Robert Barsanti reflects on his father, the skier. “Every other role was a costume he wore in order to get into the car and drive north to snow and slopes.”
I stood at the base of the teaching area at Bousquet Ski Mountain while my youngest learned how to snowboard. His instructor earned his money. My seven year old never learned how to walk with the snowboard on, and he only belatedly learned how to get up off the snow on his own. But in an hour, he learned how to slide down a gentle slope, turn slowly, and even spin. Afterwards, he finished his afternoon joyful and exhausted. I had passed something else on.
My father was a skier. More than lawyer, tennis player, playmate, guide, compass, or even husband, he was a skier. Every other role was a costume he wore in order to get into the car and drive north to snow and slopes. Away from his skis, my father stumbled into desks and chairs, blundered and bellowed about the kitchen and living room before settling at the dinner table with a sugary snack, the newspaper, and the sports.
But on skis, he glided gleefully across the slope in a long swooping arcs. We followed behind his gigantic Head skis as best we could, cutting the turns as close as we could, until he took that final turn off the bottom on Stagecoach Trail, tucked and finished in a long spray of snow. He would finish in a long plume, settle into the chairlift line, and light up a Newport.
Men have a dream of who we could be. We will never reveal the totality of this dream to anyone. Those who love us will only see the shadow on the wall. We will let slip inconsequential admissions, then pass those off with a self-deprecating wink or laugh. But in our hearts, the man that we could be laughs and dashes out of reach. Left behind, we think that if we got up earlier, if we saved more, if we stopped with the donuts and if we could only convince the wife, we could be That Guy.
For ten glorious years, my father was That Guy. My father entered adulthood in a golden age of America. In the late fifties and early sixties, his and his family’s dollars bought thousands and thousands of pounds, francs, and lira. As a result, he traveled Europe with his family and with his brothers, ski’s perched on his shoulder. Later, he led ski trips himself. He and his local buddies skied Zermatt, Chamonix, and the Italian Alps. For training, they would drive to Wildcat, Killington, and Stowe. His last European trip came with my mother carrying both me and a Swiss Fondue pot.
He cut turns as sharp as a hawk could. In his forties and fifties, he would slide on out to the race training trails and bounce off the gates as if he were wearing a bib. Further, he performed this artistry in a time when ski areas did little to groom or primp the trails. I remember skiing with him in a driving rain, when we would hop over the brown spots and ski straight over the ice to turn in the slush. Then, he would ski to the side of the stream of melting snow, lead us in tight little turns back up to the slush. His skis stayed resolutely joined.
He preferred to ski in the old school Stein Eriksen way. Free from his trail of novice skiers, he would narrow his turns to a tight wedel and cut down the hill in a path no more than eight feet wide He had two monstrous poles that he would keep out to his side, almost straight, point his skis down the hill, and then kick little breaking turns with trailing feathers of snow. In the best of conditions, all you heard was the flutter of the snow and the hiss of his skis. He only used his edges to stop.
My father dreamed of Bing Crosby. He saw himself hosting at the Holiday Inn, with a Manhattan in one hand and a open door to the cold in the other. Behind him, a fire roared in a stone fireplace, the table was set for twenty, and his family busied themselves behind the doors of the kitchen and the shop. Before him, guests of wit, intelligence, achievement, and money would ski to the entrance and climb the flagstones still in ski boots. They would leave their skis against the house, give their luggage and boots to his sons, and enter the main stage.
But then I came. And my sister, then my brother. An apartment became a house, then the house needed an addition and the trip to Europe disappeared into the pockets of carpenters and the diapers of babies. The skis got stacked next to the oil tank in the back room while he mowed lawns, wrote wills, and festered in crumbs and butter upstairs in front of a TV. Then, when we aged enough, That Guy returned with his Bing Crosby dreams.
Once a year, my father got to have that ski chalet. We would share a condo with another family near Quechee Lakes, VT. For two years, we stayed right on the mountain, so that we could ski right to the back door. Then, we moved further away, but still within eyesight of the hill. The Dean and the Rat Pack never stopped by for a song and a cocktail, but we were all there, in our ragamuffin finery. And that guy could ski again.
Vermont skiing in the seventies was a different experience. You had to scrunch your eyes and crush it a little before you could see the resemblance to Chamonix or Gstaad. First, snow conditions were notoriously ragged and questionable. Snow making was rare throughout New England as was grooming. Should an inch or so fall during the night, the owners may send the Cat up with the roller behind it for some early in the day cordoroy, but the rest of the day was spent in ice and drifts. Ski lifts remained slow and small. As a result, you could ski down to the base and wait thirty to forty-five minutes for a short ride to the top of the hill. Finally, our skis, poles, bindings, and clothes had a lot more in common with what the Tenth Mountain Division used than what we wear today. We toured YMCA ski sales for weeks in November until our makeshift equipment would survive the week or so that we would use it. For most of my childhood, I skied in too small leather boots that laced up on the inside, and then snapped on the outside. When I eventually bought new boots in college, my heart and toes leapt.
In his willing suspension of disbelief, we were at Stowe or Wildcat. We followed him down the mountain in a long whip line, following turn after turn, until he let us free. Then, he would ski with each of us, one to one throughout the mornings and afternoon. Or we would spiral off into our own pre-adolescent eddy, and he would ski with whatever family friends were sharing our quarters. I would go bushwhacking into the little side trails cut into the trees by other bored adolescents looking for jumps, turns, and headwalls. Late in the day, as we raced to get the last ride up the hill, we would put our skis together and downhill race to the bottom. If he hadn’t retired to the après ski buffet by then, he would take pride in beating us all down the hill.
