Since we’re walking through snow, let’s talk about that favorite kid-dom pastime of sledding.

I remember having an orange saucer sled at one time, at another time a red plastic toboggan that you steered by your body weight, and most sledding memories revolve around a wooden toboggan sled with metal runners (which I still have in the garage).  This one was loose enough in the center of the front wooden cross-piece that you could steer it by pressing your feet (or hands) left or right.

We owned about ten acres behind our house–about 6 of it field, the other 4 woods.  There were a couple of pretty decent sledding hills hidden back there.  One was along the edge of our woods and a plowed-up corn field right next to it (if you can picture looking from our backyard to the woods, the corn field would have been on the left of our property and the gravel pit to the right).  There were oak trees along this stretch of woods at the bottom of the hill.  What made this hill worth sledding down was after an ice storm.  There was plenty of open snow-covered corn field to steer the metal toboggan down the hill, swinging the sled wide to the right so that I was headed straight for the ice-covered oak leaves that still hung heavy on the oak branches along the edge of the woods.  I’d crash through the leaves at what felt like 30 mph (couldn’t have been more than 29 though) and it sounded just like shattering glass!  That was saweet!

The other hill hidden in the woods was tricky.  If you didn’t steer the metal sled right, you were kissing a tree trunk.  But that’s what a kid lives for, right?  I remember one time suddenly finding myself off the sledding trail, sticking my foot out to try to stop my momentum and finding that I planted my foot against a small tree trunk.  Oh, I stopped alright, but I found that I was suddenly listening to what my kneecap was saying, since it was right up by my ear.  I walked away from that with nary a pulled groin muscle (but did have the sudden ability to have twice the distance covered in my stride on one side more than the other).

Then there was a small hill to the left of that big barn that was right next door to our house (the one that eventually had horses boarded there that you heard about already….ahem).  There was an electrified barbed-wire fence that surrounded the paddock/pasture area behind the barn.  The front corner of that paddock area, just inside the fence, almost always had standing water–disgusting when you think about it, but that also meant that it froze over every winter.  Well, my brother and I found that if we took a shovel and cleared off a five-foot wide path on the ice inside the fence, there was a good 25 yards of it just begging to see a sled.  So, with our trusty metal toboggan, we would sled down the hill, at the last second dropping ourselves onto our backs like an Olympic bobsled runner to sled under the electrified barbed wire (which would zing passed our faces a safe 6 inches–or maybe a safe 4 inches–it was somewhere in that “safe zone”), out onto the ice and coast for miles and miles!

Not to cut this short, but if you look over your left shoulder, you’ll notice that the sun will be setting soon.  There is a nice clearing just ahead that I’m going to set my tent in.  Meet me there in a bit and I’ll have a fire going with some coffee to warm you up.  Then we’ll continue this conversation….

By the way, here is the solution to my 5th grade two-minute mystery (remember, it’s the original unabridged version):

Obviously she couldn’t see the man get into his car.  The fog was too thick!  She let him look into her house and he found the dog in the back yard.


I have always loved mysteries.

I can remember there being quite a few mystery-type series that got me going on this path so long ago.  As with just about any young boy from the late 70’s and early 80’s, a staple mystery starter was The Hardy Boys (and a few Nancy Drew thrown in).  Do you remember the “Choose Your Own Adventure” series?  I didn’t get into a whole lot of those, but the first (and favorite) was “The Mystery Of Chimney Rock”.  How about “Alfred Hitchcock’s The Three Investigators”?  I have found very few who have read that one.

This has progressed over the years into a love for the Sherlock Holmes stories.  The movies that have Robert Downey Jr. are good entertainment, but obviously don’t follow the actual stories.  If you want to see what is arguably the best rendition of the 221B Baker Street stories, you must watch  the Sherlock Holmes series that Granada (an English T.V. production company) put out over a ten-year span (1984-1994) that stars Jeremy Brett as the best Sherlock Holmes ever portrayed.

But I would have to say that what truly started my love of mysteries was a series that I found somewhere around 2nd/3rd grade called “Two-Minute Mysteries”.  These are short mysteries with the solution upside down at the end of each one.  I absolutely loved these (and still do)!  In fact, shortly after my wife and I met, we discovered that we both found the first book of this series (there’s three of them) around the same young age–and that we both still had our own copy of it!   I loved these stories so much that I modeled a mystery of my own after this “Two-Minute Mystery” format back in 5th grade for an assignment we had to do.

So, compadre, walk in my hiking boots for two minutes and enjoy, word-for-word, my original 5th grade two-minute mystery!  The wording and punctuation are that of a 5th grader, so keep that in mind.  I’ll let you in on the solution next time we meet up.  And one more thing….if you think this might be a waste of time, you should know that I stumped the whole class–including the teacher:

The Case Of The Missing Dog

It was one of those nights with a very heavy fog.  Suddenly their came a scream,  “My dog’s been stolen!” screamed Mrs. Hernandez.  A policeman came up to her.  “What’s the matter?”  “My dog’s been stolen!” she said.

