My dad did not have it easy growing up. On top of the general Depression/World War 2 experience most men his age went through, his home life was pretty chaotic. He lived on a ranch in south-east Idaho with at least a dozen siblings and at least three step-fathers, not all of whom had his best interests in minds.
David Soren Deitrick wasn’t raised to adulthood; he was dragged up.
Unfortunately we ended up “cross-threaded” quite often. In addition to the effects of his childhood there were other factors involved, the kind of things pop psychologists make their living telling us all to obsess about. I’ve gone back and forth about it all and the bottom line is this: my dad was a good man, I wish I’d known him better and my life would have been richer had we spent more time together…
…but don’t doubt for a second that when we did work together we were anything less than a marvel in motion. For example, we did the basic framing for his workshop in four hours. That’s an hour a wall and while we did cheat a little with pre-cut studs that is still quite an accomplishment. However, that feat pales in comparison to the Striped A** Ape.
You’d think kids in Alaska would all have the best of winter sports equipment but that wasn’t the case in December of 1966. In addition to the obligatory runner sled all I had was a pair of army surplus cross country skis with leather strap-on bindings that I had bought two years earlier but without a like-minded buddy to go with me I was hesitant to shush out of sight of the house.
(Mention animal attacks in Alaska and most people think bears but we were more frightened of moose, especially when the top layer of snow got crusty and would cut their shins, making them extremely irritable)
There weren’t too many readily accessible hills to sled down, so when the Saunders family invited our church youth group to their place for a sledding party every kid in the area, member or not, jumped at the chance…and being 13 years old my buddies and I did a lot of big talking before the event, generally letting our egos write checks our bodies (and mediocre equipment) could never cash.
Enter the Striped A** Ape. (Hey, this is a family show). Where did my dad get the name? I have no idea other than he was a career Navy man and having sailed all over the globe at one time he probably had seen some sort of monkey with a brightly colored posterior that made some sort of an impression on him. I wasn’t going to argue – it was too much fun catching my dad swearing.
My mom and three little sisters were in California leaving just me, Dad and my sister Robin to bounce around the house – which meant Dad had more opportunities to chew my own a** about not doing the dishes or taking out the garbage . He also had more opportunities to notice when I was feeling bummed out, which I definitely was feeling as the sledding party (and my inevitable humiliation at being the slowest sledder) drew near.
As I said before my dad and I were often cross-threaded and one consequence of that dysfunction was that for some reason he found it much easier to relate/communicate with me when I was in trouble, which this situation appeared to be to him. There was no way his kid was going to get shown up at the sledding party and since we didn’t have a decent sled or access to buy a new one we would make one.
Remember those army surplus skis I mentioned earlier? We took those and made a light framework to connect the two of them together. We put a low seat on the frame work then provided for steering with a roped tied in a big loop running through the holes drilled in the tips of the skis, the idea being that direction would be controlled by “pulling the reins” and warping the skis into the desired direction of travel (I told you he grew up on a ranch, right?)
After testing the Ape and sustaining three falls out of three trips we decided on an alternate seating arrangement. Instead of sitting up the rider would crouch over the platform/seat and steer the sled by dragging the toes of our boots, which turned out to be a fairly good method as best as we could tell through the test runs on the very mellow slope on the road heading up to the highway. Secure in the hope that if anything I would be spared total humiliation, we gave all the screws one last tightening twist, waxed up the bottoms of the skis, and looked forward to the sledding party.
The night of the sledding party finally arrived, as did my Mom and three younger sisters in the interim. In the middle of all the settling in Mom asked me about Scouts but I was careful to avoid mentioning the sledding party and was careful to keep the Ape out of sight as I knew the whole project would get vetoed in a heartbeat if she found out.. It did make smuggling the four-foot long Ape a little difficult but the shared experience of risking death at the hands of my mom made the whole thing that much more of a bonding experience for my Dad and I
The appointed Wednesday night finally arrived. We got to Saunders house at the top of the hill in time to catch an extended Alaskan twilight. People complain about the long winter nights back home but what they fail to tell you is both dawn and dusk are much longer than they are in more temperate climes, giving you an extended period of beautiful magenta skies streaked with orange. As the kids gathered we started bonfires at both the top and bottom of the hill to provide a “warming up spot” at both the beginning and end of the trip.
I might also mention at this point the nature of Saunders Hill: it was a doozy. Elevation changed over 300 feet in a horizontal distance of just less than three football fields, giving the hill an angle of about 30 degrees. It could be quite a challenge for the Saunders family to negotiate during the rainy seasons of fall and spring but it was a great sledding hill – at the time the best around for miles.
Ever the gentleman (even at 13) I let everyone else go ahead of me – which earned a chorus of jeers from some of the other kids that left no doubt as to the contempt with which they held my home-designed / home-built sled. Finally, after they all had started down the hill I set the Ape down, crouched over the platform and kicked off.
You know that one scene in the Chevy Chase movie “Christmas Vacation where he slides down the hill on a sledding disc that has been coated with a space-age lubricant he brought home from the lab he worked at? Everyone laughs at it but be – I wondered why he was going so slowly, because on that first run of the Ape I went so fast I swore I BROKE THE SOUND BARRIER! I remember that first kick-off at the top of the hill – and the next thing I remember is frantically trying to stop the sled before shooting off the road and into the Swanson River Access road, which because of shift change at the oil field was heavily travelled that time of evening). I don’t think I could have gone faster had I raised one finger, said “Engage” in my best Patrick Stewart voice and went into warp speed.
That sled was FAST.
I went from being the goat to the hero that evening and all of my friends that had previously been mocking me about the ape were trying to wheedle a trip down out of me. I let two of my friends try it but for the most part I kept the sled to myself, taking in delight in my lightening-fast trips down the hill. It got faster and faster as the night wore on as the snow got packed down further and further – which also made it more and more difficult to apply that dragged-toe-braking maneuver. Counter to my usual physically timid manner I started making controlled crashes into the side of the road to keep the speed manageable and in doing so earned cheers from my buddies and a broad smile of approval from my Dad. That fatherly approval was heady stuff and as the night went on and the speed inched up I began to fantasize about building wings and turning the whole contraption into a short-range glider
Unfortunately all good things come to an end and so did my exploits with the Striped A** Ape that evening. On my last trip down I collided with a battered runner sled being towed up the hill by my friend Larry, who (not being the sharpest knife in the drawer) was walking up the middle of the road towing the sled while wearing a black parka, black pants, black boots and a black ski-mask pulled down over his face. I didn’t know what I hit until they dug me out of the snow bank that the collision had thrown me into and I had gotten pretty battered up with several cuts and bruises around my head and shoulders.
When Dad got me home a half-hour later Mom complained loudly about the mess I was making as I stumbled into the house with several cuts across my face but to be honest I think she was a little worried about infection…at least that’s what I chose to believe given her zealous application of hydrogen peroxide.
I only used the Ape one more time when we hiked into a lake on a snow camp two months later. It was less than effective as we moved through the tightly-grouped spruce trees, in fact skis used in any way on that trip compared poorly with snow-shoes. I took one more run down a hill and ended up cracking one of the cross-braces and after stashing it in a shed for repairs that never came I didn’t come across it again u until the summer of 1999 when we were visiting my parents.
It was in pretty poor shape – what wasn’t damaged in the original mishap had been mauled by other homestead detritus that had been stored next to or on top of it for the previous two decades. It still made me smile though as it brought back memories of one of the few times that I was the hero in the eyes of Troop 151, the sterling School eighth grade class and my dad