Learning to Faceplant with Grace, Part III

A trick of the light, a moment of distraction, what ever it was, I did something wrong.

In a heart stopping, bug-eyed, “Oh CRAP” moment, I was cutting the wrong way; not down to the next flag, but into the dark woods. Back then, no one wore a helmet when they skied. It simply didn’t happen. We didn’t even think of is as being “wimpy” or less manly or any of that, because you just never saw it. You would have been just as likely to think, “Hey, no one here in the swimming pool is wearing shoulder pads” as you were to think, “Wow, no one on the slopes is wearing any head protection.” It simply wasn’t on our collective radar. The only time I ever saw a helmet on the slopes was during an actual competition, and even then, it was for only for competitive jumping, not slalom. We would have been as surprised to see a unicycle going down the trail as a person in a helmet. It goes without saying that my knit hat wasn’t going to do me much help in this situation except maybe keep the smaller skull fragments from flying loose on what was looking like a highly likely impact. For that split second, I was truly terrified.

Looking into the trees, I knew one thing. If I went in, I wasn’t coming out. Not breathing, at any rate. I was going perhaps thirty miles per hour or better, could barely make out the trunks in the dark and shadows and it was all unbroken, deep snow. Somehow, at the very edge of the trail, I managed to pull my skis up and redirect myself back onto the course and into tree free territory. I missed a bunch of flags, botching my high speed run, barely missed the coach as she rolled out of the way when I whipped by her at the finish line and came to a stop a short down the slope, completely freaked out.

It took me a while to calm down and let the adrenalin subside. Somehow, I screwed up enough courage to hike back up and make the other two required passes, but this time, my speed was horrible. I practically coasted down and I remember the coach being ticked off at my obvious lack of effort. I don’t think she understood how I, at age sixteen, had come face to face with my own mortality that night and the very powerful effect it held over me.

I didn’t make the A list.

I stayed on the team for a while longer but I decided that there just was no way I was going to get near that situation again, and the coach new it. I only actually raced once and, surprise, surprise, didn’t win. Honestly, I don’t remember if I finished the year out with them or not. If I did, it would have only been as a bench warmer.

One of the unforeseen side effects of my skiing this hard and pushing my self to achieve more and more ability was that skiing with my father had changed for me too. Skiing now, even at what I considered sedate speeds, I was far faster than Dad and outstripped him quickly, often loosing each other for an hour or so and cooling my feet at the lift line while scanning the crowds for his familiar hat or coat. The other problem was a classic catch-22. I didn’t want to ski at full throttle, on the outer envelope of my abilities any more, so I didn’t. But now, the slower pace and wide, meandering trails that I had enjoyed before, now bored me.


Image from Skiernet.com

Skiing had lost its allure. Other than the good company and the spectacular views, I just didn’t find it much fun any longer. I’d still go with Dad, but we went less and less as I found excuses not to go. I knew he still enjoyed it, so I’d go from time to time but honestly, I would have been just as happy to spend the time with him doing just about anything else.

When I went away to college, I mostly stopped all together. There were a few times here and there, but they were pretty few and far between. When I moved to Maine, I stopped entirely. When I was a kid growing up in New Hampshire, there was fantastic skiing to be had about forty minutes away and a half-day ticket was eleven bucks. Today, we’re more than a two hour drive from anything that could be called a real mountain and once you add in having to get off the island into the mix, you are talking about one serious time commitment. That, on top of a lift ticket fee that will make your heart stop and your wallet try and scurry down your pant leg and into your boot, and I just haven’t even been tempted.

I had been spoiled by proximity,cheap lift tickets and abilities that ruined me for anything slower than ludicrous speed.

Short Stack, on the other hand, hasn’t. This was being brought up to me again, first by my own mother a few weeks ago and now separately by Action Girl.

“I was talking to a friend of mine who’s taught ski school and he says that Short Stack is old enough to learn. We should give it a try!”

By “we” she means “me.” Action Girl knows how to do a lot of outdoorsy things, but alpine skiing isn’t one of them. I’m sure she could do it, but she has none of the equipment and, regardless of how rusty and neglected it is, I do. I’m starting to think about it in a positive light. I love spending one-on-one time with my kids and this would be a unique thing I could do with my son, at least until Lulu Belle gets old enough to want to give it a try. We wouldn’t have to go to the big mountains for him to learn, but rather the small, old fashioned, groomed hill near Action Girl’s folks house. We could even spend the night there and thus have plenty of time to recover before heading home.

Against my initial reaction to the idea, I’m warming to it now.

