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.

Better Living Through History

“Your wife has something she wants to tell you.”

It was my Dad on the phone and he was heading off the island to do some errands in town. Action Girl had been at work on the ferries since early that morning and the wind had been whipping with gusts pushing thirty-five miles per hour on the water. Winter had arrived with a vengeance and the temperatures were in the teens. I’ve never been able to remember how to correctly calculate wind chill factors and to be honest, I really didn’t want to this morning. I already knew what she was about to say. It was hard to make out her every word as Dad passed her the phone, the white noise from the wind covering up her voice, but the sentiment made it through.

“Anyone who would willingly go out in this when they didn’t have to is INSANE!”

That might not be a perfect quote, but it’s in the right spirit.

“Don’t care! I’m going! You knew I was nuts when you married me!” I momentarily distracted her with a tale of something cute the kids did and then made my telephonic escape with what I hoped was a completely stable sounding, “Love you!”

What I was getting ready to do was not only go out in this Arctic weather, but also do it while standing very still out in the elements in a big, open space.

Oh, and there would be guns.
The guns make it all worth it.

It has been since October the last time I made it to the range and I badly wanted to go. The rifle range is where I can relax and do something I truly love. I find it calming, head clearing and most of all, really, really fun. It was going to be bitterly cold but I had three things pulling for me.

The first card I had was the company of good friends. I had gotten a message that an old buddy of mine was in the area and had brought his 1917 German infantry rifle with him, “just in case” we could carve out an afternoon to slip away and have some fun. Another friend who lives near by had asked about shooing just the week before. His brother wanted to come as well and that made a group of four of us.

My great uncle Don had a saying about boys and groups. His theory was that to find the group IQ, all you need to do was find the median intelligence of the members… and then divide that again by the total number of males present. This, I feel, can give good explanation of some of the stupidity of what men do when present in large numbers.

The second card I had was that not only my wife, but also both my parents tried to talk me out of it. It wasn’t cold out. It was super-nasty-bonechilling-find-you-dead-in-a-snowbank-come-March weather. Polar bears, had we any in the area, would have looked at the day, thoughtfully chewed a strip of explorer jerky, and gone right back to bed. I don’t know what a polar bear bed looks like, but I’m willing to bet that it was more inviting that what was outside. Well, maybe not if you’re an Arctic explorer. BUT, as we all know, there is nothing that can change a single, dumb idea in to a burning quest faster like having your wife tell you that you shouldn’t do it… Except perhaps having your parents say it to you too.

My last card was my secret weapon. My ace in the hole. And though to an outsider it might have just looked like coffee, it was much more than that. It was coffee in… The Thermos.

This thermos was made by the Thermos Company long, long ago. Longer ago, in fact, than I have actually existed. It is big, plaid, made of metal and glass and is proof that they most definitely don’t make ‘em like they used to. It had been gathering dust in my folk’s basement for decades when I spotted it on my last trip back home. It was sitting on a shelf, wedged amongst other bits of family memorabilia and debris and with permission, I gleefully snapped it up and brought it home. Action Girl was unimpressed with it when I got home and showed her my trophy. I explained that it was, simply put, “The best thermos ever built.” She pointed out the rust on the bottom and the spots where the lovely nineteen-sixties faux plaid painting scheme that covered its surface was blistering off from corrosion in places. Wounded, I hugged it close for a moment and reverently put it on a shelf in the kitchen.

In her defense, she had good reason to be dubious. I have a fairly reliable tendency of looking at my past through a heavy miasma of rose colored nostalgia. Something that I ate and liked when I was twelve, easily comes back to me as tasting of ambrosia and honey. Maybe I really did love what ever it was that much when I was a kid, but often in the adult re-trying… well… these things do seem to fall a bit flat. This time, the thermos was being viewed with similar skepticism. I knew better though.

The really don’t, in fact, make them like this any more. At least not that I’ve seen. Outwardly it looks like you’d expect a thermos to look. The cap doubles as a cup, it has a built in handle and carries about eight mugs worth of what ever you want to fill it with. What makes it different from its modern counterparts is the glass. The entire lining of the thermos is a heavy glass and once you seal it up, it will keep stuff hot or cold for ages. I remembered that from childhood and it’s why I wanted it so much, now as an adult. I recall both of my parents reminding me to be careful with it lest I crack the glass and ruin it forever. I was being very careful and now. Filling it up to the tiptop with high grade, freshly brewed, black coffee, I headed out the door with it in one hand and my rifle gear in the other.

