Mr. McGonigle apparently agreed with us, because he went out of his way to make his driveway the place to be in the winter. After the first snowfall of the year, he’d encourage all the kids in the neighborhood to bring their toboggans over and go riding down the hill. Tobogganing down freshly fallen snow was not a lot of fun, but we did it anyway; we did it because we knew that every slow ride down the hill was packing the snow down bit by bit, until the new powder of late November and early December became the dense packed snow and ice of January, and on that densely packed snow and ice a kid with a good sled could go flying down that hill faster than we could anywhere else in our happy little burg. The other thing we liked about Mr. McGonigle’s driveway was that if we were going fast enough, and we usually were, we could go zooming across the road and down the embankment and end our juvenile Walkürenritts up to our necks in snow in Mrs, DiPietro’s back yard, which was a lot of fun for us and didn’t bother Mrs. DiPietro at all, mostly because she was eighty-nine years old at the time and deaf as a post. There were no guardrails along the sides of the roads then; our neighborhood was the forgotten butt end of the city at that time, and things like sidewalks and guardrails and other municipal improvements that people in other sections of town took for granted were wholly unknown to us.
Just to make things even more interesting, Mr. McGonigle also piled the snow high at the bends of his driveway’s backwards S so the older kids and the adults go could zip up onto those bends like so many NASCAR drivers and pick up more speed. He even put up spotlights all along the driveway so everyone could see where they were going. Still, even with the lights, many mothers did not like the idea of their kids’ sled riding at the McGonigles. The kids were going too fast, they complained, and it was too easy for them to get hurt, but I suspect there was more to it than that. There was a general feeling among the women of our neighborhood that Mr. McGonigle did not do right by his wife. During the winter, the McGonigles parked their cars at the bottom of their driveway and off to one side so the cars wouldn’t get in the sledders’ way. This in and of itself didn’t bother anyone too much—if you’re parking your car on your property then where you park it is pretty much your business—but what I suspect what roiled the collective feminine gut was watching Mrs. McGonigle having to trudge up her driveway in the dead of winter pulling a sled with the week’s shopping piled on it. That grated on our mothers’ collected sensitivities, as did the free beers and the discreet bottle of Scotch that Mr. McGonigle passed around to our fathers at the top of his driveway. Mr. McGonigle kept fires going up there in a pair of old fifty-five gallon oil drums, one for the kids and another for the dads, whose job was to keep us kids from hurting ourselves too badly, and the beer was plentiful around the dads’ drum, so much so that sometimes a father left and forgot to bring his kids home with him.
Our mothers’ concerns were not entirely imaginary—accidents do happen, after all, especially in any situation that combines kids, snow, speed, and prodigious amounts of beer. I, for example, did not have the fastest sled in the neighborhood, a fact that put me at a disadvantage when there was someone faster coming up behind me. I remember once coming out of the first turn in the driveway at what I thought was a reasonably high rate of speed when Mr. McGonigle slammed into my side. Mr. McGonigle owned a Flexible Flyer that travelled at light speed, if not faster, and so when he slammed into me my sled immediately shot out from underneath me and went flying over the embankment into the woods. I followed the sled a moment later, using that very short moment to make a complete 360 degree turn in midair before landing next to my sled in a bush that came complete with its own set of thorns. This was annoying, to say the least; I had to spend the rest of the week explaining to people that no, I did not wash my face with ice picks and razor blades, despite the evidence to the contrary. Still, flying through the air with the greatest of ease was awfully exciting, even with the misadventure with the thorns, but my mother did not see anything exciting about my flight at all and neither did most of the other mothers on our street. I do not know if what happened next occurred spontaneously or not, but I do know that one or more of those mothers decided that enough was enough and that something ought to be done.
There are few phrases as fraught with potential peril in any language as something ought to be done. There is no end to the enormities that someone sufficiently high-minded can commit in the belief that something ought to be done, no end at all, especially if they think they’re the ones to do the something involved. I think we kids knew that something was up when we got home from school on a Wednesday afternoon and found our mothers hard at work cooking food that had nothing to do with our dinner. Nobody we knew was sick or dead, and it wasn’t somebody’s birthday, so our mothers’ behavior was suspicious to the nth degree. We learned the ugly truth that night when our mothers followed us up the McGonigles’ driveway with covered dishes in their hands. They told us kids that they were just going up the hill to see how Mrs. McGonigle was doing, but the disgusted looks on our fathers’ faces when they saw our moms coming up the hill with their hands laden with hot food told us everything we needed to know—one more happy male preserve had foundered upon the treacherous shoals of tuna casserole.
