Taming The Cheetah

Jeff Porter aka eltigre81 has sent us a recollection from his childhood and it is pretty much what this website is all about. Enjoy.

Cheetah

The cold wind stung my cheeks as I made my way from the house out toward the barn. The sun was barely visible behind an icy curtain of haze, and snow crystals blew in sheets across the path ahead of me. I reached the corner of the barn and saw my father talking to a man I did not recognize. The man was very tall, and to my eye bore a striking resemblance to Chuck Connors, the famous television actor. He had a broad square shaped face, high cheekbones and sharp steel blue eyes. Definitely a tough guy I thought to myself as I observed his grease stained overalls and plaid flannel shirt. He finished the last couple of puffs on a cigarette and flicked the butt into the snow with his massive, oversized hand.

A red pickup truck pock marked with a shotgun blast of rust holes was backed up to a nearby snow bank. In the back of the truck was a machine that I had never before seen the likes of. I knew immediately that it was a snowmobile, but it was not like the motorized bumblebees that I had seen the neighbor boys buzzing around out on the lake with. This machine was starkly different, low slung, angular and black, with scooped vents on the hood that gave the impression of a carnivore ready to take a bite out of anything that crossed its path. The seat was covered with a curious leopard print fabric which reminded me of the lingerie featured in the dirty magazines hidden under my older brother’s mattress.

At that point in my life, snowmobiles had not made any more of an impression on me than being noisy, pollutant spewing, dangerous contraptions ridden only by he-men who possessed the desire to die a horrible death. The images of that Saturday morning six years ago flashed into my brain. A man standing blue skinned, shivering violently and dripping wet in our kitchen after the machine he was riding with a buddy went through the ice in front of our house. The State Police frogmen in their fish eye masks and skin tight suits sent to recover his friend’s body. The shrouded corpse being carried up the hill to a waiting ambulance. I quickly dismissed the notion of ever riding a snowmobile, and turned to go back in the house.

“Hold on a minute son”, my father called out. “Can you give us a hand unloading?” Unloading? Why on earth would that deathtrap need to be unloaded in my yard I thought? Had my father gone mad? I reluctantly commenced tugging on the chrome plated rear bumper and together we dragged the machine out of the truck and down the backside of the snow bank. The man produced a key from his pocket, inserted it into the ignition, flipped a lever on the glossy black dashboard, and then said “Always give her some choke to get her started.” I would later learn that “choke” meant cutting off the air supply to the carburetor and richening the fuel mixture for easier starting, but at that instant the word conjured up more images of suffering and death. Wrapping his oversized hands around an oval shaped handle on the machine’s right side, the man jerked his arms backward and pulled the snarling animal to life. A cloud of blue colored smoke fanned out from somewhere underneath the sled and the motor roared a lion’s roar telling us that it had been awakened from its hibernation. The man then smiled a tobacco stained smile and said “Once she fires up, take the choke off and let her warm up before you give her hell.” He then straddled the machine and using a small, thumb sized lever on the right handlebar, he urged the machine forward. As he pulled away, I caught a glimpse of a chrome nameplate on the side of the hood that read “Cheetah”.

The man crossed our plowed driveway, drove the machine up over the snow bank and into the soft deep snow, creating a swirling cloud of snow dust behind him. He traced a path around our house and I followed in the sled’s tracks long enough to see him descend the hill behind our house and head out onto the lake. As he became a tiny black dot on the white horizon, I went back into the house, not wanting to witness a tragedy unfold. The man must have returned safely because the machine stayed, taking up residence in our barn.

Over the course of the next couple of weeks, the Cheetah became the object of neighborhood adulation. The neighbor boys came buzzing over on their bumblebees when they saw my older brother playing chauffer with my younger siblings aboard and the machine was the talk of the morning bus stop amongst the local adolescent population. While my three brothers would fight over who was going to get to ride the snowmobile first, I abstained, preferring instead quiet time outside on my snowshoes. I cited the righteous pursuit of keeping the air clean and the snow free of petroleum pollutants as the reason behind my refusal to accept the Cheetah, but the simple fact was that I was scared. Afraid of dying, intimidated by a machine that promised dismemberment if operated incorrectly, and petrified of the guilt I would feel if something terrible happened while carrying one of my siblings as a passenger. At first, no one made too much of the fact that I would not partake in any festivities involving the snowmobile, but as winter ebbed and flowed it’s snowy course people began to take notice and the taunts began. “He doesn’t like the snowmobile, either that or he doesn’t like us”, my oldest sister Paula would jeer. “Are you going to ride this weekend Porter, or are you still afraid?” became the refrain at the morning bus stop. My mom even got into the act, telling me “I think you should at least give it a try.”
She went on to explain that it was not the snowmobile that cost a man his life six years ago, but a lack of common sense in that the lake had only been frozen over for a couple of days when the men decided to take a vehicle out on what was probably only a couple of inches of ice. She suggested I see if they had anything in the school library to research regarding ice formation and pointed out that if cars and trucks were driving around out on the lake, then I could be pretty sure that it was safe for a snowmobile. While I felt somewhat reassured by her explanation, I wasn’t convinced.