It’s been almost fifteen years since I’ve gone skiing and I’m willing to bet that my abilities have eroded quite a bit, along with the edges on my once cutting edge, racing skis. Perhaps too, my memory of what it was like to be able to fly along like a fighter jet down the face of a ridiculously steep, ice covered slope has faded enough to let me again enjoy a leisurely, weaving ski down a broad, open trail.

Maybe it will be fun again.

I think Short Stack and I will go and see. He’ll need boots, skis, poles and naturally, a helmet, but I’m kind of getting excited to try. There will be a lot to show him. How to snow plow, how to turn, the right way to fall down and then, how to get back up again. I anticipate a very long day with lots of snow filled jackets and pants. I think it will be worth it though, in the end.

And later on, when we are sitting in the lodge, enjoying our twenty dollar cup of American chop suey, I’ll tell him the story of Dad versus the T-Bar. If you happen to come looking for us on the mountain though, we’ll be in line at the high speed quad.

Learning to Faceplant with Grace, Part II

The things that pushed me into signing up for Ski Team were few, but persuasive. Naturally, the first was the social pressure from my classmates. I’ve always been more than a bit of an outsider when it came to my peer group and though I had pretty much convinced my self that I didn’t care and didn’t want to deal with the vicious circle that defined the high school hierarchical system, I must not have COMPLETELY convinced my self that, no, it didn’t matter what I did. I was never going to be “cool.” At my school, the cool kids were the sporty kids. There were exceptions, but they were darned few. Joining a school team was the best way to rack up cool points fast.

The second reason was my parents. Though they neither were terribly interested in sports either, they both feared that I was somehow missing out on an important part of what it meant to be a teenager. Thus far, they had let me amuse myself with the distractions of my choosing, but now, for whatever reason, they decided to dial up the pressure.

“You’d be great at it!”
“I’m not that good, Mom.”
“Sure you are. I bet you’d really enjoy it too. It would be fun!”
“I like skiing with Dad. I don’t really want to race.”
“He tells me that you’re really fast and very good. They could teach you how to ski like a pro! Don’t poo-poo it until you’ve tried it. I bet you’ll have a blast.”

Only after being assured that I didn’t have to keep doing it if I didn’t like it, did I concede and, reluctantly, sign up. The very act felt weird. Going into a classroom after school to rub shoulders with a bunch of kids I didn’t know and put my name down on a piece of paper that looked startlingly unofficial. Just a bit of lined paper with the words “Alpine Ski Team” at the top. After a quick greeting and pep talk from my now official coach, we wandered out into the hall and went home. It was still green and warm out since this was the beginning of the academic year. I had no idea what was going to happen from here on out.

What happened was the classic, “bait and switch.”

The guy who was supposed to be our coach was also one of the science teachers and well known for being the poster boy for the absent minded professor. He was very friendly, soft spoken, knew his subject… and was renowned as both oblivious and a pushover. My visions of simply going on school sanctioned and paid for ski trips melted away like snow on hot pavement very, very quickly.

On a fine, late summer day, I reported to the gymnasium after school with the rest of the team for our first meeting. There was our coach… and someone else. She was young, perhaps in her last twenties. She was short, maybe only five feet and a handful of inches and as we found out in the next few minutes, she was also, out new coach. The old, pushover whom I had been hearing about from my new social circle, had decided that he just didn’t have the time to do the ski team any more and that this lady here, was to be the replacement.

Her name was Coach Warhawk and she matched up with her name beautifully.

I wish I were making this up.

What happened next was some of the most gut wrenching, vomit inducing, and sweat wringing workouts I have ever endured. If I didn’t have a healthy aversion to excessive physical exercise before, she cured me completely.

We ran.
We did sit-ups.
We ran.
We did push-ups.
We ran.
We did relays.
We ran.
We did leaning exercises.
We ran.
We did crunches.
We ran.
We ran.
We barfed.
We kept on running.

It was… well… I can’t seem to get away from the word, “horrible.”

To be fair, by the time the snow started to mercifully fall, I was in the best shape I had ever been in my life. I’m not sure what kept me from quitting. I suppose because it seemed like such a waste to have gone through all that hell only to leave before my skis ever touched the mountain. I kept going to practice and she kept finding new ways to cause us physical discomfort. To day that my heart wasn’t in it is like saying that a victim on The Rack just wasn’t trying hard enough to stretch. All I wanted was out, but the chains wrought of teenage shame kept me firmly affixed to the table.

Finally, winter was upon us and we got to do what were signed up for. Ski!.. Sort of.

