Chapter 7 "Learning to Ski"

Posted on December 22, 2018

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Back in Granby, I straightened my legs and locked the braces on Mount Holyoke College’s red rubber track, three miles from our house. “How far do you want to go?” my father asked.

“I’d like to do a mile,” I said, “but let’s see.” Years earlier when I’d run on the newly installed track it felt more like bouncing, but now my sneakers seemed to stick to the surface, especially the right one, humidity greased the crutch handles, and mosquitoes whined into my hair and ears, biting the pad of my hand just above the bone as my father started the stopwatch. Fifteen feet and I had to stop, then another fifteen. The first turn seemed incomprehensibly far compared the end of the tiled hall at Shake-A-Leg.

“I can get your chair,” my father said.

“No, I want to make it,” reduced to one step then rest, but determined to complete one full lap, 400 meters, a quarter of a mile. He depressed the button on the stopwatch as I crossed the line.

“Forty-five minutes.”

“That’s not very functional. I don’t know how I can be up fifty percent of the time especially since I’ll have so many other responsibilities at school like just getting around.”

“I’m not sure, but I bet you’ll figure it out.”

Surrounded by books on my desk the ringing phone shook me out of concentration.

“Wadds, it’s Bart,” Middlebury College Ski Coach. “What’s going on?” Last fall I hadn’t thought I was good enough for him to even notice me.

“Not much. Just enjoying the warm day after class.” Spring might come late in Middlebury, but the Falls were spectacular.

“I’ve got this idea, come on down here. I want to run it by you,” he said.

“Alright. I’ll head right down.” I quickly changed into sweats and a t-shirt to go to his office in the Field House, next to the gym.

“Hey Wadds,” Bart said, getting up from the other side of the desk to shake my hand and clap me on the shoulder. “Nice, you’ve put some muscle on. Looking good. Alright.” Bart sat back in his chair propping crossed feet on the desk. “So, I was out at Hood this summer with one of those development camps and the disabled team skied next to us. Pretty fricking cool. They had these guys in the buckets. They were moving pretty good. So, I was wondering if you would want to do it.”

“Definitely. I told a friend that I would be in a movie about adaptive skiing when I was still in the hospital.”

“Alright. So, here’s my plan. I talked to the Development Office. The Friends of Middlebury Skiing will buy a monoski for you.”

“No way. Really?”

“Yep. And if you want you can stay a part of the team, come out and train with us, do whatever you want to do.”

“That would be really cool,” I said, “I’d love to stay as part of the team. I’ll work really hard.”

“We just want you to be a part of what we’re doing. I’ll order the monoski that most of the guys are using. One of my old athletes from UVM coaches them. She said it’s the best one. Boomer will give you skis and goggles and glasses. We’ll get you all hooked up.”

“Wow. Thanks Bart. This is great.”

And with that I had a plan, at least for part of my life, because the accident had made me a dating outcast. Shake-A-Leg’s magic represented my only potential lifeline. I thought if I could entice Sara to their Fall Gala maybe she would see me in my glory and accept me, yet fear that rejection meant a death sentence I waited until it was too late.

As I concentrated on lifting my foot on a walk behind the track, I asked, “Would you like to go to a fundraising event with me in Newport, Rhode Island? Black-tie at the Rosecliff Masion, where they shot The Great Gatsby. My acting friends Bernie and Bobby will be there. You’ll love them. Harry and Susie are amazing. We can stay at their place.”

“When is it?”

“This weekend.”

“This weekend? You can’t ask a girl to a black-tie event a few days before. I’d have to get a dress.”

“So, you don’t want to go?”

“I didn’t say that. Let me see if I can get a dress,” which she did leaving me one assignment: move beyond friendship.

I wore a tux and white sneakers to accommodate my braces like Harry. Pulling myself to standing with the open driver’s door and roof I noticed marble steps without a railing. Playing crutch climbing scenarios in my mind I fell. Attendants and valets lifted me from the ground and up the stairs to a room straight out of Cinderella. At the end of the night I wanted to kiss and hold Sara, but I crawled into bed and listened to her breathe across the room, unwilling to trade my secrets for what I really wanted. My Shake-A-Leg magic clock ticked, and the sky grew dark as we drove north.

“Do you want to drive?” I asked, searching for something to say, then morphed into my father teaching me to drive at sixteen: “You’re driving too close to that car … Did you look before you moved over? … You need to signal before you move … You’re going too slowly to be in the left lane.”

“Do you want to drive?” she retorted, winding down two-lane roads.

We fell into silence. Finally, I said, “I think that we should go out?”

“Are you kidding? You’ve picked the worst possible way to ask me.”

“Why?”

“Why? Because you’re being a complete twit.”

“A complete twit? Really a twit? A twit?”

“Yes, a complete twit and you’re continuing to be one.”

