I’m the guy around the house who always says that ski trips produce memories, but let me whisper a little something in your ear: I don’t remember a thing about my last ski trip.
Something maybe about bad grooming and gray, leaden skies. Quitting after a few runs. Perhaps after lunch. Hell, I have no idea.
But I remember everything — everything — about my first ski trip.
It was long ago, and I thought we were far away. In truth, we were 2½ hours from Boston. But it seemed as if we were in another world. And it is memories of that other world that have kept me a skier.
That other world? You sat in the parlor and played a board game, and weren’t bored. Maybe you worked on a jigsaw puzzle. Mom and Dad were on the couch, probably with a drink. (It wasn’t 7-Up.) It snowed every night and you awakened to a fresh blanket of powder. In the morning there were fresh rolls in a common dining room. The waitress was pretty. There was a businesslike atmosphere — get in there and eat, and then get out there and ski.
It was Jackson, New Hampshire, and it was 1965, and it really did snow every night.
By day we went to Black Mountain and I stared at the little pimple of a hill hard by Whitney’s Inn and vowed that I would never be able to get down that steep, forbidding peak, almost certainly as high as Everest and probably more dangerous. The J-bar sent terror through my bones.
Mom had wooden skis the color of Manila folders, manufactured by Northland. She seemed very glamorous, and very accomplished. A Montrealer, she threw around with casual ease words like “snowplow,” which I soon learned was not a mobile vehicle, and “Christie,” which I ascertained was not a friend from her Quebec girlhood. My rental skis were red. My brother Jeff’s probably were, too. The boots had laces. The bindings looked like a bit pulled straight from a horse’s mouth.
But take this from the horse’s mouth: Our coach was Dad, himself once a skier at Dartmouth, though not one of those Dartmouth skiers who were on the cover of magazines and on the winner’s pedestals at competitions, gold hanging from their ample shoulders. He skied in college because it was after the war — no need to specify which war — and Dartmouth guys after the war, on campus with the GI bill and a few bucks in their pocket, were expected to ski. It was almost a required course. It was probably the only course on Saturday — and there were Saturday courses then — that was oversubscribed.
Later he would contract polio, and he and I would be at the center of one of the family’s great dramas. In March 1954 he was in Salem Hospital, down there in Massachusetts, being treated for infantile paralysis, two words freighted with dread and danger that my own daughters will never fully understand. Those same March 1954 days, Mom and I were in Salem Hospital, too. She was giving birth, and I was being born.
I linger on these details because they play into our family ski story. Dad never skied again. One leg was normal, the other about the width of those pick-up sticks that you used to get for your birthday and played with only once, and then threw them away, the game of pick-up sticks being senseless. But on that skinny leg a ski tradition was born.
Dad would have us ski, because that was what Montreal Mom had done, that was what his brother had done, and that was what he had done. What he had done until he was basically done for, skiing wise.
Dad would tell the story about the brave 11-year-old who now is typing this essay who quaked at the sight of Whitney’s Hill, and he would use it as a lesson: You can look at heights you cannot conceive conquering, and then you would conquer them, and then you would move to the next height. It was a lesson we learned. It was a lesson we lived, mostly.
As the years went by, we continued to ski, and Dad was always there. He brought the lunch. Later we realized that his ski respite was something he treasured: a few morning hours when the four of his kids and his wife (and later those in-laws) were gone, gone, gone, and he could luxuriate in the quiet. Then he would troop to the mountain with a giant picnic basket, watch us devour leftover chicken and then retreat once again for an afternoon of quiet, or maybe an an afternoon NHL game. Maybe the Bruins against the Canadiens.
I don’t remember much about my last ski outing, apart from the flat light and my desire to get the hell off the hill before I got hurt. I remember hardly any of it. But that first ski outing? I remember every detail. But mostly I remember the man who wanted us to ski even though he could not. You hear about soccer moms all the time. Good for them. But I’m tipping my toque to my skiing Dad.
Never did he stand so tall than on those long white afternoons when he could not stand on skis.