You will see from the outset how simple my idea is. All around me in a New York office are 97-pound weaklings who spend half of every winter week discussing stemming and schussing and uphill Christies. Also available are delicate little lotus blossoms (girls) who race out of the office on Friday afternoon, pile into Porsches for a weekend of skiing and return Monday morning red in the face and full of anecdotes about the ski patrol and the handsome instructors from Garmisch. All this talk relegates me to the role of the outsider, the bystander, the Milquetoast, which is unfortunate, since two years ago I won the table-tennis championship of the S.S. President Roosevelt, and that is not the only athletic achievement of my life. Not by a long shot. But when the ski talk starts up I have to shut up or expose my ignorance.
So my idea is to slip off for a week or so and, with a minimum of fuss, expense and bother, become an instant skier. Not only that, but I propose to accomplish the same metamorphosis with my three children, ages 5 to 10, so that they will never have to suffer the ignominy of being nonskiers in a ski-nutty world. We are leaving tomorrow, and I plan to make daily reports to show how easily one can lift oneself by the ski boots, if I may be permitted a note of levity.
FIRST DAY: This has been an exhausting and annoying day, but I am withholding judgment on the soundness of my idea until more facts are in. In the first place, the ski area is so crowded that we have been forced to lodge in the finished basement of a chalet down the road from the mountain. A nearby inn has agreed to feed us breakfast and supper. The cost for room and board is $80 a day, and I am assured that I am getting off easy.
It didn't take long for me to learn that I would have to make some purchases; the mackinaws, galoshes and blue jeans we had brought from home would not suffice here, unless we wanted to be ridiculed. When we went for our first meal at the inn we were stopped at the door by the patronne. She looked at the red rubber boots on the kids and said, "Do they have shoes under them?"
"No," I said.
"Well, won't they be uncomfortable wearing those boots inside?" she said.
"No," I said.
She didn't budge from the door, and I began to get the impression that something was wrong, dreadfully wrong, about wearing red rubber boots to a ski lodge. "Do you mean that you don't want these rubber boots in your house?" I asked.
"Well..." she said.
I marched three children back to the house, pulled them out of their rubber boots, tried to help them put on three pairs of shoes, found out that the shoes wouldn't fit over their heavy socks, took off the heavy socks, put on thin socks.... Then we all walked back to the inn in our shoes and enjoyed breakfast, while the patronne buzzed about giving us slantwise glances.
Immediately after breakfast we repaired to the stylish little shop in the ski lodge to make additions to our wardrobes. I was prepared to spend $50, $60, even as much as $100, to make us look In with the In crowd. After all of the children had been outfitted in apr√®s-ski boots, the salesgirl turned to me. "And now, what about you, sir?"
I looked down at my galoshes. "What's wrong with these?" I said.
She looked haughty and said nothing.
"Form follows function," I blurted. "They're warm, easy to put on. They keep out water. They're easy to buckle...."
"They're just not worn, sir," she said.
"They are by me," I said.
But on the walk back to our lodgings I thought I noticed that cars slowed as they passed us, and once I could have sworn I heard a man's voice saying, "Hey, Marge, get a load of this. There's a guy with galoshes!"
At that moment I had one of those flashes of anger that have kept me staggeringly in debt for years. "Let's go back, kids," I said, and led them on the double to the shop. I told the salesgirl that I wanted complete ski outfits for four, "everything that it takes to keep from getting us stared at." We spent $500. Back in our lodgings, I looked for the first time at the individual prices. My own stretch pants were marked $50, which is more than I have ever paid for a pair of trousers in my life. A few discreet questions turned up the fact that everything in the ski shop was flamboyantly expensive. Thus the first day was not a total loss, for from it I was able to formulate Olsen's law of purchase, to wit: the cost of sports clothes is inversely proportional to the square of the distance from the action, or, in lay terms, you should buy your ski pants in Tristan da Cunha and your skin-diving gear in Moose Jaw, Sask. Anyone who buys ski equipment at a ski lodge is either nuts, a millionaire or me.
But, oh, what splendor! as we walked from our chalet to the inn for dinner that night, having shot a whole day in fitting and purchasing. Bespangled with new parkas and chic stretch pants and handsome knee-length apr√®s-ski boots and headbands and goggles firmly in place, with each child utilizing his rented ski poles, we strode up the road in single file, looking like a page out of Vogue or Elle. Cars slowed again, but this time in admiration.
