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Grandmother's Bobsled


Last week as I was watching the Olympic bobsledding with my grandchildren I had a memory flashback and said quietly: "I had a bobsled!"

"You did?" was their incredulous response, and I hastened to add: "Yes, but not one as sleek as they have now."

I grew up in Hamburg, Germany, where the climate is very much like Baltimore's, with very little snow during the winter. When it falls, slopes and hills turn into playgrounds for children and their sleds.

My grandmother was a statuesque woman, resolute, wise and my childhood companion. She would take me sledding, then wait patiently and often anxiously with the other adults until we children were too tired to pull the sleds up the hill one more time. I wished that Grandmother could sled together with me, but my sled was too small for both of us. "We should have a bobsled," she mused. That would be fun.

It happened that my uncle from the Black forest was visiting. He was an engineer and Grandmother had a long talk with him. Uncle Karl was not too sure that a 6-year-old girl could maneuver the sled Grandmother had in mind. "She is not afraid, and can steer with her feet, and I will provide enough weight" was her convincing argument.

The first snow melted, but the forecast promised more and Uncle Karl and my father worked late for the next weeks. Uncle Karl urged Grandmother and me to pray hard for lots of snow. The day before the end of his vacation, the snow started to fall again, small dry flakes from heavy gray clouds. It snowed all night. As I was going to measure how deep the snow was, there was the bobsled in the backyard. I remember it as a wooden construction with steel runners, a webbed seat and a wheel to steer it.

It was large enough for Grandmother and three children, and it had numbers on the side -- my birthdate. By the time we arrived at the hillside, we had quite a following of youngsters who were curious about our contraption. "This is a bobsled!" Grandmother informed them, "and if you are willing to push us at the start, you may ride with us." There were a lot of skeptical boys, but Grandmother found two without a sled that were willing to make the first trial run with us.

Grandmother knew that the sled would work because father and Uncle Karl had tried it out the night before. She directed me to sit behind the wheel and steer, she sat down next to me and told the boys to give us a hard push and then jump onto the sled for the ride. They gave it all they had, and we went off faster than I had ever sledded.

I held on to the wheel; it was a relatively straight course. The sled was vibrating under the weight as we went over the bumps and dips of the run. We were all screaming on the top of our lungs. An old tree-root nearly capsized us but Grandmother shifted her weight and we made it into a soft snowbank.

The children at the bottom of the hill were cheering, and came running to take the sled back up again for the next downhill run.

Grandmother went with us the first couple of times, then she had trouble keeping up with us and would wait out every other run. I can still feel the exhilaration of that wonderful day. By the end of it, everyone who wanted one got a ride. Father came to pull Grandmother and me home on the sled; we would have been too tired to walk.

The snow lasted for another two days, then the rain came and melted it away. Grandmother did not seem to be too upset that our bobsled season had come to an end.

Hanneliese Penner is program administrator for the Hatton Senior Center in Canton.

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