Controlled Fall: Chapter 1 "In or Out"

Posted on October 01, 2018

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“In or out,” my mother said when I brought snow, winter and our German Shepherd Thor into the trailer on the Hampshire Country School campus. At 5’3½,” the tallest woman on either side of the family, with waist-length, straight, chestnut brown hair and skin that collected freckles in the sun, she barely slowed to accommodate the bump that would become my brother Matt in a month. At two, in a navy blue, Communist-Russia-looking, one-piece snowsuit with a pointy hood, I said, “You need to put my skis back on.”

“Either learn to put them on yourself or don’t take them off,” she returned. The daughter of a dark suit, white shirt, fedora-wearing regional Coca-Cola salesman, she had babysat the six neighbor kids, infant to almost her age, from twelve. She sang Bob Dylan to us as we drove in the white Chevy station wagon with no radio.

My father looked like Abbey Road John Lennon—all hair, beard, nose and glasses. He taught emotionally disturbed kids with high IQs and he skied, having learned at seventeen studying in Switzerland to be close to my General Electric turbine-building grandfather. I walked on wooden skis with cable bindings and lace-up boots in the flat yard refusing to come inside until my fat cheeks turned bright red and my mother worried someone might think she had abused me. Mt Sunapee was my first mountain, but I didn’t start to race until we moved to Western Massachusetts.

If the night skiing lights hadn’t blazed until 9pm, most would have missed Mt Tom, barely more than half the height of the Empire State Building, but it became home to me—our little Austrian village facsimile of five cinderblock buildings with dark brown siding and red trim—smelling wax ironed into skis to make them slide faster in the basement of the Ski School, where we stored our equipment—the bouncy boardwalk around the lodge after I’d changed my boots for sneakers—the potpourri of years of hot chocolate spilled on a cement floor—covering my goggles with my gloves so that the snow guns wouldn’t coat them with a frozen film on the ride up, and the Boulevard where I joined the race team at six.

Each afternoon my parents brought Matt and me from school to the mountain, where were instructors. They had met in French Class at Merrimack College. During exams, my father broke my mother out of mandatory library study for her ski first lesson. Despite a burnt tongue from hot chocolate and torn ankle ligament that she discovered when she couldn’t stand after falling asleep back in the library, she stuck with him and the sport.

Rob Broadfoot, our coach whose dark eyes, bounced with excitement stood at the bottom of each course and said, “That was great. Really good skiing. Now try this.” “Keep all your weight on the outside ski.” “The upper body is just along for the ride.” Racing became my first ski lesson and introduction to the science of little movements having a big effect. My best friend Bissell Hazen and I imitated his brother and the other thirteen year olds. From them we learned things like humongous, sucks, lung butter and pig out, how to swear poetically and that if you ran number sixteen, just out of the first seed, you said you were Abe Lincoln.

Bissell didn’t attend the camp at Titcomb Mountain, where Rob had raced for University of Maine at Farmington. I met the yellow school bus at the Howard Johnson’s in Holyoke for the five-hour drive the day after Christmas, then followed Rob’s college roommate, “a really fast pro racer,” all week. Back at Mt Tom, I told my father “Bissell can’t keep up.” At Bousquet Ski Area, I won my first trophy, second place, eleven and under, then I qualified for the thirteen and under Championships at Sugarloaf Mountain in Maine.

Rod Stewart sang, “If you want my body and you think I’m sexy,” as I rode Titcomb’s T-bar under the March sun training for the Championships instead of sitting in fourth grade. An hour north, at the start of the Giant Slalom on Sugarloaf’s Narrow Gauge a kid from another state asked Rick D’Elia, the fastest guy in our age class, and me, “How old are you?” I said, “Ten.” He replied, “You’re not ten. They don’t let ten year olds in this race.” They did and I beat the majority of them that day. When they announced my time over the loudspeaker Rick said, “You beat me.” I’d never done that, and I narrowly missed advancing to the Championships for the whole North East.

Three years later I didn’t know if the little kids looked up to me the way I had to the thirteen year olds. I needed one more win to have a perfect six for the season. My speed built from the start and across the flats of the Slalom at Springfield Ski Club, but the tight turns and icy bottom pitch pulled me further from each gate and out of the course. Only one top fifteen guy finished so I got on the chairlift.

“You can practically snowplow,” I said to my brother Matt, “Just make it to the finish.” Two fifth place results catapulted him onto the team. The next fall the US Ski Team invited him to a regional development camp with the best skiers his age.

At my Junior Olympics rain splashed and a dark ringed cloud blanketed Mt Snow. I’d been feeling the pressure to perform, to gain equipment sponsors and in my mind permission to continue with greater expenses and competition at the next age level. We pulled black trash bag ponchos over our jackets with holes for head and arms. My mind wouldn’t turn off. How do you think you’re going to do?...Those guys look good…That guy has skis just for races…That girl looks better than any of the guys…Do you think you can do it?...If you fail you’re done. Water squished between my fingers as I pushed out of the start and my skis took off without me. I didn’t catch up until they stopped abruptly throwing me over the handlebars and into the slushy snow. Same thing second run.

