Everyone who lives in Vermont has memories of some small hill, or some big hill, they used to slide on during the winters of their youth. Sliding and skiing were about the only things that got me through the winters in the 50’s and 60’s. There were hills and of course there were logging roads on those hills to tackle. There were fields down the road, and the very minor incline on our lawn that qualified as a hill until I was a bit older. I remember the single-bulb outdoor light my mother would turn on at dusk. It was next to the kitchen door and lit up the stone steps down to the driveway. There was a dim, but bright enough glow onto the lawn. I remember going out after supper and spending hours walking up and down the little hill, just to sit on my sled for the 5 to 8 second ride. My mother would look out the kitchen window now and then to make sure there was still movement out there.
I had a great imagination and always thought I could jump my sled or cardboard box further than anyone else. I’d grab a shovel and make a mound with a flat edge to fly off. Now and then I’d clank my teeth together and wonder if I’d broken any of them, and sometimes I’d just lay there at the bottom and think about what I’d need to improve my distance. Maybe if I could come up with some special wax and put it on the sled runners or the single ski that was nailed with spikes to the bottom of a log chunk and topped off with a board from some torn down structure. Dad called that a jump-jack and told me about how he was a champion rider among his friends when he was my age. His jump-jack was made from a barrel stave nailed to a log chunk with a piece of board to sit on. He demonstrated the technique, held me upright on the seat, gave me a push, and watched me fall a few times before going into the house for his evening cup of coffee. I tried over and over to master the short trip from the top of the hill to the flat at the bottom, but I kept returning to the sled or the piece of card board that were easier not to fall off.
I began really feeling challenged on the lawn when a neighbor, who used to work at the Okemo Mountain Ski Area, brought home a pair of mismatched skis that he salvaged from broken rentals. The skis had a number on the tip of each one, and I remember either 56 or 58 being visible. It was probably to do with the length of the skis. They had the old cable bindings that pulled up on your heel and pushed your toe into a set of steel pieces set to the width of your boot. Each ski may have been manufactured by a different company but they were basically the same length and width so they worked great for me. The poles had metal rings held on by leather straps. I loved them. I also fell a number of times and broke a few skis myself, but my father would ask the neighbor if he might get a replacement from the mountain that some unfortunate skier had broken on the “real” ski trails.
My learning expanded the night I first watched the news on our one channel television. At the end of each broadcast there was a reporter who gave diagramed ski lessons, showing different turns one could make while coming down a professionally groomed slope. I sat quietly and waited with great anticipation to hear the lesson. George Ouellette, the Weatherman on Channel 8, would narrate every move and show how to shift your weight and force the skis to carve a turn. I was so excited to get out there in the outdoor light and put on those skis to finally make crooked tracks down the lawn. I can remember falling many times and thinking, “I’m getting closer to success.” Finally one night I made the first turn and then a few nights later I made two in a row. I woke up the next morning, looked out my bedroom window at the tracks I made the night before, and smiled at the crooked little parallel grooves on the hill.
I got older and better at skiing on the hills and fields around my home. The older I got, the bigger the dreams and ideas got. I was an avid Olympics watcher on TV, and the ski jumpers were my favorite. It seemed like it would be the biggest thrill to fly in the air on a pair of skis. I made my own jumps in different places. I had a small one on the lawn and a little larger one in a neighbor’s field and then I made the ultimate 4 foot high snow jump on a trail I had constructed at Dean’s farm, a mile from my house. I had many successful jumps from that one, and some over 50 feet.
One particular night there was a slight thaw and a misty rain. I imagined how fast the trail would be and I’d be able to get a huge distance from the extra icy coating on the jump. I carried my skis all the way to the field on my shoulders. It was a big hill and the trail had been packed from the last time I’d been there. I tried walking up the hill in a herring bone style with my skis out, but it was too slippery. My friend David had come along to watch me jump, as he’d seen me jump a number of times and seemed impressed at my ability and daring. I told him to lay down right next to the jump and watch me fly over his head. I put my skis on at the top and held myself back with my poles. My skis were sliding side to side on the ice and were hard to keep parallel. I yelled down to David to let him know I was on my way. He ducked down and I pushed off. I kept concentrating on keeping the skis straight and decided to throw my body weight forward at the last second on the jump, to give me an extra boost. I remember flinging myself into the air, heading out about 10 feet and diving right into the rut-filled surface of the icy landing area. I rolled and slid in many directions at once, my legs tangling around each other as my head bounced off every imbedded rut and frozen foot print in my path. I came to rest yelling for help to unhook my bindings. There were no safety features on the skis, they were made to stay in place, no matter what kind of accident you had. David was laughing hysterically and shouting, “Boy you should have seen yourself! No flying, but some wicked funny bouncing and spinning on the ice!”
I kept my focus and repeated at top volume, “Take these skis off, my legs feel broken!” He took them off and I remember hardly being able to walk or even limp. David finally figured out a way to hook the straps to the bindings as I lay on the skis so he could drag me. On our way home we stopped at one of the neighbors who had a vacation house. The older daughter was there for the weekend and she was a nurse. We arrived like a medic hauling a war casualty. She came outside and asked what had happened. We told her I’d fallen while ski jumping. She found a few band aids and some gauze to wash off my scrapes, and by then I felt able to walk and carried my skis the rest of the way home.
When I finally got home, I remember my mother asking what the hell had happened and I played it down to simply, “I fell on the jump and got banged up a little.” It was the end of skiing for the day but not the end of my ambition to be a great ski jumper someday. I kept working on building bigger jumps and dreaming about getting that 100 foot distance.
(c) Rick Wyman