Oops – Slipped
The distance from the Flath farm to Slawa School was three miles – starting five miles south of Hafford, one and one half miles further south, then one mile west and one half mile south again.
The one and one half mile stretch followed the main road that connected the town of Radisson and the village of Hafford. This stretch of road was fairly well traveled and warranted some maintenance. It would be graded approximately three times per summer by a horse drawn road grader. The first grading would take place once the winter accumulation of snow had completely melted and the resulting puddles of water had dried up and the ruts caused by early spring traffic could successfully be filled and smoothed out. The second grading would take place later in the summer in order to smooth out the washboard that would build up. The third grading, if required, would take place in fall. The mile stretch going west from the Radisson/Hafford road did not carry much traffic and was not ever maintained. This stretch of road consisted of two parallel indentations created by the wheels of wagons, carts and buggies which had over the years traversed this section of road. Knee high grass grew in the space between the tracks as well as on the outer edges of the tracks. The regular users of this section of the road were the children of the Roth family, the Semchych family and the Flath family. In addition to the Roths, the Semchychs and the Flaths, several more students would join the parade to Slawa School for the last one half mile section.
No portion of any of these roads were plowed free of snow in winter. Wheeled vehicles were used as long into fall as possible before the fallen snow and drifting snow rendered wheeled traffic all but impossible at which time sleds and sleighs of various kinds became the mode of transportation.
Eddy and Harry had choices – they could take the cutter or the toboggan, ride double on King or they could walk to school. Since the distance was three miles , walking was their last choice and riding double bareback on King was nearly impossible so their preferred mode of transportation was the toboggan during mild spells and the cutter during the cold spells.
The cutter that King pulled was similar to the thousands of others that provided winter transportation on the prairies. The body of the cutter sat on two iron clad wooden runners. There was room for two or three people on the seat which boasted a back support. The cutter was fitted with a pair of shafts which were offset to the left side of the cutter thus allowing the horse to walk on the hardened surface of the trail. A solid barrier was placed at the front of the cutter which provided some protection for the passengers in the cutter. Since the seat as well as the rest of the Flath cutter was constructed of bare wood, Otto would place a bed of straw on the seat and on the floor of the cutter. The boys were also provided with a cowhide robe along with a woolen blanket; both of which they used to cover themselves. On the coldest days they would pull the blanket and the covering robe over their heads, tie the reins onto the cutter and yell at King to get going. King knew the routine and did not require any further instruction until he reached Slawa School.
Unlike the cutter the toboggan was unique. Eugene, the second son of Clara and Otto, served in the Canadian Armed Forces and upon his return to civilian life after the war was over came to live on the family farm. Eugene, probably because of boredom and because of his creative restless mind decided to fabricate a horse drawn toboggan after he stumbled upon a few long boards. He scavenged the best four twelve foot long boards from the pile lying behind a grain bin. He set them side by side and then held them together by nailing several cross pieces. He then took two ten inch wide by four foot long boards, curved the ends, nailed some strips across and then covered the curved portion with a sheet of tin. He created a storage cubby by nailing boards along the whole upper portion of the four feet by ten inch boards. Lastly he attached a single tree on to the front using a long length of heavy wire.
The toboggan was long enough and wide enough to accommodate several people as well as leave some room in the cubby to stuff some feed for the horse, lunch buckets and book bags. It had no seat, no side rails and no brakes.
Eddy and Harry liked the toboggan as it was fun to ride on. It would swerve out of the hardened track and speed up going around corners. It had a tendency to run into the horse’s back feet unless someone dragged their foot in the snow to slow it down. The boys could mount and dismount it easily when falling off or being pushed off the toboggan.
Following the first heavy snow fall the first team of horses would break and establish the trail and succeeding travelers would follow in the tracks left by the first team. After several teams had passed along the same track the snow became hard packed. However, the ruts made by the teams would drift over and fill up after each new storm or snow fall so that after three or four months the hard packed trails were, in some places, more than three feet above the frozen ground.
During the winter months the horses had no trouble walking or even trotting on these roads but once the weather turned milder the soft snow would melt faster than the hard packed snow. This situation often resulted in sleigh runners sliding off the hard track creating an icy slippery slope which created a hazard for the horses.
The day of this incident began as most days in spring and as far as Otto and the boys were concerned the road to school was still in good condition. However, the day turned out to be exceptionally warm and sunny. By 4:00 pm the warmth of the sun’s rays had changed the condition of the road significantly since the morning trip. After dismissal and as usual Eddy and Harry were the first to hitch up, leave the school yard and get on their way home.
The road posed no problem for King on the way to school but it did for the trip home. During the day one or more sleighs had traveled over the road and the usual hard level flat portion of the track had broken down in many places but Eddy and Harry trusted King to step carefully and stay on the flat portion.