SECOND DAY: We awoke rarin' to go, and I addressed myself to the problem of lacing up four pairs of ski boots (which is the equivalent of eight pairs of ordinary boots, since each ski boot has inner and outer laces). It took the better part of an hour to get all the boots tightly laced, but it was worth it. None of us had ever experienced the fun of walking around in ski boots before; with their tight ankle supports, they gave us a power-mad feeling. We swaggered about the room adopting crazy poses, leaning forward on our tiptoes, sitting back on our haunches, with all the strain being absorbed by the boot. We dipped backward and forward and sideways, defying gravity, and we might have stayed home all morning having fun, but the kids insisted that I stop and dragged me away.
The day was wet and warm, which made the snow perfect for beginners, and we happily threw ourselves into the custody of our instructor, a wonderfully patient young Austrian whom I shall call Hoobert, since that is the way his name is pronounced. In less than 30 minutes we had all got into our rented skis and had begun the course of instruction that was to lead us, en masse, to the very edge of skiing greatness. The first technique we were to master was what our instructor called "shtepping around," and we did beautifully. He walked ahead of us, taking tiny steps of three or four inches; the kids followed him and I brought up the rear. "Dot's da vay," Hoobert would shout. "Shtep right along!" All morning long we kept this up. We were practicing at the runout of an intermediate slope, and every now and then some skier would schuss right past us with a superior look on his face. "Never mind," I said to myself. "A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single shtep."
Still and all, I could have done without this one particular skier, who kept roaring down the hill and slamming to a stop right in front of our single-file caravan, throwing up a shower of ice and snow like Bobby Hull. I felt like punching him right in the mouth; but I held off, as he appeared to be in excellent condition for a little kid.
By day's end we not only had mastered the art of stepping around, but had made a few tentative glides on the slope. Plainly, Julie, 10, the oldest, was going to be the star. She just hauled off and skied down the hill without any suggestion from anybody. Evan, 7, required some encouragement, and Barrie, 5, said she would like to spend more time stepping around. Modesty forbids a description of my own progress, but let me hint that I was not far behind the kids by the end of the first day. The important thing was: we were skiing! And those phonies at the office had tried to create the impression that it was difficult.
Late in the day rain put an end to our lessons, and that night I overheard an ominous conversation at the community dinner table. "The ski patrol will have a busy time tomorrow," said a man.
"Why?" said another.
"With this rain it'll turn to slush, and these skiers are out of shape. That slush'll snap their legs like matchsticks."
"No doubt about it."
"Did you see that mark in the snow today?"
"Was that real blood?"
"Yeh. But you only saw the blood. You shoulda seen the guy."
Getting ready for bed, the kids were overtired and strained and grouchy. Evan told his little sister, "You're too shy," whereupon she began crying and raced into my room.
"Did you hear what he said?" she asked. "He said I'm shy!"
Five minutes later Evan struck again. "You have gumby toes," he told Barrie. The predictable storm of tears began.
"What's the matter?" I asked.
"Evan said I have gumby toes."
"Do you know what gumby toes are?" I asked, stalling for time.
"No, but I don't have them."
"Gumby is a French word," I said, "meaning pretty."
THIRD DAY: We awoke to the friendly patter of raindrops. Skiing was all but out of the question; the slopes had turned to Wheatena. Skiers huddled about the lodge in various poses of annoyance. There is nothing so downcast as a man who has driven 300 miles, decked himself out in a lot of expensive clothes, given the boss a transparent excuse for his absence and then spent the day watching a warm rain scour the snow off the mountains.
Of course, the kids and I were too ignorant to know this. We sat around playing I Spy and Parcheesi and reading and relaxing from our rigors of the day before. Our ski instructor came by and said, "It's raining now, but da forecast iss for shnow!" Our hostess at the inn stuck a finger in the air and said excitedly, "It's already colder! We'll get a snowstorm soon." And a man in the ski shop said, "It's snowing in Chicago right now!" Since Chicago was 750 miles west, I could not see the relevancy of this statement, but it seemed to make sense to others in the shop; they oohed and clucked in pleased anticipation. It was then that I realized that there is an exact parallel between skiing and fishing. The fisherman is always told by the entrepreneur of fishing that they were biting yesterday and they will be biting tomorrow; he just can't understand why they aren't biting today. And the skier is told that the skiing was excellent yesterday and a snowstorm is coming tomorrow! The result is the same in either case. You stick around.
In the face of all the optimistic weather predictions, the rain only increased in tempo and temperature. At 11 a.m. a German-accented voice came over the P.A. system: "I hoff za official weather forecast. Za rain iss changing to snow later in za day, and za temperature iss falling 10° to 15°. Za rain iss only temporary." (Hoots, laughs and a smattering of applause.)
