It is that time of year. The cusp of a new ski season. And Thanksgiving. Perhaps the Pilgrims made a few turns once snow fell . Perhaps dependable coverage in late November is what the holiday was truly meant to celebrate. Even if I am off the mark, there is every reason for us to make it so. To put winter's promise on that mental list of wonders in our lives for which we seldom take stock.
As for me, I can not fully acknowledge my gratitude for this core passion we all share without giving thanks to the man who kindled that cold fire
in me. It was my Uncle Phil, and I was a little boy of an age when the time between ski weekends was painful and the distance between seasons interminable.
First, a small hill in my uncle's backyard behind Bates College where you competed for trail space with kids flying on saucers. And then group lessons at a small local area with a rope tow that would snatch your frozen mittens. You would look helplessly, with stinging hands, as those disembodied mitts danced their way up the hill without you to the sounds of Petula Clark and the Beatles. After that a bigger hill - the old Sunday River. The one with a carved Viking face on the lift shack, and picnic tables in the lodge whose air was heavy with the smell of grilled burgers and fries for 75 cents. Ring Dings and Devil Dogs too.
There were trips to Stowe at a time when lifties would throw a heavy wool poncho or massive army surplus coat on top of you to snuff out the frosted air that enveloped your shivering body. With 10 year old eyes wide as saucers you peer off the edge of the National at a time when grooming was what you did with a comb and a brush. Pleasure and terror intertwine as moguls the size of VW bugs loom ahead; over the concave roof then down a steep windshield of blue ice. When you fell, and you always did, the ride ended at the bottom. Then back on the chair, with the wool on top, for the ride up. Maybe the Lift Line, or Panic Alley or the Nose Dive. It really did not matter. We just cocked our little wooden boards, pulled our Moriarity hats down over our ruby ears, and skied.
Then high school and the places my Uncle Phil rented at Sugarloaf. Every Friday evening from November to April we clambered into the Plymouth wagon. Listening on AM radio to Michael Jackson, the little one, and to the Carpenters, the singing ones, we rocketed our way through the cold Maine night towards the warmth of a fiery hearth deep in Carrabasset Valley. My Sugarloaf. When the lodge and Harvey Boynton's Ski shop were all there was. When in late April, you take some runs in knee deep corn then toast yourself on that broad silver, aluminum roof of the ski shop. No Carpenters on that roof. The Dead and Jimi and The Doors ruled there.
Winter inevitably melted into spring which meant trips up the Fire Trail on Mt. Washington for skiing and hiking in Tuckerman and Huntington Ravines. Up the precipitous Left Gully with ice axes tightly clutched by small hands. As a grown man looking back, I asked my uncle why he took us kids up this unlikely route for a family excursion - "somebody had to," he replied. Fair enough.
And all good fun, until a fall on the way out of Tuckeman on the Sherburne Trail a week after your 13th birthday. The day of the 1969 Inferno Race. Damn Marker Rotomats. The odd sensation when you discover how a tib/fib fracture can put your knee and heal in perfect alignment. And the odder sensation of that Demerol shot - of ceiling-mounted water pipes floating out the window. And a drab plaster ceiling exploding into a Peter Max painting. "Yes, nurse, you may now cut off my pants. Or my leg. Your choice." And then the oddest sensation two weeks later as I and my full leg cast stare out at a group of family and friends who stare back at me, the me in my Bar Mitzvah suit - well, double breasted jacket and silk kerchief "tie." Fortunately, we people of the "Jewish persuasion," as my grandfather put it, are able to read from the Torah while standing on one foot, which I did. It goes way back.
School and more school. And less downhill and more nordic, where you did not have to give money for altitude.
And then, most remarkably, a wife, and a boy, and another boy and yet another. And in our own time, didn't we all pile into the trusty Dodge Grand Caravan, the one with 235,000 miles on it. And we would sing "Stand by your van" as we made our way to Sugarloaf and Saddleback and Jay Peak and Le Massif. Places where our kids carved out their own ski memories.
And throughout this veritable ski life-time for me, my Uncle Phil skied on. Forever with the joy of a little boy skiing on the same small hill he showed another little boy so many years later. Skiing with a passion forged as a young man descending craggy white fingers into the palm of Tuckerman Ravine.
Then in time, as a parent, he fashioned his kids and me in his skiing image - snow plow, stem christie, then parallel and, the apogee, wedeln turns.
Even now, so many winters later, we still gather to ski as we had in another time. To see my dear uncle, on the cusp of his tenth decade, sashay his way joyously down the hill with a Hannes Schneider elegance and the frozen smile of a little boy is a cherished memory beyond measure. And I tell myself again, I want to be that guy.
As I write, on a bright, mid-November evening with a moon illuminating green grass that will survive this night but just a few more, I give thanks that my Seasonal Affective Disorder will soon be relieved by that frosty white medicine soon to fly. Soon I will hear that familiar clunk of metal against hard plastic. And I know that my first run of the year, and every one thereafter, will be dedicated to my dear uncle who made me a skier.
Edited by deliberate1 - 12/2/13 at 6:43pm