The Orange Tabletop

The Orange Tabletop

From Chicken Soup for the Canadian Soul

The Orange Tabletop

Who needs a gag writer? Life itself is funny enough!

Honest Ed Mirvish

Brent’s Hill was without doubt the best sledding hill imaginable—incredibly high at the top, a long, steep run in the middle and a flat stretch at the bottom. Today the conditions were perfect for sledding. We had watched all day from the windows of our Presteign Heights Public School classrooms. Good, outdoorsy, Canadian kids, we knew our snow and what weather conditions were needed to create the fastest runs: bitter cold; enough sun to melt the top layer so it would freeze over as the sun dropped; and no wind to set the snow drifting.

The thought of our tobogganing plans was almost too much. I couldn’t keep my mind on my studies at all. The fluorescent orange tabletop consumed my thoughts. It was ready to go!

It was an idea that had hit us just yesterday. We had been playing hide-and-seek when we noticed the round patio tabletop leaning against the wall of our house. The rest of the table had long since rusted out and disappeared; who knows why my dad had kept the top. It was about four feet across, weighed an unbelievable number of pounds, and more importantly, it was fluorescent orange. My father had sprayed it the previous summer with orange surveying paint in the hopes of preserving it for one more year. Who came up with the idea to use the tabletop as a toboggan? I can’t remember, but we all knew it was brilliant.

History would be made. I could see it now: we would fly down the hill, easily passing everyone else. Whether we would take the safer route to the left, or the narrow, more challenging one to the right was the decision we pondered. There were, of course, advantages and disadvantages to both.

“Billy, you’re daydreaming again,” chided Mr. Kenniger. “You are never going to get through grade six if you continue like this.”

I put my head back down and pretended to be studying. I could not afford to get a detention that night! Eventually it was 3:30 and the class was dismissed. I was free! The plan was set. We would race home and meet in my backyard to get the tabletop.

It was 1960. We lived on Northdale Boulevard in East York, Toronto. It was a dead-end street on the edge of the Don Valley, but the slopes there were thickly wooded, so we had to go elsewhere to toboggan. Several blocks into the neighbourhood took us to Brent’s Hill. We called it that because you had to walk through Brent’s backyard to get there.

The tabletop was way too heavy to carry, so we took turns rolling it to Brent’s. On the way, we discussed which route we would take, how we would steer it, and most importantly, who would have the first turn. Would it be my younger brother, Tom, my next door neighbour, Janet Patterson, also several years younger, or me? We all wanted to be first. At the hill, conditions were excellent— a thin veneer of ice over a thick base of snow, no noticeable wind and no drifts. The snow looked flat, smooth and incredibly fast. We stood at the top looking down, digging in our boots to keep our balance and holding fiercely onto the tabletop.

A change came over us as we stared down the hill. It seemed steeper than usual—and for some strange reason, there was no one else there. Perhaps it was the freezing temperatures or the late-afternoon hour, but whatever the reason, the total absence of other kids created a dark, eerie feeling. Suddenly, the urge to be the first one down the hill lost its appeal—but someone had to go.

“Janet, you’re a girl, I guess it’s only fair that you go first,” I said gallantly.

“What about you being the oldest and the most experienced, and what about the fact that it’s your tabletop from your backyard?” she inquired innocently.

“That’s alright,” I said, “I’ll have lots of turns after you. Go ahead.”

“But what about Tom, shouldn’t he go first? He loves sledding more than anyone and he’s the best at steering.”

“No, I really think we should stick to the ‘girls first’ rule here,” I said.

“Well, if you really think so. Thanks.”

Tom and I held onto the tabletop, while Janet settled into the middle of it. She suddenly looked very small— and not very confident. I had a funny feeling in my stomach, a feeling I couldn’t identify at the time but I now recognize as guilt. We planned her descent. The hill split into a kind of broad Y near the bottom, and Janet would stay to the left, which was the longer, but safer, route. If the sled went so fast that it reached the Don River, Janet would bail out. Separating the route on the left from the one on the right was a ridge that rose and dropped off over a cliff. The cliff was steep and covered with tall evergreen trees, fallen branches and bushes. This did not concern us because, even without steering, you automatically veered to the left or right of the ridge. We knew there was no sledding device fast enough to carry you up and over the top of the ridge.

“One! Two! Three!” we hollered, and released the tabletop. The thing took off like a rocket, and we knew immediately it was going way too fast—faster than anything we had ever seen. The heavy metal against the icy surface was a lethal combination: Janet was heading straight for the ridge at breakneck speed. But then, you always headed straight for the ridge at first. The veering-off point was coming up soon. We held our breath. To the left! To the left! We said repeatedly to ourselves, willing it to happen. She reached the critical veering-off point, but her direction did not alter one iota. She was a goner.

“Bail! Bail!” we screamed.

Janet was clutching the rim of the tabletop for dear life; there would be no bailing. Up the ridge she raced, and then—she took flight. The scraping sound of the table against the ice vanished and there was silence. For several seconds, Tom and I just stood there stunned. We were stuck. We were as much a part of the landscape as the trees, the boulders or the ice sculptures formed by the rushing waters of the Don River.

Then we were all arms and legs as we raced down the hill, tripping over our own feet, sliding on our hands and knees, gripped with absolute terror. We had killed our next-door neighbour. We as good as threw her over the cliff. What would our parents say? What would Janet’s parents say? Life would never be the same on our quiet little street in Parkview Hills. We would be the despised Gorman brothers, boys with no moral fibre, boys without souls.

“Please, God,” I remember saying over and over again, “badly injured maybe, broken limbs and battle scars to show her friends, but please—not dead!”

We reached the ridge, gasping for air, shaking with fear.

“Janet, Janet!” we screamed.

Nothing.

“Janet, are you alright?” we wailed wishfully.

Nothing.

Then, on the very edge of collapsing from anguish, we heard a sound, almost a squeak, come from above.

“I’m up here, up in the trees. I’m okay! It was great!” She began to ramble on about the speed, the sensation, the excitement.

We looked up in disbelief. Janet was wedged in a tree, between two branches. She had flown up into a tree and was not only unhurt, she was exuberant. Then, as though released from a spell, Tom and I started screaming and laughing. We laughed so hard we fell on the ground, rolling around, holding our stomachs. When we finally caught our breath, we stared up at the night sky and felt that incredible sense of peace you feel not often enough in life. Janet clambered down the tree and joined us, totally oblivious to our anxiety and her near death.

Our reputations were intact. Our lives would be allowed to return to normal. We might even give the orange tabletop another try—but not today, not today.

Bill Gorman
Toronto, Ontario

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