“I went down to feed my dog and discovered he was missing.  I went out the front door just to see a man, with my dog, turn the corner and get into a car.”

“A very good alibi, Mrs. Hernandez.  But not good enough!”

The Gravel Pit Fire

I trust you wore your thermal socks, ’cause it’s cold out here!  We’re really going to talk about some hot stuff today then….

I have had a love of firetrucks since I was a kid.  I can remember sitting at the kitchen table in my Gramma & Grampa’s house playing cards with the family.  They lived a block off the main four corners of Bath.  (This town was so small that it didn’t even have a traffic light at the busiest part of town).  Suddenly we’d hear sirens.  I’d whip my head around to look out the big picture window in the family room and see the flashing lights of a volunteer fireman’s vehicle whizz by.  Then everyone would see me whizz by in a flurry of pumping feet, hands and cards flying everywhere as I raced out the front door to the edge of the yard to watch some real pros in action.

Bath had one of the best full-time volunteer fire departments in the state at the time–at one point, they were even known to have the fastest response time in the county.  And it just so happened that the fire department was a mere mile up the road from our house!  Our road cut between the two main roads of Bath Township like an “H”, so sometimes the fire department used our road as a shortcut of sorts to get to the other side of the township.  Which meant that quite often I was met with big red firetrucks flying down our road with lights and siren that could be heard a mile away…so all I had to do was bring the popcorn, a drink and a chair out onto the front stoop of the house to see it all pass right in front of me.

Remember that gravel pit I mentioned that Major and Babe would frequent?  It was right next door to our property with a handful of abandoned buildings at the front end of it.  One of those buildings was a huge old barn that sat about 50 yards from the road.  One Sunday afternoon in August, we sat in our living room watching T.V.  All of a sudden, we heard sirens and they were getting louder.  This only meant one thing:  HERE COME FIRETRUCKS!!  So, like the kids at the beginning of “A Christmas Story” when they’re looking at all the new toys in the huge glass storefront, I glued my face to the big front picture window in our livingroom and waited for the show to begin.

They went by our house all right….three or four or maybe even five different firetrucks and the like.  And then the sirens stopped.  “Why are the sirens stopping?”, I asked myself.  “They usually fade in the distance as the trucks move on down the road.  This can only mean one thing:  something is happening very close and I want to know what!”  So I flew out the door and ran down to the end of the driveway.  What I saw almost made me pee my pants:  all the firetrucks were along the side of the road right in front of the gravel pit….and smoke was billowing over the treetops of our side yard from something burning in the front where all the old buildings were!

I ran back in, told everyone what was happening, and then proceeded to sprint down the road to where all of the action was.  It was the big barn and it was absolutely engulfed in flames!  In fact, the heat was so intense from it that we had to stand behind a firetruck that was parked on the far side of the road and peek around the truck to catch ten-second glimpses of everything that was happening.  (Remember, the barn sat a good 50 yards from the road, so add to that the 20-30 feet further that we were standing from the fire and you’ll get a good idea of the size of this blaze).

We eventually made it back to the house after all the excitement died down.  Apparently, a farming neighbor that was just down from us had permission to store his hay in the old barn.  But he stored some wet hay in it, which meant that it was just a matter of time before spontaneous combustion occurred.

The fire department basically treated the barn fire as a “controlled burn”, which means that all they could really do is control how the barn burned to the ground.  This meant that for the next four days everything in, on and around us smelled like smoke–even with the windows shut.  For a while there, it almost seemed pointless to even do laundry or take a shower.  It got a little better each day–but then Friday hit.

The pile of ash where the barn used to be was still smoldering when Friday came.  Add to that the fact that the wind kicked up and you can see what’s coming next.  My brother was the first to get home and realized right away that the smell of smoke had gotten stronger.  He walked over to the front of the gravel pit only to see that a grass fire had started and was working its way towards our property!  Just as he was seeing this, a car was driving by.  He flagged it down and said, “Hey, you think you could….”, and the guy driving the car finished his sentence for him by saying, “….Yeah, I’m on it!”.  He sped up the road towards the fire department and the ever faithful Bath Township Fire Department came once again to the Cooley household’s rescue.

Everything returned to normal after that–even the smell of our clothes. But that wonderful memory is forever etched into my brain!  Even the recollection that with a fire that size, no one thought to bring any marshmallows.

The Runaway Horse

It’s cold out here today!  I see you’ve got an extra layer on.  Good idea.  Well, let’s talk of warmer things.