We lived a short drive from a variety of great skiing mountains and our coach had worked out a great deal with one of them. If we practiced there, we could ski for free! There is, however, always a catch. In this case, the catch was all about daylight, or the lack thereof. All practices would be held after the rest of the customers had gone home and the lifts were closed. Coach Warhawk saw this as a huge bonus. Not only did we get to practice hard without worry of other skiers, but we once we made our run, we had to then take off our skis, put them on our shoulders and run back up to the top of the slalom course. It was a practice and workout all in one!

Oddly enough… not what I had envisioned when I signed up.

My mother was right about something here. I was getting better at skiing. Much better. The other people on the team skied like suicidal lunatics with a speed fetish, which perhaps some of them were. The idea was to keep up with these crazy people on skis and I did my best. After all, we were going to be racing at some point here and the other team was likely to be populated by crazy speed junkies as well. I pushed harder and faster than I had ever done before. I wasn’t the best, far from it, but I was waaaaaay better than I was a year ago. I flew along on the ragged edge of control, trying to eek out jus a bit more speed in the vane hope of catching up to the front runners as the somehow slipped away in front of me.

At one point, many practices into the pre-season, I felt like I just might be good enough. I could hold my head up with the adenine junkies and claim to have truly tossed caution to the wind. I could ski like one of them. I had visions of even making the A list. The ski team’s starting lineup. I was getting into it! Then, I had a “moment.”

It was late in the evening and like usual, we were practicing at out after hours mountain. All the sane folks had gone home for the night. The lifts had stopped and the only thing running was our feet at they carried up to the top of the slalom run so we could fly down it as fast as humanly possible. We had been at it for some time and the route we took down the hill, winding between the flags had been scraped free of anything that could be called “snow.” It was glare ice. The only thing that kept you on track were the steel edges of the skis, which were practically sharp enough to shave with. At the bottom of the run was Coach Warhawk, lying on her belly with a stopwatch at the last flag. She was timing the runs and marking down the times. This was the data she would use to make her decisions about A lists and B lists. This was the make or break.

Time to push.

As I made it to the top and snapped into my ski bindings, I tried to psych my self up. I could do this! I ditched my jacket in favor of a tight fitting Lycra top and lined up. The course was poorly lit by far off flood lights that cast weird shadows across the undulating and scarred surface of the run. We had set up our flagged course on the edge of the trail so as not to be in the way of the other skiers, now long home and drinking hot coca and eating pizza. During the day, it made sense to have things crunched over to the side like this. Now, with the sun down, just making out the flags was getting tricky. Reading the terrain was just guess work.

One… two… three….Green light! GO! The little flags snapped by as I willed my self faster and faster, picking up speed and pushing through the course as hard as I could. SNAP! SNAP! SNAP! The flags went by and my edges carved deeply into the ice. Long shadows played over the run, making ridges and bumps hard to judge. I was going flat out. I was right out on the edge of my ability.

And that… is when I missed.

Last installment coming up.

Learning to Faceplant with Grace, Part I

As the snow falls in quiet, blanketing quantity on the already buried yard and roof, Action Girl and I scurry around in the kitchen in an effort to get food on the table for the kids before blood sugar levels start to droop and turn the light hearted laughing in the living room into maniacal cackles followed by periods of lavish crying. It’s always a challenging race.

“You know,” My wife paused as she got the various drinks ready. “We really ought to look into getting Short Stack into skiing. Reflexively, I grimaced a bit but then quickly conceded the point. She continued, “ There’s a place right up by my folk’s where he could give it a try and see if he likes it. It’d be good for him.” I tried to be noncommittal, but upon being pressed to define my neutral sounding mumbling, I agreed out loud with the idea. It’s not that I don’t approve of skiing or anything. It’s more insidious than that.

I’m spoiled. Poisonously so.

When I was not much older than Short Stack is now, my father decided to initiate me into a great New England tradition and take me alpine skiing. Skiing was introduced to American here in the northeast and has been enthusiastically embraced ever since. My Dad was really excited and partly due to his own enthusiasm, I was pretty revved up as well. I got to have new, never seen by me before, equipment and a day out with Dad. What could be better?

I actually remember the day quite well. After a short drive early one wintry morning, we arrived at the base of the mountain. Cars lined up in a snowy lot as kids wearing orange safety vests waved small flags directed us to our spot amongst all the others. I clambered into my red snow suit, was wedged into the most uncomfortable boots I had ever experienced in my short life and then tromped off like a miniature Frankenstein’s monster, following Dad to the lifts.