“Seriously, I think that we should go out.”

“Seriously, I think you’re being a twit.”

We fell silent. Dashboard green illuminated our faces as shapes of trees caught in the headlights against the black sky. As we passed the Middlebury Snow Bowl, I only had twenty minutes left so I touched her lightly on the back of the head.

“You can’t touch me,” she said.

“Why not?”

“Because I said you can’t.”

“What’s this really about?” I asked, “I guess I really want to know.”

“I just can’t date you,”

“I know you said that, but don’t you feel anything?”

“I do and that’s what scares me. I’m worried that I could fall in love with you.”

“Isn’t that a good thing?”

“Yes, but not right now. It’s because you’re like this.”

“Like what? Like this song?” REM’s Superman had been playing.

“I am, I am Superman and I know what’s happening,

I am, I am Superman and I can do anything,”

“Like you know everything, and you can do anything”

As much as I wanted her to know all of my secrets, I couldn’t admit that I didn’t know anything, and that what I couldn’t do, would leave me separate and alone, and that the more I pushed, the further I veered from letting anyone see my vulnerability. So I didn’t say anything.

November stripped the trees bare, leaving naked skeletons. Angry winds whipped, but a December snow highlighted the branches and returned the mountains to life almost a year after my accident—the end of the semester—exams—Christmas.

Bart called, “Wadds, your ski is here. We’ll put it together and mount it up. Can you go out tomorrow?”

I had an open French Grammar book on my lap, a dictionary flanking one side of my desktop and Madame Bovary topping handwritten notes on the other. Dirty clothes, books, notebooks and loose papers covered floor.

“Definitely.”

“Good. A photographer wants to take some shots for the magazine so come down to the field house at about 8:30,” no one had wanted to photograph me before.

“I’ll be there,”

Sun bounced off the snow like millions of diamonds, fresh and clean as I parked in front of the ski room and Bart’s office.

“Check this thing out. It’s got a shock. You sit here and your feet in front of you.” Bart said.

“Wow. Very cool. It looks like a motorcycle without the wheels, motor and handlebars.” I said.

“This lever raises the seat to get onto the chair.”

Bart carried it to the circle beside the glass-walled fitness center. Sun splashed the snow-covered playing fields and Green Mountain backdrop. He held the seat and I lifted myself onto its nylon sling. We maneuvered my feet to the footrest so that my legs were bent at a forty-five-degree angle, the motorcycle shock just below my knees.

Using outriggers, half-sized crutches with ski tips on the end, to balance on the monoski felt like trying to stand one-legged on a ball, especially perched on a snow bank for the photos. The outriggers kept sinking into the soft snow.

December 17th, three days short of the first anniversary of the accident, everyone who worked at the Middlebury College Snow Bowl watched me strap into monoski. No one other than Bart had seen one.

He asked, “So what do you want to do?”

“We go to the top, don’t we?” They stopped the Sheehan Lift to load me. I sat next to Bart six inches higher than I used to because of the seat and held on as hard as I could. At the top they stopped it again and I squirted out of control down the ramp like Bambi on ice falling and sliding to a stop. Bart wedged his ski sideways against mine and pulled me upright. On the flat, wide trail I thought, “Just stay in the middle. It’s like making a slalom turn,” and I fell over. My body felt cut in half: the lower part wobbling in whichever direction it wanted. Bart picked me up again.

“Sorry, I’ll get this,” I said.

“Don’t worry about it. We’ve got all day,” but when I couldn’t even balance, he said, “Alright, let’s try something else.” He clicked out of his skis, giving them to Darb, Tom Buchanan, the assistant coach. “I’ll slide behind you and keep you upright so you can get the feeling of making a turn.” He grabbed onto my seat and slid behind me on his boots helping guide me in and out of the turns to the bottom.

“How about if we push you up a bit and you can try to make some turns down here,” Bart said.

“I’m game.” On the flat piece in front of the lodge I couldn’t get going fast enough to be out of control. Still I didn’t make a turn just pushed two direction changes with the outriggers making my arms burn.

In the van Bart said, “We’ll call Jim Martinson when we get back. He owns the company that makes the monoski.”

Bart handed the phone to me. “Hi Jim, this is Chris Waddell. I tried your ski today. How do you make it turn?”

“To start the turn, you kind of drag the inside outrigger to move the ski in that direction.”

“Okay, that kind of makes sense. I’ll try it next time and let you know. I really thought I was going to get it today,” I said.

“Don’t worry. You’ll be great. I’ve heard about you from a few different people. You’re going to be great.”

“You heard about me from a few different people?”

“They told me to treat you well because you were going to be really good.” That made the falling a little easier to take.

