled the young men stood and talked sipping coffee.
“How many years have we been meeting here, Todd?”
“I don’t know. Let’s see,” Ted answered. “We went here for five years with Dad before we talked him into taking us to Cannonsburg, to ski.”
“I guess we’ve been coming back here with the boys now for five years. When do you think they will insist on a ski resort?”
“I don’t know but a sled is better than a snow board.”
Todd said, “What I want to know is how did you end up with the old sled? I’m the firstborn son.”
“I guess I was just at the right place at the right time I guess. They don’t make ?em like this anymore do they… No they don’t. Whatever made Dad buy that thing anyway?”
“I don’t know, but I’m glad he did,” he said looking out into the star-jeweled night. I’m really glad he did. Since he’s been gone I think a lot about those trips with Dad and I always hope I can be the same kind of Dad he was.”
But for the far away sound of the boys laughing and the swoosh of their sled there was no sound. On the hill the cathedral chimes broke the silence and wafted carols on the night.
Riverfront Character Inn
December 2004 (Posted December 2005)
This is a screenshot of the sledding hill in Highland Park… from which the kernal of this story came… it seems big as the Matterhorn when I was a boy…
P.S. The lads in the picture are our two oldest grandchildren Kyle and Oliver. This picture was taken a few years ago when they were little boys. They are bigger now.