My GOD, it was cold out.

Within an hour, I was at the range with three friends, several guns, a pile of ice cold ammo and numb toes. The wind was biting, our fingers numb and, as far as we could tell, we had the entire complex to ourselves. It was great! When one of us couldn’t manage to physically pick up new rounds to load our weapons, we’d run back to the car and warm up with some of the atomically hot coffee in the thermos. I think we all burned our tongues at some point that day. When all was shot and done and I was heading back home on the boat, I poured my self another cup and had to blow on the contents of the lid before it was drinkable. It was just as good as I had remembered it!

This morning I was cleaning up the kitchen and found a few ounces of coffee still in the bottom of my rusty, plaid friend. When I started to move to pour it down the drain, I stopped and decided to try it, just out of curiosity. It wasn’t hot… but it wasn’t cold either. Actually, I’ve been known to drink colder coffee than this when it’s been momentarily lost and neglected in a mug somewhere. I carried it to the bathroom where Action Girl was just exiting the shower.

“It’s still warm. It’s from yesterday.”
She looked at me, and then the thermos with doubt. “No way, Seriously? What does that thing have, its own reactor built into the cap?”

It’s not often that I’m definitively right about things like this and I wasn’t going to miss the opportunity to bask in being correct. Triumphantly, I returned to the kitchen, carrying it before me like a chalice to be carefully cleaned up and returned to its shelf of honor.

I know I have a habit of equating “older” with “better” and I know too, that it’s not always the case, but boy, things like this do tend to cement my faith in the items of the past. My lawn mower was made before my Grandfather was born, some of my favorite hand tools were from before my father was born and now my favorite thermos is older than anyone who lives in my own house. They’re all awesome in their own ways.

I hope that one day my grandkids can say the same of me.

But I doubt it.

*Siiiiiiip* Ahhhh! That’s some good, hot coffee!

Tree’s Eye View

“That’s crazy!”

This was put succinctly by one of the three of us as we stared up at the pine tree with a combination of awe, temptation and raw, unmitigated, pounding fear in our chests, thumping like a bag full of jackrabbits. We were kids and as such, mostly immune to things such as common sense and thinking about consequences from our actions. This however, stood over us like an enormous exclamation point of doom. The tree, nearly alone in the middle of a large cornfield, was flanked only by one or two others of shorter stature. None were close enough to touch it and even these mighty neighbors looked foolishly tiny next to the monster we had gathered around. Two hundred years ago, this would have been slated for a ship’s mast, for sure. It would have been back breaking work to get it to the water from its place in western New Hampshire, but back then it would have been worth the effort. In today’s world, it was the single, solitary support for the scariest, sketchiest looking and highest tree house I have ever, EVER seen. Even as a knuckleheaded kid, my brain was screaming, “NO!” and the top of its tiny, imaginary lungs and threatening to strangle me with my own spinal column if I put a single finger on the first rung of the ladder.

Actually, I was up against more than the simple urge to not fall to my doom. This tree house had several strikes against it and though not all of them were structural in nature, those particular strikes did tend to jump out at you. First, there was the most obvious; the height. Most of our tree houses, and we had many, were no more than fifteen or perhaps twenty feet up. The twenty footers were impressive when you got up there and made you consider the soundness of the construction just that little bit more carefully. The one we were looking at now was easily sixty feet or more. As I looked up and tried to gauge the height of the lower deck, I could actually watch the entire thing sway in the late summer breeze. I knew in the pit of my stomach what that must feel like when you actually got up there and the last thing you wanted was to freeze up when it was time to head back down.

The next problem that was presented was a fundamental one. It was a pine tree. Though we had all built forts in pines at one point or another, it was undeniable that they were the least desirable tree to pick. Not only did they ooze sap all over you and your clothes, but their branches just weren’t that strong. You couldn’t trust a pine. They might have been great for masts, but they stunk as perches for tree houses.