The sun rose strong and bright the next morning. Perfect corduroy snow replaced the slush. Flat Mt Tom bred Slalom skiers because we couldn’t go fast enough to make a GS turn. I loved short turns and hitting gates. Arriving at the finish I heard the top guy complain of being beaten, but not by me. I slunk away, unnoticed. On the way home, at a deli just out of reach of the mountain I said from the backseat, “I could have done something there.” No one responded.

The summer before I’d gone to a Soccer Camp at Eaglebrook School, a spectacular place with tons of fields cut into the mountain, which had a private ski hill. Their coach Jack Jones had been featured in Sports Illustrated’s “Faces in the Crowd.” Over fifteen years he’d gone 177-15-11 and 66 games without losing. Kevin Coogan had scored 61 goals in a 17-game undefeated season and 115 goals over his two-year career for them.

With the smell of fresh cut grass on their Varsity field my buddy Steve Williams said, “Let’s separate by four so we’re on the same team,” and moved down the line of twelve year olds as the coach counted out 1, 2, 3, 4. Steve played in the middle with Billy Kuzmeski, whose brother Bobby had starred for Eaglebrook. Jack Jones coached us. I took the ball on the right wing, faked inside, pushed it outside and hit a shot that went over the goalie to the far top corner. I did it again and again, probably scoring forty goals that week. Our goalie Leroy, reduced to cheerleader by inaction, called me “Big Foot” each time I got the ball.

When I came off the field Mr. Jones said, “You need to come play for me. Could you imagine yourself here at this school?”

“Definitely,” I said, “I’d love to play for you.” At dinner that night I told my father.

“Does he know how much money a public school teacher makes?” A couple of months later as he coached Granby’s team at Eaglebrook’s Fall Tournament, Jones sidled up to him. “Can’t you just imagine Big Foot scoring goals from the right wing for us and skiing on this hill? It’s a long way from Granby public schools.”

“Do you know how much money a public school teacher makes?” my father repeated.

“Oh, don’t worry about that. We have money for kids like this.”

My first lunch at Eaglebrook, I listened to classmates talk about their yachts in the Mediterranean, but then we went to the soccer fields. Sharing the pitch with guys from Africa, Mexico, South America, Mr. Jones grabbed me, “Ah Big Foot. You’re going to play over there,” pointing to the Varsity field, “And you’re going to score goals from the right wing.” Suddenly, it didn’t matter that I was the son of a public school teacher from Western Mass because I became one of two eight graders, or Fifth Formers as they called us, to play on the Varsity Soccer Team.

In Fifth Grade when I’d slapped the standardized math test closed halfway through the allotted time my teacher had said, “You’re going to make mistakes if you rush.” I scored the highest in the school, but at Eaglebrook I heard Alex Wiegers, a tall skinny kid from New York City say, “I want to do a year of Calculus before I go to college.” I’d never heard of Calculus, let alone considered that I should do it before college, but I listened to him map out a plan and then hired my neighbor Art Morin, who taught a gifted class at Granby High School. Each morning my eighth grade summer I carried my black and red book up the hill to his house until we’d finished Algebra I. In the Fall I started Geometry and would complete a year of Calculus by the time I graduated.

If Mt Tom had been the golf course fairway, Berkshire East was the rough. No two turns were the same. The trails fell toward the woods instead of straight down the hill. Snow balls, golf balls, chunks of ice, divots and bumps instead of the manicured surface I’d always known. Closer to Eaglebrook, bigger, steeper, Berkshire East became my new home mountain. It also hosted the first race of the season over the Christmas Holidays. After eight years of thirteen and under, fourteen and over meant I raced against men—guys with beards and girlfriends, strength and power.

I started at the back with the rest of the fourteen year olds, except Jim Schaefer, who’d made the All-Star Team at the Junior Olympics. After years at the front, I had to earn my way back. The snow shined like a mirror with little crescents of ice shavings at each turn as I kicked from the start, surviving more than racing to the finish, still I had the fastest time for my age group, fourteen and fifteen, and won again the second run.

Later that week, the yellow phone with the cord that hung to the linoleum floor in the kitchen of our side of the grey duplex on North Street in Granby, Mass rang. Albert Arnaud from Dynastar Skis asked for one of my parents in his French accent.

I asked, “Did he want to sponsor me?”

“No, he wanted Matt,” my father said, and with that, the door of opportunity closed for me and opened for Matt.

The Eaglebrook ski hill’s extreme flats and steeps, boot packed, narrow and hand-cut trails combined with longer, stiffer skis made me wonder if I could still make a turn. Determined to tame the terrain to my wishes atop Nose Dive, I pushed into three big, fast GS turns to build speed above the precipice that gave the trail its name, then nose dived, landing head to ski tip, which sliced a perfect six-inch arc from forehead into my hair.