The dream of snow animated my old man. Don Kent and WBZ stormcenter were required, silent, appreciation in our house. We would watch the red low marked south of the cape, the darting black line of storm front, and the tentative hash marks of snow and accumulation. He anticipated snow the way he would dream of a meal. The storm would be hinted at on Monday, settle into a possible stage by Tuesday, appear imminent on Wednesday, become a wintry mix on Friday afternoon, and fall as rain on Saturday. To my father, there were no sadder words than “The snow turned into rain.”
On one memorable Saturday morning, he piled all of us into our green Jeep Wagoneer at some ungodly hour and headed two hours north to Quechee. My mother rode with the flippancy and anger of a prisoner with nothing to lose. My father peered into the drizzle. “All of this rain,” he would say “is snow in the north country.” In the back seat we read. When we arrived at Quechee, the rain was falling in buckets. Lakes filled the flat areas at the base of the hill. Noone skied, noone parked. Like Don Quixote before the windmills or Jay Gatsby in the presence of Daisy’s daughter, the dream died violently. In reality’s final bitch slap, the lifts were running in the rain.
My mother’s role in all of this was to somehow tether my father’s Bing Crosby fantasies to the thin reality of the family finances, childhood inabilities, and the laws of physics. Before any one of these trips, my father prepared; he put all of our skis on the ski rack, brought the boot trees in from the garage and into the back of the car, sorted the ski poles and then sat in the driver’s seat. My mother was in charge of hats, gloves, socks, thermals, food, drink, gas for the car and amusement for us kids. At the hill, she changed us into our Oliver Twist hodgepodge, made lunch, and waited for a familiar jacket to appear in a ski patrol toboggan.
Holding the dreams of my father to the reality of our lives took both hands and good boots. And still, the battle could become Apocalyptic. In order to pay bills, my mother returned to teaching. In the seventies and eighties, you did not just return to the classroom. Instead, you Super Mario-hopped from sub list to sub list, school to school, until someone either died or got pregnant. Then, the $25 dollars a day doubled as a permanent sub until June when you got fired. Then, if you got hired for a regular position, you got pink-slipped each spring. In an October when my parents were dodging bill collectors, switching the oil burner off at 9 each night, and my mother was fighting for sub money, my father came home with a ski coat; a monstrous down filled orange blanket of a coat that must have cost over $100 dollars. She almost burned it.
She didn’t ski. In my early childhood, she would sit in the base lodge with a book, a cup of coffee, and some Virginia Slims. Sometime in the afternoon, my father would cajole her into a few runs down the bunny slope, but she would retreat as soon as she could. The slopes were his stage and she wanted to stay out of that show as much as possible.
Later in life, she would choose cross-country skis and the quiet shushing through glades of pine trees and open golf courses. The three kids followed along awkwardly, crossing our tips and falling more often than not. My father never quite took to the quiet gliding over powder. It was too slow and too private, but an afternoon invested on Nordic skis allowed him to spend a week in snow country.
Like all fantasies, my father’s ski vacation burned through the good wishes and kind thoughts of all those who loved him. Rain, mud, crowds, and hard feelings insured that we spent many afternoons in Hanover NH waiting for the Dartmouth pool to open or standing in line at Bentley’s in Woodstock, for Haagen Dazs ice cream. But once in a very long while, we would be skiing on packed powder at three in the afternoon as a snow squall blew down from the north and he could cut those long black skis through powder with his children trailing far behind him and That Guy.
That Guy left us. Eventually, we stopped spending a lot of money to stay in a condo while mud and grass grew slopeside. As we got older, we found ourselves enmeshed in other dreams of swimming and music. I suspect our last time skiing as a family came in my junior year in high school when we spent one last snow filled week in Quechee. After that, the hormonal storms raged, the money and his knees gave out, and the dream faded.
Like all good dreams, however, it was reborn in a new form. I went to college at my father’s old school in Vermont. Now, he could drive up and ski with me several times a season should he wish. With the kids out of the house, he was able to join up with his retired friends of the old ski trips and road trip up to Loon and Waterville Valley. His brothers joined him on other trips for senior citizen specials at the state owned ski areas.
Now, he is too old, heavy, and frail to ski. His friends have died or are caring for the sick. His brothers still ski, when they are healthy enough to, but there is noone to drive my father northward. Time, the greatest thief, steals it all. And skiing may have left him for good. He may, in the end, circle his surviving comrades, lead them to the boats, and push them off one last time, as Tennyson’s Ulysses did. But the door has probably closed, the arch has fallen, and the horizon is gone.
Sons are tasked with their father’s dreams. A boy either pursues the winged victory or is pursued by the trudging monster. Beyond denial, evasion, or triumph, That Guy lurks. And he looks a lot like the old man.
It would be a good thing to kill That Guy. He brought about more than his share of tears and heartache. He brought us all to Vermont in the green and mud of a warm February. He cost an unconscionable amount of money. He brought nothing to my father but frustration and humiliation. My mother fought against him until her death, and then was buried on a day when eight inches of powder fell. My siblings have successfully sent the skiing dreams into the swirling pipes of history. I am the only one of us who even owns a pair of skis, although my skiing technique these days resembles my mother’s more than my father’s. I am the only one left keeping That Guy alive, and I am not entirely sure why.
Then, I remember the look on the little boy’s face as he rode that snowboard. In the January cold, with snow on both sides of his pants, he hopped in triumph at the bottom of the gentlest of slopes.
Fathers have so little to pass on. We give them our faults and failings, a few of our gifts, and a hope that the world values the few skills we have for another generation. And, if I pass the dream of That Guy along with everything else, may he lead him down an empty ski slope at four in the afternoon, with a trail of children behind, and their mother waiting in the lodge with hot chocolate.
photo: docsearls / flickr