The lifts were, to be frank, imposing as hell. At the age of four, I felt that I had pretty much mastered the art of sitting down with out assistance, but this was a totally different situation. The chairs and benches I was used to didn’t move of their own accord on an endless loop and I rarely worked with a live audience waiting to see how I managed. We stood there and watched it for a while and then, just as I was getting used to the idea, Dad redirected me to something totally different.

The T-Bar.

Nowadays, we are firmly in the era of high speed quads and even fully enclosed gondolas. They might as well have mini bars and wait staff in comparison to the T-Bar. A T-Bar, and its slightly eviler cousin, the J-Bar, are simply a bit of pipe with a backless, armless seat, all hanging from a moving cable that zings along at a speed that seems way, WAY too fast. The biggest difference between a regular chair lift and one of these monstrosities is that there is no “lift” aspect to the ride. It’s all “chair.” Your skis never leave the ground but instead are used to “steer” you up the side of the trail, or in my case, to certain doom. They do build in a spring mechanism into it up where the pipe attaches to the cable, and this is intended to make your transition from zero to “Oh my GOD!” a little bit easier to take. For me, all it did was prolong the moment of impending faceplant so I could savor my terror a bit longer. My first attempt did not go well.

Neither did my second.

On my third, I hardly screamed at all. I was making progress!

At some point, with my snow suit having been forcibly crammed with roughly eight pounds of slushy-snow mixture from all the mechanically induced white washes, I managed to get up high enough on the hill to try out the skis. It was “go” time!

As it turned out, all I could go was about six or seven feet until my brain would take over and yell, “What the hell are you doing?!? You’re gonna DIE! Fall over now before you get going too fast!” and obediently, over I’d go.

WHAP!

I got terrifically good at this as my Father did his very best to dredge up every ounce of patience he had available to him. To his extreme credit, I can not recall him at any time speaking through clenched teeth during the day as I listened to his instructions, lined up on the bunny slope and then promptly fell over for no readily apparent reason. The good part about collapsing in a heap mere moments after starting a run was that I didn’t have to take my chances with the T-Bar all that often. One ride to the top of the slope was good for at least eight or nine falls!

We did this all morning and by lunch, we were starved, wet to the skin and both feeling pretty frustrated and we decided to let the cafeteria’s American Chop Suey and hot chocolate do it’s best to cheer us up. As we munched away on our lavishly expensive ziti in cheeze and meat sauce, I kept thinking about all those times spent flat in the snow and what I needed to do differently to remedy that. Dad, I’m guessing, was focusing on the idea that at least he was out for the day with his son and that was all that mattered. The skiing was unimportant. I’m betting that he thought about this looooong and hard, possibly repeating it like a mantra.

“Hey, Buddy. What do you say? Want to just go home?” His comment caught me off guard. Dad didn’t give up on anything easily and the offer, though I knew it to be sincere, was out of character for him. I actually found it a bit unsettling. Yes, I did, but that wasn’t the point.

“Let’s try just one more time.” Was the only answer I had. I wanted to go home, but it just didn’t seem right to throw in the towel now, no matter how snowy and ice encrusted it was.

We suited back up into our damp outerwear and after another pitched bout with the infernal T-Bar, I found myself looking back down the slope that I had grown to know intimately at toe level. Dad gave me one last pep talk and asked if I wanted to hold onto his poles as he went down backwards. “Nope. I’ll try by my self.” And with that, down the slope I went… all the way, and most importantly, on my skis rather than under them. The rest of the day, the two of us skied happily together and other than a few more flops in the snow followed by quick recoveries, I had it nailed.

As the years went on, Dad and I went skiing quite a lot. It was our winter “father/son” thing to do and we both enjoyed it immensely. I wasn’t too bad, and gravitated toward the wide open intermediate trails the most. Mostly free of moguls and as wide as a football field in places, they allowed me to get into a tuck and fly like the wind. I’d smile all the way down, hooting like a lunatic where appropriate. We were fairly evenly matched in skill, though I always seemed to have more of a need for speed than Dad did, but it worked our well. I’d bomb ahead at crazy speed, almost wipe out and then come to a semi-elegant stop blasting up a tidal wave of snow in the process. There, I’d wait for my father to come into view and once visual was established, bomb off to the next logical place to stop and wait. The system worked fine.

Anyone who knows me at all knows one thing for sure: sports don’t interest me in the least. I never played Little League, never tried out for track and field and simply never wanted to. It wasn’t my idea of fun. When I got to high school, as a non-sports player, I stood out; especially since my uncle was the head coach of the highly acclaimed school football team. In a moment of weakness I bowed to pressure and signed up for the only sport that held any appeal to me at all: alpine skiing.

Big mistake.

More later…

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