Then there was the ladder. Actually, calling it a ladder is giving far too much credit. What we were looking at was the poor man’s tree ladder. Two by fours, cut to about a foot in length and then nailed onto the side of the trunk snaked up its side and the thought of some kid, big or not, left me with a sense of awe. He (and judging on the foolishness of this endeavor, I think we can pretty safely assume it was a he) would have had to cling to the “rungs” that he’d already nailed up with the crook of his arm as he hammered on the next one with swift but careful swings of the hammer. It would have been risky for Spider Man to have pulled off. And speaking of pulling off… that’s all I could envision happening. These rungs were held on by nothing more than a few large nails, pounded into the side of a pine tree. It didn’t take an artist to paint a mental picture of one simply popping off as you clung onto it for the unexpected ride down. The tree fort had been there for as long as any of us could remember and the chances that the whole operation was rotten and ready to fall apart was an easy conclusion to reach.

All this… all these reasons not to go up would not have been sufficient to keep us from putting our tiny lives in danger. As a kid, you’re supposed to look fear (and common sense) in the face and jump, climb or do whatever death defying thing you’re hesitating to do anyway. Otherwise, the risk being branded a “scardy cat” or worse was very real to us and reputations like that are social death to a twelve year old. It’s gotten more than a few an all expense paid trip to the emergency room.

I knew we all didn’t want to go up, but we had to. Or, would have had to if it weren’t for one thing: the little kid / big kid Fort Hierarchy. There was a rule, unspoken but known by all when it came to tree houses. You did not ever, ever, ever enter the tree house of a “big kid.” It was a mark of respect and one that I never saw violated.

The cycle went like this. Little kids built forts on the ground. Anyone could walk through them and we did. It was to be expected. As you got older, you’d build your first tree fort. This was usually only just above arm reaching height and was rarely more than a glorified platform that collected dead leaves and the occasional own pellet.

Tree Fort

Then, as you got older, you would band together with others in the effort of building something grander. These affairs were usually fifteen to twenty feet up, had walls and a roof and some, even bits of homemade furniture. A few even became “super” tree forts, sporting glass windows made from old sashes, trap doors and even a bit of old carpet or ancient chairs. These were castles in the trees and I never heard of anyone braving more than a peek through a window or an open door, but even that was risky behavior. We had all seen how this played out in the movies and TV shows. The second we would have set foot inside to look around, the big kids were bound to come and catch us. It was a forgone conclusion! Nope. You just didn’t go there.

Later on, when the big kids moved away or went to college, the tree fort would stand abandoned and forlorn. They hung there like haunted houses in the air, turning green with rot as their structural soundness melted away. You never used them as your own. You couldn’t trust them and year by year, they slowly fell apart.

From this distance, we couldn’t tell the condition of this particular crow’s nest, but it didn’t look good. The boards that made the ladder looked long unused and some hung at a rakish angle. After the last quiet, “wow” from someone in the group, we looked at each other to make sure that we were in agreement and walked back through the corn to the edge of the woods in search of safer adventures.

I can still picture that tree and it’s little kid built, wooden nest perfectly. I could see it easily from the road every day I went to school and I always marveled that it stood there at all. Even the tree its self looked improbable. Then, one day, it was gone, tree and all. The land was sold and what used to be cornfield became suburbia. This brought other enjoyments but I always missed seeing that tree and fort, towering over us all.
I came home years later and deciding to take a walk through old and familiar woods, I made a discovery. Finding the remains of tree forts that I remembered building was no shock. It was the natural order of things. What caught me off guard was that there were no more being built. Nothing. No little forts in the brambles, no platforms in low branches. Just the rotting remains of boards that I had pulled into the forest my self so many years ago. Kids, it seems, don’t build tree forts any more. We were the last. At least there, we were.

In my yard, we have no tree big enough for forts, but we do have woods near by. Someday, if my children want it, I will happily supply them what materials I can and send them into the trees. It’s dangerous I know, but at least I don’t have to worry about that big pine. Out here on the island, the big ones were all cut down for ship’s masts a hundred or more years ago. Thank goodness!

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