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Henningsen: Threading The Needle


Winter weekends awaken memories of growing up in suburban New York and sledding in our local wilderness area – the country club golf course. To a nine-year-old, its rocky knolls and wooded glades made the place seem like something from The Last of the Mohicans – if you ignored the sounds of I-95 and the occasional hundred-car freight on the old New Haven Railroad, both of which bordered the course. No matter. To a boy with a Flexible Flyer and an empty Saturday, it was the land of romance and excitement.

Central to the sledding scene was “Dead Man’s Hill.” Surely every town has one: the towering crag you gazed at from the kinder slopes knowing that, someday, you’d join the big kids, speeding down what seemed like an Olympic bobsled run, dodging trees, rocks, abandoned sleds, and injured riders to a breathless finish just shy of the deep gorge bisecting the course. You had a choice: either figure out how to slow down in time to avoid the gorge or – if you truly had the “right stuff” – thread the needle by speeding over the narrow footbridge that crossed it.

The fate of those injured trying to thread the needle and cross the bridge made for regular playground conversation. My mother and uncle both broke bones trying it as kids, so it wasn’t hard to imagine the worst – hitting an abutment head-on or missing the bridge entirely and tracing a graceful fall-of-Icarus dive into the rocky stream bed below.

Today, lawsuit-conscious officials have gentled the slope and filled in the gorge – but this was the 1950’s. Parents raised during the Depression and tested as young adults by World War II had a more Darwinian view of life. They regarded trips to the Emergency Room as a central part of growing up. Still, we weren’t particularly eager to extend a long tradition of catastrophic failure trying to thread the needle.

And we never did.

In fact, I only saw it happen one and-a-half times – both on the same day. The first was when a group of high school seniors loaded up a toboggan, shot straight down the hill and over the bridge, glided to a stop, and, shaken by their narrow escape from disaster, staggered away without looking back.

That was the one. The half came when my brother and I and some college friends decided to replicate the teenage triumph we’d just witnessed, but bailed one-by-one as the narrow walkway neared, only to watch our now empty toboggan gracefully thread the needle at top speed.

Looking back on it, it’s clear that threading the needle was not only profoundly dangerous; it was a truly stupid idea. Those teenagers realized that after the fact; we saw it coming, just in time. I like to think that’s called the getting of wisdom.