The first day of Christmas vacation, my family returned to tiny Mt Tom, something we’d do for three successive days. Ten minutes from the house, nothing had changed in seven years since my last visit. Mountain Manager Dave Moore said, “Here are tickets. Whatever you need, please ask.”

My father answered, “We don’t know what we’re doing, so we don’t know what we need.”

The place was deserted in the midst of a cold snap before the holiday rush, but the whole mountain was open. My father lobbied to start on the J-bar beginner area, but I wanted to take the old, fire engine red, double chairlift with wooden slats and barely enough room for two people let alone a monoski to the top. The kid lift attendant said we couldn’t get on with “that thing.” He’d never seen one, no one had. My father told him Dave Moore had approved it. The kid stopped the lift to load me and then stopped it again when we reached the top.

That’s when my world warped—not Dali with melted clocks and butterflies for sails, but Escher—unable to differentiate up from down, left from right. My parents and Matt tracked off the lift and slid to a stop, but I felt like I was translating a foreign language, parking a trailer in reverse and walking through a house of mirrors. Only the space immediately in front of me stayed in focus and only for moment. I couldn’t make it from the off-load ramp to the place to start my run.

When I finally reached them, I said, “Let’s go to the upper-T. Bart took his skis off and held onto the seat. We’re going to have to do that until we get to an open space, where I can try to make some turns.” The Upper and Lower T-Bars were wide, moderately pitched trails with no turns. A few years earlier, I’d learned to ride a unicycle by riding as far as I could before falling, a strategy I planned to repeat.

My father gave his skis to Matt, who said, “You mean that you ski on these,” inspecting the rusted edges and pockmarked, bone dry bases.

“Just carry the skis. I don’t need any commentary from you.”

“When was the last time you waxed them? I’m surprised they even move.”

“I’ve been too busy driving you two to races all these years.”

“Still, you’d think you’d take care of your equipment.”

“Just carry the skis.”

Matt hoisted them over his shoulder, exaggerating delicate movements and implying he could slash his jacket or jugular. “You should slide faster on your boots.”

“Who invited him?”

“You did.”

“I shouldn’t have.”

My father grabbed the back of the seat. Matt, legs plastered together, and skis suspended above his shoulder, skied in front mocking my father.

“Pain in the ass,” my father said smiling but loudly enough for Matt, who laughed with the rest of us, to hear. Then he fell to his knees crossing the T-bar track.

My mother watched in horror sure that we were both going straight into woods, but somehow, he pulled it out.

“That was almost it for both of us. My boots completely stopped when I hit the track. I was on my knees,” he said as we stopped on the open trail.

Because I only have control of the stomach, and corresponding back, muscles just below my sternum, my balance is poor. If I’d learned at a program, they would have supported me with straps or pads, but since we didn’t, I rested my chest on my knees to steady myself. If I’d sat up straight, I would have fallen forwards, backwards or to either side, reminding me of bamboo poles that broke during training, the red or blue tape on the outside providing the only structure when I’d first started to race. I flopped like that broken bamboo pole. As a result, I skied in a forward position, unlike anyone in the world, my entire career.

I fell every possible way: the fly swatter, where I slid on a flat ski until my outside edge caught, stopping me short and slamming me down the hill; the backwards fall, where I tried so hard to slow myself that my tip pointed up the hill and I started going backwards in the opposite direction; the wobble, where I toppled before I even started; and the brake, where I threw myself to the ground before going into a fence or the woods.

Mentally exhausted at the bottom of my first run I realized I’d thought myself down every inch of the mountain. I could barely speak the rest of the night, but my body had learned things for the second day when I took two runs, both about an hour long. By the third day, I linked turns and made it all the way down without falling, readying me to return to my ski racing friends at Berkshire East.

The reception couldn’t have been warmer. Jim Schaefer, my rival and the first guy to me after the crash, said, “It’s really good to have you back here. This is where you’re supposed to be.” He hadn’t visited me in the hospital because he hadn’t wanted to see me like that. Later he told me that he’d prayed for me and supported me the best he knew believing that we would resume our relationship and rivalry when we were equals. “Now, you’re back.”

As I pushed backwards toward the lift Frank Roberts said, “Does that thing flip around like a Starsky and Hutch Gran Torino?”

At the end of the day my parents and I rode to the top of the mountain. The light had gone grey. The snow on Big Chief, where the accident had happened, had been scraped into a skating rink dotted with square moguls. I slid until I hit the first one, changed direction and slid into the next. Occasionally, I looked up like a swimmer wanting to see how much further I had to go, then returned to an inch at a time. Emerging onto the bottom of the race hill I realized that I’d skied past the spot and it held no power over me.

Author's reading of chapter 7

My Middlebury Coach Bart Bradford started me in a monoski. Unfortunately, most of the video was stolen. Here's the full audio.

Bart Bradford started me in a monoski. No one had any idea where I would go. The start was the most significant part.

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