That house we moved into where Major left his “mark” was located in the country, about a mile outside of a small town called Bath.  (If you get the chance, Bath has an intriguing background that is well worth checking into.  It is the location of the first recorded school disaster in U.S. history, and it also has the unique claim to hosting “bathtub races” down the Main Street hill in the downtown area every August.)

It was an old house that we lived in with some interesting history attached to it, not the least being that the garden area had once been a Native Indian burial ground.  There was an old granary right next to the house with a huge barn that was just as old.  The previous owners of our home made the granary into a nice living space and eventually sold it to some people who started to board horses in the old barn.  One of the horses that was boarded there belonged to a woman who let me ride it for a 4H class that I thought would be fun to be a part of.  This horse was a good 15 years old at the time, with a bowed back from a previous heavy owner and a very stubborn personality, which means that there was no changing its ways for a teenage boy who wasn’t all that knowledgeable about working with horses.

We lived on a dirt road that had an old railroad bed 1/4 mile down the road.  Sometimes I’d go down the railroad bed and take the horse out onto a highway that was going in behind our property.  That was an amazing experience!  To get out on that wide open area and let a horse take off in a full gallop underneath you down the dirt shoulder of a completely empty highway was exhilarating.  What made it even more so was the advice from the 4H teacher to not have my feet in the stirrups.  Apparently you become less dependent on the stirrups and more dependent on actually riding the horse, which also means that you have no control over your butt slamming into the saddle as you’re galloping along.  This led to this being a much less invigorating experience.  I didn’t do that but maybe twice.

So one summer evening, I decided it was time to get this horse out for a ride and work with it on some things.  I rode it down the road just passed that old railroad bed and was working on making the horse stand still until I used the reins to “tell” it to move.  Being the ever faithful and obedient student, my feet were out of the stirrups as I was doing this.  To say this horse was stubborn is an understatement.  I would pull up on those reins–the sign the horse is supposed to recognize as meaning “stop moving and stay still” (he knew this, old and cranky as he was)–and just as I would think he’s obeying me, he would take a small, teeny step forward.   He was definitely playing reindeer games.  So I tried it again….and again…..and again….until we had worked ourselves too close to a steep hill in the road.  This meant that we were going to turn around and go back to our starting point to do this again until he obeyed me.  Which also meant that we were going to be turning back toward the comforts of home.

Have I mentioned that this horse was stubborn?  He knew where “home” was and was always intent on getting there (I think he loved to eat and he loved the ladies–two very significant things in a male horse’s life).  So, when he felt even the hint of the rein pressure on his neck to turn that direction, he went from 0 to 60 faster than any race car you’ve heard of.  He covered the 1/4 mile distance from home in what would have won any horse race, all the while slamming my butt into the saddle like his own version of spanking me for daring to even think of making him do anything he didn’t feel like doing.  Keep in mind that my feet were out of the stirrups this whole time (thanks again, 4H teacher), which gave me the feeling of Disney’s Ichabod Crane being chased down the road by the Headless Horseman, knees bouncing up by my ears as my butt came down into the saddle, white-knuckling the saddle horn all the way back to the barn.

It just so happened that instead of choosing any other way to get up the driveway to the pasture gate on the far side of the barn, this horse decided it was a much better plan to take me up the driveway between a pickup truck and a tree.  There was just enough space between the truck and the tree for us to pass, with a tree branch that stuck straight out about where my throat would be, effectively de-saddling me at chin level, which was undoubtedly part of this horse’s nefarious plan.  It was just like in the movies:  you see the man on the horse, an expression of shock at  the realization of what is coming his way, with just enough time to duck down as he and his horse break the sound barrier as they pass under the tree branch, mere inches from the truck and the tree trunk.

This is the part that truly amazes me!   That horse remained at a full gallop right up to the last 10 feet of grass before we reached the pasture fence.  Within that 10 feet, he went from a full gallop to a complete stand-still.  The laws of inertia dictate that, especially with my feet out of the stirrups, I should have remained at galloping speed as I sailed through the air over the fence and into the paddock.  But I didn’t!  When he stopped the way he did, I remember feeling a pressure on my shoulders, keeping me pinned down in the saddle until he came to a stop.  You may think differently, but I know the guardian angel that the Bible tells me I have as a follower of Jesus was keeping me in that saddle!

Know what I did next?  You’d be proud of me.  After I started breathing again and checked my pants for any signs of staining, I turned that horse around and took him back out onto the road to finish what I had started. We didn’t go very far, but just enough to make him do what he was supposed to do (I suppose he finally figured that this quiet teenage boy who didn’t know much about horses wasn’t going to be the push-over he was thinking I was).  I don’t remember if I rode after that, but that was an experience that I will never forget!