Saturday, January 3, 2009

Chicago Winter: Devil's Hill

January 1979.  Thirty years ago—how did that happen?  I was nine and our family lived in Chicago, in an apartment on Commonwealth, a street that ended (or began) at Lincoln Park.  Winter vacation, and all I wanted was snow*.  Snow to make a snowman, snow to have a snowball fight with my father, snow to use my metal saucer and whip down Devil's Hill.  I don't know who named it "Devil's Hill," whether it was someone in my family, or the other kids at school, or maybe it was known that way generally.  It was indeed an evil hill, ripe for sledding and saucering accidents, which thankfully I never had, though I came close once.  I remember waddling (it was hard to do anything else wearing tights, thermal long-johns over that, plus pants and maybe also snow pants) up the steep hill, dragging the saucer.  Up at the top, my dad would help position me, ask for the OK, and give me a good shove off.  Let me tell you there are not many ways to control a saucer racing super fast down a steep hill; at least, not when you're nine.  I remember one time—and in retrospect it's impossible to remember any other time; it's all been compressed into a single descent, one for the record books—and I was flying fast, unable to stop until the course played itself out.  It makes sense to interrupt here to explain that possibly the most demonic thing about Devil's Hill was that at the bottom of the huge slope there were two little ridges, two mini-hills or bumps, and that when you hit those, you went flying.  Going down, I remember seeing a kid still playing around between the two bumps—right in front of my speeding saucer, of course.  I remember screaming "Look out!" and feeling sick at the thought that the kid wouldn't move in time, and then somehow also knowing that I wouldn't crash.  After that, the only thing I know for sure is that, indeed, there was no collision.  Nothing broken, no harm done.  I think I remember that I actually soared over the kid's head as I cleared the trench between the ridges, but maybe that was a child's exaggeration—maybe the hill was, too, for that matter; I tried to find it, decades later, but couldn't see anything so big as my memory of it (though it was summertime when I looked).  I don't remember whether my dad came running down, or whether I ran back up myself.  I'm quite sure he saw it all, so I will have to ask him whether he remembers it as I do.  I do know that I felt exhilarated, at least once safety was secured.  And I knew, even then: this was a story that belonged to family legend, and I was its hero.

* For those of you who don't know, I'll state it here: Little did anyone know in the early days of January 1979, just how much snow we were about to get that Chicago winter!  The blizzard of '79 remains one of the worst on record.  Beginning the night of Friday, January 12, and dropping 20 inches of snow over the weekend (on top of a base snowfall of 7-10 inches), the storm paralyzed the city, closed O'Hare for days, and sent the then-mayor's plans for reelection up in smoke.  Oddly, I don't remember much about the actual storm—we probably lost some power; I imagine school was closed for some of the following week; and likely the only cars on the roads were the ones with snow tires and chains.  My parents probably cursed.  I probably loved the excitement.  But the story of Devil's Hill remains much bigger to me in my myopic eye of childhood than the blizzard that paralyzed a whole city, which is why I won't be posting any direct memories of the Chicago blizzard on the January 12th anniversary.

1 comment:

  1. most people have a very romantic view of snow - my story about snow is coming up on my blog