"Oh, yes," I said to myself. " 'They'll be biting tomorrow.' "
Off to my left, a frieze of skiers was holding a seminar, and I heard smatterings of wisdom.
"Sol, do you know a good psychiatrist?"
"For you for bringin' me here, and for me for comin'."
"Anybody heard how it is around Stowe and Sugarbush?"
"It's great up there. Forty-two-inch base. They're skiing there right now."
In my mind's eye I could envisage a group of skiers sitting around at Stowe and Sugarbush bemoaning the fact that rain had shut them down while skiing was going on as usual everyplace else. The snow is always deeper on the other side of the fence.
Various Sadie Thompsons vamped around the lodge in their true element, happy to be rained out. A few maniacal skiers persisted in skiing, some in aircraft-orange slickers. But one by one the lifts shut down, brown spots peeked through the snow, tufts of grass exposed themselves to the rain. A fat man stood on the lodge porch and did balancing exercises, left, right, left, right, feet firmly planted, gently rotating from the waist. "What's that man doing?" Evan asked me.
"He's practicing skiing."
"Why's he practicing skiing in the lodge?"
"Because he's a little strange."
"How do you know?"
"Because he's practicing skiing in the lodge."
I find that sometimes one can get away with such circular reasoning with children, and this time I was lucky. "C'mon," I said, before he had time to find me out, "let's walk home and eat candy."
FOURTH DAY: A miracle! Two inches of snow fell during the night, and the temperature dropped to 12°. As we walked up the road to breakfast, loose, windblown snow filled the sky and made the sun a silver ball. The pines and birches were freighted with ice. I said to the children, "Isn't it all beautiful?" The consensus was that there was nothing beautiful about it. The weather was too cold, and they wanted to spend the day playing games indoors. Nevertheless, I was able to talk them into a rewarding day of instruction with Hoobert, while I sneaked off for some tentative skiing of my own. I had given myself a good talking-to and decided that if little kids and young women could go up the chair lift and ski down the mountain, then so could a grown man with a background of athletic achievement. Looking back on my life, I can recall occasions when such reasoning had resulted in a broken arm and a broken collarbone and third-degree humiliation, but I never learn. I stepped into line for the chair lift.
At overcrowded ski resorts you are shunted along a narrow, zigzagging corridor of fencing toward the lift, and it may take as long as 30 minutes to reach the chair. During that time I began to think too much. For one thing, I pondered the lift chairs. They came moving along the cable, banged you in your rear end, then swept you to astronomical heights in the sky, 15, 18 feet up. For the first 50 feet or so the chair bobbed up and down, while you sat there utterly at its mercy. If you ever got to the top, the chair spat you onto a short, steep "exit" hill, where even experienced skiers had been known to fall.
"And suppose I made it to the top without serious accident?" I asked myself, as I inched closer to the lift. Then I would have to come all the way down in a rudimentary snowplow position, and I hadn't mastered the rudimentary snowplow position. I could get killed or even maimed up there. Not that I was afraid. Far from it. But I had reached the age where responsibility can no longer be shirked, and I was the sole financial support of three dear children. With such thoughts spinning through my mind, I decided to drop out of the lift line and live to ski another day. I turned to back out and looked into an impenetrable forest of skiers, ski poles and skis behind me. Even if I could go backward on skis, which was doubtful, it would have taken hours of bumping and shoving and excusing myself to get through that line. "Move along, buddy!" a man said, and I moved along. Now I was only three or four people away from the lift, and my knees were gelatinous. "Never mind your lousy pride," I said boldly to myself. "Think of your kids!" Scrooching myself way down like somebody doing a reverse limbo under a 10-inch bar, I ducked through the fence, fell, scrambled to my feet and fell again, got up and skied away as fast as I could.
A few hours later I ran into an old friend in the lodge. "Hey," he said loudly, "was that you I saw ducking out of the lift line today?"
"Are you kidding?"
"I coulda sworn it was you going through the fence," he said louder than ever.
"If you say that again," I said, "I'll kill you."
That night at dinner I found that all had not gone well with the children either. Evan confessed that he had lost control on the small hill and crashed into an instructor, who was upended in midlecture and dumped to the snow. "What'd he say?" I inquired. "Did he get mad?"
"No, he didn't say nothing. He just fell down."
A few minutes later Evan brought a perfect day to an end by rejecting the dessert. "No, thanks," he said to the waitress in a voice that reached every extremity of the small dining room. "Peaches give me diarrhea."
