Most people still believe that no toboggan has ever broken the sound barrier. Mick, Marty and I are the only ones who know the true facts of the matter, because together we pushed the toboggan envelope further than it has ever been pushed. There was no one else around at the time, though, so details of that historic occasion are confined to our fading memories, and this humble record of that fateful day. You are therefore asked to pay close attention, since I’m only going to go through this once because of the adrenalin rushes and trembling.
The toboggan ignorance that generally prevailed in the previous century – the early sixties in fact, that unequaled decade – was understandable, since the “sound barrier” was still a relatively new concept in the public mind, as was “heat of reentry.” Neither of these phenomena had ever been associated with toboggans, but only because destiny had never before brought together, in the right place and at the right time, the right conditions (i.e., completely icy) and the right men (i.e., completely iced). The Guinness boys weren’t there that day because their Book of Records was still just a wee thing; anyway we weren’t drinking stout and there was nothing in their book about toboggans.
The new world toboggan speed record required a steep ski slope, completely abandoned by perceptive skiers because of perilously icy conditions, and a toboggan manned by young men full of the right stuff. Things were coming together in that way the universe has with icebergs, unsinkable ships, mountains, college students, what have you. Mick says there were only 3 of us rounding out the wouldabeen Guinness Book crew that day: he, I and the ever-ready Marty, but somehow I can’t believe only three of us were that crazy. Surely there must have been more… I have the feeling that there were 4, maybe even 5 tobogganauts aboard, but amnesia has its place. So if you were that fourth or even fifth fellow, please get in touch. I remember Marty was there, because of how far he went beyond our terminus. I remember Mick was there, because of his supersonic torso. I remember I was there, because the ice of fear does not die.
I would have thought Mac was there, we were staying at his family’s lodge in New Hampshire, but I asked Mick recently and he said Mac was too sane to have gone up that ice mountain with us, which seems plausible, he being a perceptive skier. At this latterly point in my life it’s hard for me to do retrospective sanity assessment with any accuracy; it all looks insane from here. What the hell were we thinking, I can ask now, without feeling too fogeyish. We’re all of us men of steel, until one day we regain consciousness and from then on know instinctively that certain actions are not of benefit; the mere recollection of some of them can even induce adrenalin rushes and trembling, so let me get this over with.
It had been flashcold that weekend so we’d spent a lot of time indoors, warming up with our dates and losing perspective on outdoor reality. None of us were skiers (apart from Mac); as city boys we were ice skaters, so in ski country we pretty much stayed in by the fire and partied. But then late in the afternoon of our last day there, rendered dauntless by spiritual consumption we decided that before we departed we had to go out there just one time and show the mountain who was who and what was what, giving no thought to any substantial impact of who against what. There was a toboggan in the loft, so we guys took it out (women are smarter at pretty much all stages of life) and determined to test ourselves against the worst the mountain could throw at us, which, if you think about it in retrospect or at any time without scotch, is quite a lot.
When we arrived in full readiness at the bottom of our Slope of Destiny (a series of gleaming, undulating grades at what in my mind’s eye now looks like about a 75-degree angle), it appeared to our happified eyes like a big, beautifully decorated and fun-inviting piece of cake frosted in bright, hard icing. Perfect for skating. I don’t know how we climbed the ski run, but we were ice guys, and well experienced with toboggans (always in snow, however), at Lincoln Park, Bowlie’s Hill, Synagogue Hill and other speedy slopes around Albany. So there at the top of the run we set up for our one long sunset ride on the historic toboggan: Marty in front, Mick behind him, me at the rear.
We had just pushed off onto the steep glaze and were roaring downward when doubts began to set in as things began to get blurry, the way they do when you get up past 5 Gs; then came the boom as we passed Mach 1 and events began to occur exponentially. My subjective impression was that we lost control even before we went hypersonic, when a brightening glow began to issue from the front of the toboggan as the atmospheric friction corona began to surround us in a womb of light. I suppose that individually we were screaming things like “LEAN LEFT!” “LEAN RIGHT!” “O, GOD!!” and whatnot, mewlings erased by the sonic booms.
The entire launch and reentry took a fraction of a picosecond, if memory serves, setting a new world record; had nothing stood in our way we might have sped on till early summer. If there’d been anything like a ski jump at the end we might even have left orbit, but as I’ve indicated the mountain headed down. Actually the mountain just stood there unmoving while we went down, setting the de facto – but uncertified – toboggan speed record that has never since been broken or even approached, and I doubt ever will be, given the combined requirements.
As we neared our terminus, one of those old existential questions arose: Why are there concrete stanchions at the bottom of the Slope of Destiny? Beguiled by the scotch and ice of the moment we had failed to notice, down there where the slope administrators would have been working at the time, had they too been insane, a series of concrete stanchions whose purpose even now eludes me. Panzer defense? In a nice, powdery, skiing kind of snow, even the swiftest skiers could stop well before reaching those tank stoppers, but on solid ice like we were enjoying, once you go hypersonic on a toboggan there is no stopping short of the state line, unless you encounter a mountain or its equivalent.
Just before coming to the deadest stop any of us can recall, we’d all been leaning hard right, in vain seeking to avoid our Stanchion of Destiny, which rapidly grew in size and importance until we met it broadside with the toboggan’s left edge, closely followed by my 20G left thigh, an impact compounded by Mick’s supersonic torso, while Marty wound up in Vermont I believe it was, as Mick and I, still smoking from the heat of reentry, rolled around on the ice howling and unable to rise. Actually, I was doing all the howling; Mick was unable to howl, or breathe at all very much.
While Marty thumbed a ride back to New Hampshire, Mick and I were taken to a doctor, where it was proclaimed a miracle that my femur was intact (eat your heart out, Schwarzenegger), though my left thigh muscle was rendered non-functional for weeks. The impact of Mick’s torso upon my knee had broken three of his left ribs. He was taped up tight and gasped well into springtime; I was given a cane with which to hobble from class to class like I was already much older than I am now.
We were young, we were insane, what can I say; that’s part of what college is all about, and we completed Downside 101 in a single afternoon. But tobogganing itself remains golden in memory, since we survived. Even now, we survive.
God must have been watching that day and been blown away at the quantity of right stuff in those young rapscallions down there, and decided in her kindness not to let us become the landscape pancakes we seemed determined to be, but to let us off with minor but painful injuries and actual futures, filled with opportunities to avoid the icy slopes of life insofar as possible forevermore. And so we have. To my knowledge not one of us, even with the right stuff, has ever tobogganed down an iced-over ski run again.