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Northern Days Gone By: Clinkers couldn’t corrupt our sledding

An elderly lady was seen lugging a bucket of clinkers down her stairs to the sidewalk. She tossed the clinkers onto the sidewalk and then right onto the avenue. Clinkers are the residue after coal has burned in a furnace, leaving odd- shaped, sharp, hard items that can help pedestrians and autos grip the snow and ice and reduce the risk of accidents. This elderly lady was my grandmother, and every year she took it upon herself to disperse clinkers to assist people on the steep 8th Avenue East in Duluth.

So in the dark and thanks to street lights on every corner, we would take our sleds in the dark. And, after using paraffin on the runners, the sleds would glide easier. We went racing down the avenue and sidewalks, cutting into alleys and snow mounds along the way, sparks flying from the runners as we crossed patches of sidewalk that had too many clinkers or that had been shoveled clean. Talking incessantly we spoke of the big curve leaving the alley onto the avenue and how Jimmy ripped his pants, tipped over and scraped his knee. Or the talk focused on the sparks that flew from our runners. One good thing from a boy perspective is that Duluth is that magnificent hill, so steep that not even sand or clinkers can ruin the great sport of sled riding and going really fast.

Almost all our runs were done with a belly flop onto the sled. I had a Marshall Wells sled. Billy had a Flexible Flier. Chucky had an old rickety sled with split boards, but it worked. So, we sailed down the hill, even posting guards to warn when a car was arriving so we could avoid a crash. We hooked sleds together and made trains right down the middle of 8th Avenue East, making an abrupt turn so the last sleds would crack the whip and toss the occupants off.

We took it for granted that every kid in Minnesota was sliding as we were, living on a hillside with the wonder of snow and ice everywhere. We would head home for supper and then, if our homework was done, out the door we would go to slide and slip on 8th Avenue East.

We had a remarkable childhood, and we were experiencing real life, nothing imaginary or electronic, and even learning to socialize and settle disputes. You had a wonderful childhood, too, if you had anything like this, enjoying the out of doors and the snow and ice bringing joy and delights to your life. Enjoy the season.


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