FIFTH DAY: Today the kids worked on their snowplows by themselves, while Hoobert took me up on the lift. We made three runs in the morning, and by the end of the last one I was snowplowing madly down the hill, shouting "Track!" and having a gaudy time. "Please," Hoobert begged, "don't call trrrrrrrrack! all za time." I moved right into stem turns, learning how to lean to the left to go to the right and vice versa. To be sure, I fell frequently, but one learns by one's errors. Once I got going very fast, while Hoobert shouted at me to stop. Surely, I thought, I must be the fastest skier on this novice slope. Just then I was passed by the ski-patrol sled bearing a loser on his way to the first-aid station. I slowed down.
In the afternoon Hoobert took me back up, and we worked on stem turns. After an hour or so I went into a turn too fast, brought my skis together too quickly and skidded half out of control through 90°. "Hey!" Hoobert shouted. "Dot vass a shtem Christy!"
A stem Christy!
I'd been hearing about stem Christies for 20 years, how much fun they are, how they are easy once you lose your fear, etc. And all the propaganda was right. One's first stem Christy is equivalent to the first time one makes a golf ball go "click" on a drive, or serves a big tennis ace or curves a baseball. It feels right. For the rest of the day no force on earth could keep me from doing stem Christies. Traverse smoothly, uphill ski a little forward; stem the uphill ski, shift the weight, bring the skis close together and S-L-I-D-E through the turn.
SIXTH DAY: I decided to spend this day with the kids and fight down the desire to abandon them and do stem Christies all day. As I laced up four pairs of boots once again, I noticed a drop of red on the floor. It was blood oozing from my hand, where the nylon laces had cut through. Finally all the layers of clothes were in place, and we mushed our way toward the slopes. This was the coldest day of all—10°—and a high wind whipped snow and bits of ice into our faces. All of the children were wearing goggles, wool hats that pulled down on their foreheads and up on their chins, parkas with hoods, mittens, two sweaters, turtlenecked long-sleeved skiing shirts, long underwear, ski pants, light socks and Himalayan socks, all of which left only their noses exposed. "My nose is too cold" became the slogan for the morning. Evan's goggles fell off, and when he took off his mittens to fumble with the goggles his hands became numb, and by the time I came to his rescue his goggles were covered with ice. Each problem like this took about five minutes to solve, and it suddenly occurred to me that there was no sport in the world where you have to fool with clothing as much as you do in skiing. Everyone is working constantly, pulling and tugging and zipping and tucking and lacing and tugging and pulling and zipping. You could get a good day's exercise just dressing for the sport. I am now inclined to agree with a friend of mine who says that no child should be permitted on a ski slope until he can handle all his own clothes without help. If you want the ultimate in frustration, imagine dressing three little children in all the aforementioned clothing, taking them halfway up a hill for a ski lesson and then hearing one of them say, "I have to go to the bathroom!" When this happened to me I threw in the towel. "Hey, kids," I said. "What d'ya say we go back to the chalet and play Parcheesi?"
"Hooray!" they said, happy to get out of the cold. I sneaked back to the mountain and worked on my stem Christies. Nothing could stop me now.
SEVENTH DAY: Rain.
EIGHTH DAY: Rain.
NINTH DAY: Rain again, and little Barrie and I made one last attempt to ski before going home. We found a patch of wet ice at the base of the intermediate hill, and she stepped around while Hoobert held her up. I couldn't resist some final heroics (we were in full view of the jammed lodge) and backed off for a run down the ice. Somewhere in midrun I discovered that ice is even faster than snow, but then I hit a mud spot and lurched out of control and into the nearest refuge, which happened to be Hoobert and Barrie. Down we went in a tangle of poles and skis and hysterics. Finally Hoobert quieted me, and we took off our skis for the last time and bade him farewell. On the way home, we ran into the inevitable snowstorm that I now understand always accompanies frustrated skiers at the conclusion of a trip. I asked Evan what he had learned on the trip, and he said he had learned that it takes a 5 to enter in Parcheesi. Julie said she had learned the snowplow and five words of German: bitte, danke, ja, nein and allo. Barrie said she had to go to the bathroom. All of us agreed that Hoobert must miss us terribly.
We began a course of instruction that was to lead us, en masse, to the very edge of skiing greatness.
We were rarin' to go, and I addressed myself to the problem of lacing up four pairs of boots.
Scrooching myself down like somebody doing a reverse limbo under a 10-inch bar, I ducked through the fence.
I lurched out of control and into the nearest refuge, which happened to be Hoobert and Barrie.