A Car Hood Sleigh Ride and A Hero
by Bob Jandoli
I’m in a wintry, snowy mood and remembering a story that has a lot to do with the loyalty one man has for another, and no matter how close they may be, caring and simple courage seems to always prevail. It was winter of 1964, I was sixteen years old and it was “Christmas Break Week” of my sophomore year at West Orange High School. You remember that week between Christmas and New Year’s, that week when there was certainly no school, no homework, no real responsibilities, just nothing to do but hang out with “the guys” and look for some trouble to get into…or stay out of. We tried to do the latter, but seem always to accomplish the first.
We had our favorite “hang out”, as most teenage boys did at that time. “Timmy’s” was that place for us. A small candy store that was your classic confectionery left over from the 1950’s with all the trimmings. Jukebox, pinball machine, the counter with the stools with the red vinyl seats, the booths and old wooden chairs, and, of course, we packed it almost every night planning our nights of leisure, mischief, and fun. We were truly a band of brothers. One very cold night, during that mid-school vacation, my good friend, Mugsy and I were hanging out in front of the store. Mind you it was close to midnight and the store was closed, but the tradition was, no matter how late you were finished with your date or some other evening recreation, you had to stop by the store for your last minute “meetup” with some of the guys. Even though Timmy closed the store around 9pm every night, we still met and stood outside on the sidewalk waiting for something else to happen or just say goodnight. I would always be one of the first to get there at those late hours, so I would be able to get a place to sit, usually a stack of newspapers recently delivered for tomorrow morning’s sales.
Just around midnight, Mugs and I were ready to call it and start our usual trek home. (At that time, neither one of us had a car nor was I old enough to drive anyway). Suddenly a car pulled up in front of the store. The window came down and it was our friend Mike sitting “shotgun”, another friend by the name of Bill was driving. Mike yelled out “Come on guys, let’s go for a sleigh ride”. Now Mugs and I would have jumped in anyone’s car at that point. The temperature was already in the single digits and we were turning into snowmen. As we got in the back of the car I said “Seriously, Mike where are we going?” He returned with the remark, “Seriously, sleigh riding” Ok I said, but where’s the sled? Don’t worry he said, we have to make one stop first. So off we went.
We didn’t go far. The first stop was the local junk yard which happen to be about three blocks from the store. We pulled up to the gates which were chained closed. Mike and Bill immediately got out of the car and jumped the fence into the dark. Mugs and I just sat there wondering what the f#@k was going on. Within ten minutes, they were back again, throwing the engine hood of a car over the fence. Mugs and I got out and helped them put the car hood on the roof of our car, and off we went. No ropes, no bungee cords – just our bare hands holding it onto the roof. It was freezing as I mentioned, so within a mile our hands were frost bitten.
Our destination was the most popular and best hill for sleigh riding in The Oranges: Cameron Field in South Orange. At the top of the park was a perfect hill for our crazy ride. Thousands of people with their kids would come after each and every winter snowfall to enjoy this massive hill. It must have been a 300-foot ride to the bottom. We parked our car at the top of the run on a street that was just a sidewalk away from the start. It was dark and we were the only ones there. We all looked around to see if there were any cops hiding to catch us but I guess it was too cold for them as well. We took our makeshift sled off the roof of the car and flipped it over on its smooth side. The four of us stood there for a moment contemplating our dare. I, being the smallest, was placed first in the front, while Mike and Mugs sat behind me and Billy in the rear. Before I could change my mind we were on our way down the hill, picking up speed as we continued downwards. At one point I remember yelling to Mike “Did anybody realize we can’t steer this thing and to top it off, WE HAVE NO BRAKES”. I waited for some assurance from Mike, but all I heard from the other three was “OH, SHIT”. Nice, I’m heading downhill doing what feels like a hundred miles-an-hour on the hood of a 1954 Chevy with a bunch of idiots. It was very dark and I could hardly see the bottom end of the hill. I knew there was another street and on the other side was a brook which at this time of the year was frozen solid. At the speed we were going, I knew we would skid across the street right into the brook. As we approached the bottom, I saw that that wasn’t going to happen. Why? Because there was a huge oak three in our path and we were heading right for it. The tree must have been five feet wide and it was certain we were going to die or if anything, get pretty much mangled. There was sure to be some broken bones. Just as I yelled “A TREE!!!”, I felt two hands grab my shoulders and throw me off this unusual means of transportation. As I flipped and rolled in the snow I was able to pick my head up in time to see my three companions smash into the tree! I jumped up like a jack rabbit and ran to see who was dead and who may have survived the collision. The first one I approached was Bill, he was on all fours, but seemed to be alright. As I turned to my left helping Bill up, I saw Mugs and Mike leaning againt the tree laughing like the two nuts they were. Then we all joined in the laughter. We were alive and not a scratch on us. We made it. In unison, we all said “LETS DO IT AGAIN”. What a bunch of idiots. We failed to realize that could not happen. Our unique sleigh was mangled and wrapped around the tree. I just experienced another Christmas miracle, and although it was miraculous that all four of us were ok, all we did was complain that we had to walk up that steep hill in the snow to get back to our car.
As we started our trek uphill I turned to Mike to thank him for saving me. He said he knew, since I was in the front, I would be the first to hit the tree, so he pushed me off to save me, not thinking about what might happen to him. A true hero. Up to this point I knew Mike as a wild kid. He was always one of those guys who seem to get into a fight, no matter where we were, and always came out on top. A number of the guys would keep their distance from Mike, but I liked him and he liked me. He once told me I was the funniest guy in West Orange.
Time rolled by and I saw less and less of Mike and Bill. Mugs and I remain friends to this very day, some fifty-three years later. I don’t know what happened to Bill, I heard he may have died of a drug overdose. As for Mike, he continued to be a hero. He served in the Army, had a beautiful family, but sadly passed away over ten years ago. I guess that night was not our night to die. God had other plans for us and especially for my devoted friend Mike. His real true courage prevailed, not only that cold wintry night, but for the rest of his life. Rest in Peace Mike. God Bless the HERO.