I’d gone over a year without finishing since winning that first race. Returning to Bousquet, site of my first trophy, I dreaded my turn to start. Pins and needles made my legs numb and weak. Ringing ears wobbled my world, and the stomach acid climbed my throat.

“Racer Ready,” the starter said. I leaned forward and kicked my skis back so that most of my body would be over the line before my feet tripped the wand starting the clock, and I felt like a runaway cement truck careening straight down the hill unable to even make the second gate.

“What happened?” my father asked when I stopped next to him and my mother.

“I don’t know. I can’t do this.”

“What do you mean you can’t do this? Come on, let’s ski.” I followed him for a few runs. “See you can do it.”

“Yeah, kind of, but not really.”

I sat in the back seat on the return to Eaglebrook. He said, “Maybe you should just ski for the school,” the moment I’d expected since failing at Mt Snow. I couldn’t speak without breaking into tears so I said nothing. They dropped me off resigned to my fate, but my mother offered a stay at the study break.

“You don’t have to quit if you don’t want to,” she said, “We talked about it on the way home. We know you’re trying.” Quitting would have stopped the pain. I continued to race and fall.

Between classes one day Stuart Chase, Headmaster, father figure and former Olympic skiing hopeful asked me, “Chris, where do you think that you will go to prep school?”

I said, “I’m not sure. Maybe Berkshire. A bunch of the guys that race USSA with me go there. I might consider a ski academy too.”

He said, “Just remember that you will only ski so long. Your success will be determined by your education.”

On March 9th I returned from a day at Berkshire East and my father asked, “What do think the odds are that you got accepted to Deerfield Academy?”

I said, “2 to 3?” My father’s college buddy Tom Lucas was there too. “Can you do that with odds?” I looked at him. “I’ve always heard 3-1 and that kind of stuff, but I’m sure that I got in.” Deerfield had a great relationship with Eaglebrook and I felt like I’d been accepted at the interview.

Deerfield Academy accepted me for my sophomore year. The next day St Paul’s, Phillips Andover, Hotchkiss and Williston Northampton did too.

My father said, “Do you realize that this is like getting accepted at Harvard, Yale and Princeton?”

Short of skiing, which I’m sure was in large part my fault, I couldn’t have been happier at Eaglebrook. I made great friends from around the world. The school opened new possibilities both in learning and for my future. Continuing at Deerfield, choosing education and proximity to my parents, allowing me to ski race every weekend, albeit on a lower level, made sense, but it also let me hide. If I didn’t go to ski academy, I couldn’t fail as a full-time racer and my asthma couldn’t reduce me to the most pathetic person in the group, but I couldn’t try for a kind of greatness that I’d always believed was mine and lay just out of reach.

At Deerfield, however, that belief, which had grown mastering each little movement on the Boulevard, took a turn for the mediocre. If you wanted to be cool you weren’t supposed to look like you had to try, and I had to. Each pop-quiz seemed to challenge my hope of “Being Worthy of Your Heritage,” the school motto. While I captained three teams, was a senior dorm proctor and school leader, the college admissions process shook any confidence I had for my future. Middlebury took a chance on me for the Spring Semester. Exhausted from trying and not quite reaching expectations I welcomed the break, but second semester meant I would arrive late for my first college season. I was in, but I was also out.

I spent the unexpected fall reprieve from school working in New York City for the law firm Milbank, Tweed, Hadley and McCloy in the Chase Manhattan Building, one block from the Stock Exchange. Jim Wallis, who had employed me that summer to paint buildings, clear brush and ferry guests to and from his Round Island, off Maine’s Northeast Harbor, where the bluest of blue bloods vacationed with the Down East lobstermen who said, “Ayuh,” let me live in his spare bedroom on Lexington and 80th. I vomited behind the Met the first two mornings that I ran around Central Park in preparation for the ski season because there was always someone to chase.

Visiting home one weekend, Matt, who had left Deerfield for Burke Mountain Ski Academy, picked me up at the bus station in Springfield.

“How is school?”

“I’m running cross-country.”

“Why are you running cross-country?”

“I didn’t have a choice. I was top six in the 1.75 mile run for the physical testing. They said, ‘You’re on the cross-country team.’ I said, ‘I play soccer.’” They said, ‘You can do both.’”

“It’s a lot of work, isn’t it?”

“Every morning’s three mile run is a race to breakfast. We lifted heavy squats before a soccer game because that was the training progression. One day we ran up the mountain and Chris Puckett was ahead of me. I could see him, but I couldn’t catch him. Each day you know that you need to catch the people ahead you on World Rankings. It’s right there for you.”

“College skiing is going to be my Olympics. I’m going to be an All-American,” I said.

“No one does that. If you don’t make it before college, you’re not going to make it. It just doesn’t happen.”

“Well, I’d hate to quit without feeling like I’d really tried.”

Audio book version of Chapter 1

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