It was common for Eddy and Harry to stand up on the toboggan and emulate log rolling competitions by trying to push each other off the toboggan and into the deep snow. On this day it was even more fun because the toboggan itself would often slip off the level part of the track and slide at a forty-five degree angle spilling both boys. King was accustomed to the shenanigans that went on behind him and even if the reins slipped out the driver’s hands he would continue on at his usual pace. The competition continued without any major incident until they reached the crest of the hill that lay about a quarter of a mile from the school. Just as the rig began to go downhill, Eddy body checked Harry off the toboggan and into the snow. Harry picking himself up quickly made a snowball and ran to catch up to the toboggan. When he came to about twenty feet from the toboggan he threw the snowball as hard as he could with Eddy being the intended target but he missed. Instead of hitting Eddy the snowball hit King square on his behind. Well, that woke up King! Reacting to the blow he lurched forward giving the toboggan a yank and in doing so the toboggan began increasing in speed as it continued on the down slope.
“Quick Harry, get on and drag your feet, we are going to run into King’s feet”, yelled Eddy.
Harry responded. He sat down on the toboggan and began to try to slow the toboggan down by dragging his hands and feet in the snow. This did not work. The toboggan ran right into King’s feet. Reacting now to the blow to his feet King jumped forward, with his his right back shoeless dinner plate sized foot landing on the slippery cut of the trail. His foot slipped out from under him and began to pull his hind quarters down and in trying to regain his balance his left leg joined his right leg in pointing to the sky. As his massive hind quarters twisted they pulled his front feet out from under him as well. In an instant all four of King’s dinner plate sized hooves were in the air and his seventeen hundred pound body came plunging down into the soft bank of melting snow.
As he was going down his twisting body jerked the toboggan forward. The force of the jerking sent the toboggan crashing into King’s behind catapulting both Eddy and Harry through the air landing them chest deep in the snow. Sitting unhurt in the snowbank they watched helplessly as King thrashed his hooves aimlessly about.
In a state of panic King tried with all his power and might to get his feet under his body so that he could get back up. As much as King was in a panic so were Eddy and Harry. Instinctively Harry struggled to make his way through the mushy snow towards King.
“Don’t go near him! Stay where you are! If you get hit by one of his hooves it will kill you! Stay where you are!” Ordered Eddy.
Obediently Harry settled into a sitting position and watched. There was nothing they could do as King thrashed about with his mighty feet flailing uselessly in the air. His vain attempt to right himself was further encumbered by his tangled harness and the fact that his body was half buried in snow. As each minute passed his efforts became weaker and weaker until he could no longer lift his head or continue thrashing about. Finally after about twenty minutes of struggling, King lay cast in the snow. His huge legs resting on the hardened part of the trail and his head resting on the soft snow lower than his chest. The boys knew that a cast horse of King’s size could not survive very long in that position so when they felt it was safe the boys plowed their way to the track wondering what to do next.
King looked pleadingly up at them with his one visible big brown eye as much as to say, “I give up. It’s up to you to save me. I will not kick you.”
Instinctively the boys began to untangle his harness, unhitch the traces, pull the toboggan back from his body and remove the bridle and bit from his head.
“What are we going to do? He’s going to die.”
But just as these words spewed from Harry’s mouth, Mr. Kotelko’s team of horses appeared from over the crest of the hill. Mr. Kotelko always drove his three daughters to and from school in winter and fortunately for Eddy and Harry he left the school yard after they did.
Upon seeing the situation before him, Mr. Kotelko immediately took charge.
“We have to roll him over,” stated Mr. Kotelko matter of factly. Easily said but how does a group of school kids plus one adult turn over a one thousand seven hundred pound beast that is half buried in soft melting snow.
“We have to dig the snow away from the back of him and down to the ground. With his legs and feet the way they are makes lifting him up on to the track impossible. We have to roll him over so start taking snow away,” ordered Mr. Kotelko.
Obediently the five students and Mr. Kotelko began the task of removing the snow with their mittened hands. Hand full by hand full, arm full by arm full they carried snow. The task seemed impossible but fortunately several of the students who had walked to school were also on their way home. Mr. Kotelko soon had more than a dozen kids throwing the snow away from King. It did not take long for the students to scrape the snow down to the ground with King’s back resting about two feet above the bare ground.
All the while the rescuers were tossing snow away from King, he remained quiet and seemingly resigned to the fact that his rescue and survival rested in the hands of a bunch of kids. He did not move or struggle; his struggles had long ended.
As more and more snow was removed from under him, King’s body began to slowly slide down into the hollow. Mr. Kotelko’s hope was that King would flip completely over. That did not happen. Instead of flipping over, his body came to rest on the hard ground with now his four feet towering nearly straight up in the air.
“Now we have to pull him over the rest of the way; he still can’t help himself stand up,” stated Mr. Kotelko, “But we don’t dare push on his body or legs – he might start kicking. I know what we will do. We will pull him over.”
With no ropes available, the reins from Mr. Kotelko’s team and those from King were quickly removed and became the means by which to complete the task. Mr. Kotelko fastened one rein to each of King’s feet and with Mr. Kotelko at King’s head he ordered several kids to take hold of the reins and on his command the students began to pull as hard as they could. Slowly, slowly King’s body began to move. With each tug and with each twist on King’s neck, King’s body began to complete the rotation.
After several minutes of tugging, Kind’s legs reached the pivot point and slowly his body rolled into a position where he could manage to get his clumsy feet under him and get up by himself.
The next morning Eddy and Harry walked the three miles of slippery road. They were not too happy with King.
“Clumsy old fool!”