The Mystery of Gary's Sled

So here's the deal...

When I visit colleges and high schools to work with the steelband students, I am occasionally asked about my first steel pan. My first "pan" was, in fact, a saucer sled like the one pictured here. As a boy of perhaps ten years old, I had seen the U.S. Navy Steelband in a parade in Wichta, Kansas. The frontline pans were worn 'round de neck (at least the single pans were, I think) and probably had very short skirts. This would've been sometime between, say, 1968 and 1972. (Perhaps someone with access to the U.S. Navy Steelband's road history can help me determine the exact date of this appearance?).

I was already a budding drummer, mallet percussionist, and pianist, and I was so inspired by the Navy band that I rushed home and dug my old Sno-flake saucer sled out of the back of the garage to sacrifice it so that I might have a steel pan of my own. My sled was the closest thing I had to what I saw the Navy guys playing, and it was made of heavy guage steel (they are now made of plastic or aluminum). With my Dad's hammer, I beat four bubbles down from the backside, and I learned quickly that tuning was pretty sophisticated business. I sought only fundmental pitches, and decided to stick to just four notes. I arranged them like the snare and tom toms on a drumset: the highest pitch was close on my left, and the pitches descended clockwise in a circular configuration to the lowest which was close on my right. Knowing a bit already about music, I decided that if I could only have four pitches, I'd try to choose pitches that could make a melody. I settled on bugle pitches (low fifth, root, third, and high fifth), so that I could play "Revele," "Taps," and so forth. With a little careful hammering (and quite a bit of luck), I was able to achieve the pitches I was seeking.

I tied the ends of a rope around the canvas straps and strung it behind my neck. Voila...instant steel pan! I vividly remember taking this thing out on my back porch in fairly cold weather and playing bugle tunes with a pair of regular drumsticks.

I played my new instrument for a few minutes here and there over the course of three or four days, and eventually it wound up in the back of the garage again. I moved out, my parent's moved away, then passed away, and who knows where that old sled wound up?
Knowing my parents, it is likely that my old sled was given away to a family or donated to charity, and whoever owned it next probably used it as a sled again for perhaps a few more years.

I've always been a bit nostalgic for that old sled, and had wished that I could've held onto it as a souvenier of my youthful enthusiasm for pan.

So, when I told this story recently at a post-concert reception at Indiana University, one of the students suggested I try to find a sled like it on eBay to hang on my wall. It hadn't dawned on me that I might still be able to find this model of sled anymore. Upon my return home, I did a search on eBay for "saucer sled," and only one entry resulted. It was the sled pictured here.

Just seeing the exact same model of sled gave me goose bumps, and I knew that I had to have it. As I studied the photographs, the detail of the bottom of the sled really caught my eye. I noticed a round-ish large dent reflecting off the light in the photograph (lower right, below). Without explaining, I asked the seller about this dent. She replied that there were three or four fairly prominent dents in various areas of the sled.

Well, I really had to have this sled at that point, so I bought it.

Now, the odds of this being myold sled are thousands to one, I realize. I do not know how many of these sleds were made (I am looking into that), but for now I'm guessing in the thousands. I have since seen a couple of these for sale as far away as France, so I know that they got around (no pun intended). I also inquired about where the seller, who lived in Portland, Oregon, got it, and she replied that she bought it at an auction in Oregon a few years ago. A local antique shop was going out of business, and this was one of the items that had been in storage for eight years prior to the sale. Given the geographic distance therefore, it is even more unlikely, that this is the actual sled that I created my first instrument from.

When I received the shipment, I pulled the sled out, held it in front of me, grabbed a screwdriver that was within arm's reach and tapped gently around the surface. Two pitches sang out, clearly discernable, and a third pitch was barely discernable through the metallic rumble (but was audible enough to present the possibility that a note was once there).


The two clear pitches are a perfect fourth apart; the lowest pitch is centered just about where the kikd's left hip is showing in the picture. The next higher pitch is centered roughly where the smaller of the two trees on the right are. These are the same positions that I had my low fifth and root (a perfect fourth apart). The left side of the sled is a bit of a mess, but if I tap in two or three places in the upper left (where the kid in the distance is sledding), I get a flat third--very obscure, but it seems to be in there. Random taps across the entire surface do not produce any other discernable pitches.

I am a pragmatist, and a realist. Knowing how much I want this to be my actual sled, I am stepping back and trying to get some outside scientific probability applied to the question of what the odds are that this might actually be my old sled.

Given that:

1) The sled was in Wichita, Kansas when I had it 35 or more years ago and I bought it from a seller in Portland, Oregon...
2) These sleds were made between 1955 and 1972, and as of 1968 (the last year of the company records my contact has access to), there were about 140,000 of them made. Given the yearly average of 12,000 or so made, we might estimate, then, that there were somewhere around 200,000 of them made in total. The Sno-flake was the only round, steel sled that the Garton Toy Company made.
3) There are two clear pitches sounding on this sled, a perfect fourth apart, and they are located in the same areas of the face of the sled that I put those two notes on my sled...
Random taps across the surface of the sled do not produce other clear pitches....
5) It is likely that the sled was used again as a sled and received further wear and tear and dents...

...what do you think are the odds that this is my actual old sled? While they are certainly slim, it seems that the odds of normal usage of a sled resulting in two distinct pitches in the same locations that I had placed my notes is even slimmer. But I am not a metallurgist. Nor am I familiar with the basics of chaos theory, statistics, or probability.

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