After some reflection, I decided to take my mom’s advice and began looking into how to properly and safely operate a snowmobile, and tried to research snow conditions and ice formation. The school library did not have much to offer, and the librarian suggested I head over to the police station, which was within walking distance from school, and talk to someone there. I was able to find a snowmobile safety manual, talk to the officers on duty and I learned that a snowmobile should never be operated on less than six inches of ice, that ice depth should always be tested in several places prior to going out onto any frozen body of water, that slush and soft spots around the shoreline and around any pressure ridges or cracks are to be avoided. I learned the importance of wearing the proper protective equipment, and used the money I had saved from my paper route to purchase a purple metal flake helmet. I began reviewing the safety manual that came with the Cheetah, and made secret visits to the barn to familiarize myself with the sled’s controls, find the proper seating position and perfect mixing the gas and oil that went into the fuel tank. It was a slow process, and I continued to endure being ridiculed by my siblings and by my peers. What I did not realize at the time was that I was learning to build confidence and take the needed steps to accomplish my goal on my own terms, a pattern that I have repeated on many occasions throughout my life.

By the time February vacation arrived, I felt ready to put fear aside and take my first ride on the Cheetah. I waited until the first weekend of vacation was over and picked a day in the middle of the week to try my hand at snowmobiling. I lucked out and got a day with bright sunshine and comfortable temperatures. I turned down the opportunity to go on a family shopping trip so that I could have the sled to myself. I donned the gear that I had laid out the night before, my honeycomb long underwear, snow pants, boots, jacket, gloves and my candy purple helmet. Normally my father started the sled up for my brothers and sisters, but I insisted on doing this myself. I did as the man who had delivered the Cheetah had said and flipped up the lever on the dash to give the sled some choke. On the third pull of the starter rope, the Cheetah rumbled to life, as she warmed up a bit I returned the choke lever to the off position. I buckled my helmet chinstrap and heaved a sigh as I thought about how I should approach this first ride. I decided I would take the sled down to the lake where it was flat so that I could just get a feel for how to operate this beast. That meant that I had to descend the hill behind the house, but had familiarized myself in theory with operation of the sled’s brake and knew I would have to hold and release the brake lever as the momentum of the machine carried me down the hill.

The snow was pretty deep this last week in February, and if I strayed from the trail that had been packed from continuous use, large plumes of snow would waft up over the hood and windshield and sugar coat my helmet and face shield. I made my way around the house and jerked my way down the hill, squeezing the brake pucks against the rotor and stopping the sled when I felt like I was gaining too much speed. I stopped at the bottom of the hill, turned the handlebars to the right, and gave the sled enough throttle to move toward the lake through a break in the trees. Fortunately there was a path already defined and packed so I didn’t have to guess as to the best route onto the ice.

The snow on the lake was windblown, the peaks and valleys whipped like meringue on a pie. I eased the throttle lever toward the handlebar and off I went. Though the chrome-rimmed speedometer went clear to eighty miles per hour, I found that my comfort level was about one quarter of that and decided to stay under twenty mph. I practiced my turns, both right and left, learning that on a sled of this vintage that you either had to slow down or lean heavily into the turn in order to keep the sled on its line through the corner. Once I began to get comfortable, the realization set in that I actually was enjoying the wind buffeting my helmet and the sun making the snow sparkle like a diamond encrusted moonscape. I had conquered my fear and discovered a new way to enjoy winter.

I began to make regular practice runs, never going too far, never exceeding my comfort zone and always focusing on safe riding technique. I am proud to say that I have been a fairly regular rider since that winter of 1978, and have never had an accident or a breakdown on the trail. I always smile when I think of that time in my life and all that I learned taming the Cheetah.

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