New regulations began spewing forth almost as soon as covered plates covered Mrs. McGonigle’s dining room table: small children could not sled all the way down from the top of the hill anymore, the definition of small being entirely based on maternal whim; going across the road into Mrs. DiPietro’s back yard was forbidden, as was going too fast on the corners, trying to bump one other off the driveway, and cutting the little kids off so the older kids could have fun watching them crash became a felony on par with murder in the first degree. This was a rule I didn’t care for; watching those kids crash was funnier than hell, but then, as I’ve mentioned, I am easily entertained. The mothers also banned beer on weekdays and the discreet bottle of Scotch, well, the bottle became so discreet it vanished altogether. This annoyed our dads no end, but they went along with the return of the Volstead Act for the sake of familial peace and quiet. The kids went along with the new rules because my mother bribed us all with her freshly baked brownies, a payoff she learned early on would usually work with kids. Learning that you are corruptible at the age of eleven is not a good thing for any growing boy, and I’ve avoided careers in politics and law enforcement so that I would never endure such temptation again.
There must have been something in the air that year, for the spirit of something ought to be done spread out from our neighborhood like chickenpox at an elementary school, a cultural reference that only shows how old I’m getting these days. In the late summer of that year, a hurricane meandered its way up the Atlantic coast of this our Great Republic, inundating everyone in its path, including the denizens of our happy little burg. On our street, the pond where we played hockey during the winter overflowed and poured over the road and down into Mrs. DiPietro’s backyard in what I thought at the time was an excellent imitation of Niagara Falls. I had never actually seen Niagara Falls, but I’d seen pictures and this looked enough like the real thing to make life interesting. Mrs. DiPietro, on the other hand, saw nothing at all interesting about her unwanted imitation Niagara or the new lake forming in her back yard, especially when the water level kept climbing inch by calamitous inch and she had to call the fire department to pump her cellar out before her house floated off its foundations and drifted downriver to the sea. In the days after the hurricane headed out the sea, the better to pound the Canadian Maritimes, men from the highway department came and saw the threat our hockey pond posed to life, liberty, and the pursuit of higher property values. They were strong men of stern mien, men who wore hard hats even when there was no reason to, and they determined that something ought to be done, and having decided that something ought to be done, they stood around their orange pick-up trucks wearing their hard hats and nodded sagely about the wisdom of their decision and drank truly prodigious amounts of coffee.
Over the course of the next year and a half, the various responsible departments of our happy little burg’s municipal government, a phrase I never thought I’d use to describe any department of our municipal government but there’s a first time for everything, I suppose, surveyed our street, put in a new drainage system, which made Mrs. DiPietro happy, and installed guard rails along the sides of the road. For us sledders, the guard rails were the worst, the avatar of the maternal mandate against zooming across the road made manifest by municipal metal. It was not until the following winter that we discovered the other consequence of all this boondogglery. The new drainage system had lowered our hockey pond’s water level to the point where we couldn’t play hockey on it anymore. And our hearts were sore then, and filled with bitterness.
Yes, something ought to be done, and so it was, and everything changed as a result. The McGonigles moved to Idaho a few years later, where the hills are higher and I assume the sledding is better, and the old McGonigle place has had several owners since then, none of whom had any interest in sledding. No one plays hockey on the old hockey pond anymore and the guardrails are still in place. Nowadays, of course, kids do not want to sled down a hill faster than they can anywhere else in town; they want to stay indoors and play computer games, or talk or text their friends on their cellphones. For that minority of youngsters still interested in traditional winter pursuits, the city provides a hill in the middle of a large park for the kids to sled down. It’s not a very big hill, which is more or less the same as saying that dwarves are not very tall, and you really can’t go very fast down it, but this small hill is better than no hill at all, I guess, and all the mothers approve of it. They would.