My Dad took me a skiing trip at Belleayre mountain in upstate New York. We lived in nearby Woodstock, and Belleayre is one of the skiing hotspots in the Catskill mountains.
My parents had grown up in Minnesota and could do most any sport that involved snow or ice. In those days, skis were thin, awkward, and longer, taller than my nine-year-old frame. We spent the afternoon with him taking off like an Olympian. I would snowplow after him down some of the hill, and then fall. Over and over. I couldn’t manage the damned skis.
“Can’t you stay up, for chrissakes?” He asked, as he reattached the skies.
I thought it was pretty obvious that I couldn’t.
Some kids might have taken the ski lessons that were available to beginners, but that was not my father’s style. I didn’t need no stinkin’ ski lessons. He was more a “jump in” kind of guy. When it was time for me to learn to swim, he tossed me into the icy cold pool at Bard College. I was a toddler at the time, and barely walking, but he got me swimming. It was either swim, or well…sink. Even in my babyhood I wasn’t willing to make that kind of mistake.
I never liked making mistakes, and I went to great lengths to keep it quiet when I did. Because I was sure to hear about it. It would get discussed at home. I didn’t want any of that.
I didn’t appear to be taking to snow as well as I did to water. I continued to fall throughout the day. In hindsight, it may have been an act of self-preservation. I had never particularly liked heights. I was growing up in Woodstock in the sixties and seventies which provided enough adrenalin, thank you very much. I can’t imagine that I would have embraced the act of skiing down a mountain at top speed.
Years later, I would date a housepainter who spiced up his humdrum life with rock climbing. He liked to greet new people with, “how do you get your adrenalin?” which seemed bizarre to me. My life has always been about figuring out how to relax.
Frustrated with my skis coming off every time I fell, my father had tightened the bindings. The next time I fell, the skis did not come off, resulting in me sprawled on my back, almost directly under the lift. One leg was twisted around the wrong way, with my two skis facing in opposite directions. There I lay, arms akimbo, looking at the ski lift riders from below.
“Are you okay?” Someone called as they skied past. I heard it as “Are you okaaaaaaaaaaaaayyyy?”
“I’m fine, I’m just resting!” I hollered. Hell ya’ I’m okay, Buddy! Just taking a little break here, skiing is hard work you know. I licked some snow off my mitten and gave him my best thumbs up.
The snow had formed a sort of an arm, so I could prop myself up on an elbow. I wriggled into a position that would appear as if I was simply stopping to get vertical for a while. Just take a load off. I waved at people as they passed. They waved back. Nothing to see, keep moving along, folks. Everything here is as it should be.
People in the ski lift were looking down curiously as they drifted overhead. It wasn’t unusual for people to have fallen on a snowy mountain, but I imagine the twisted angle of my leg was concerning. I decided to take preemptive strikes, and make the first contact to divert attention from my situation. My situation where I had made a mistake and fallen again.
I called out to a skier passing by, “Nice form!”
A skier who looked to be my age looked at me and slowed down as she passed. She seemed to be in control of her skis.
“Good job!” I called. “Can I ask, did you have lessons?”
She nodded yes, smiled and continued on. I was turning out to be quite the greeter. I was making people feel good. This would later reveal itself as another deep-seated issue of mine, that of being a people-pleaser.
Time passed. It wasn’t unusual for my father to disappear for a while. Even with his grade school aged daughter on a mountaintop. He could be talking to a guy selling antiques out of the back of his van. He could have decided to have a beer. He could be adopting a dog. I knew he would come along at some point. I don’t remember being in much pain or being very cold. I did wonder how long it might take for a kid to freeze to death.
It wasn’t the first time I was expected to take care of myself. When I was five, my father called my mother from New York City. It was Thanksgiving, and he wanted her to put me on the bus from Woodstock to the city so I could watch the parade with him. She complied. I was dressed up in my finest, wool jacket and patent leather shoes. I might even have my little fur muff that my grandmother gave me. My mother picked the nicest-looking stranger on the bus and sat me next to her. She asked the woman if she was keep an eye on me until we arrived at Penn station and I was safely delivered to my father. I remember the woman seemed bewildered, so I told her stories to pass the time and calm her down.
All I could do on the mountain was keep greeting the passerby’s. This issue with hating to be wrong was a behavior that would not hold me in good stead. I so despised being discovered making a mistake that later, in an art class, I accidentally took a swig of turpentine. I thought it was the fruit juice the teacher put out for snack time.
Those were the days of long skis, and actual turpentine and oil paints in children’s art classes. The days when everyone smoked cigarettes and drove without seat belts. We ate bacon and hitchhiked. Well, I never hitchhiked. I remember my Dad telling stories of how he would look for people to pick up, hoping that they wanted to jump him so he could work on his fighting skills. I didn’t want to get picked up by someone scary like him.
When I had swallowed the turpentine, I looked up and saw my friends staring at me, mouths open. Young hands holding paintbrushes and pallet knives froze in mid-air. People were ingesting all sorts of things in Woodstock, but no one was drinking turpentine. I thrust out my chin, and took another swallow, to show then that I did indeed, mean to drink that delicious turpentine. But that’s the last thing I remember about that story, so let’s go back to the mountain.
I had begun to tire of greeting skiers. It was getting late, and I had greeted most of them on previous runs. I was now primarily seeing repeats. Finally, my father showed up.
“Hi Dad!” I called happily.
“Shit,” he said when he saw my leg. “Shit, shit, shit.”
He took my skis off, and threw me over his shoulder. He skied down the mountain with my skis and poles in one hand, and me over his shoulder. Even over the pain I must have been feeling, I was proud of my father. Here he was, skiing like James Bond, with me, the rescued girl draped over his shoulder. I continued to wave at people as we made our way down the mountain.
Dad had always been really incredibly good looking, so much so that when my girlfriends came over they would giggle if he was around. He looked very much like Richard Gere. Strangely enough, my mother could never stomach Richard Gere. She had a gut level dislike for the actor, and would wrinkle her nose and say, “Ew, I can’t stand that guy…” when he would release a new movie.
When Dad got me into the car, he produced a bottle of vodka and directed me to have a swig. I did. And then another. It tasted not unlike the turpentine I would ingest later.
The car was warm. The vodka coursed through my bloodstream. This skiing thing wasn’t so bad after all.
“I’m feeling pretty good now. Want to try again? I bet I’d do better.”
“Um, no. We’re going to the goddamn hospital.”
I watched the trees speed by. Snowflakes started to fall. I sank into the sheepskins that covered the seats in the Volvo. Things were all right.
At the hospital, the doctor lit into Dad when he heard about the booze.
“Well, now I can’t treat her pain. Why would you give a kid Vodka?”
“He just wanted me to feel better, Doctor!” I called after his white coat disappearing down the hallway.
“Sonofabitch,” Dad said, and looked sad.
Apparently I got my not liking to make mistakes from Dad. Every time I told the story thereafter it went like this; Dad was tired of putting my skis back on over and over so he made my bindings too tight, and my leg got broken. Then he gave me vodka.
“Goddamn, Sonofabitch,” Dad would say as he left the room, shaking his head.
A plaster cast was applied. Dad left and then returned with my mother and sister. They gifted me with a stuffed Snoopy and a Richard Scarry book.
Downhill speed may not have been my bag, but I was Secretariat on crack on my new crutches. Alarmed teachers assigned me another kid, Maria, to carry my books and make sure I slowed down. Not only would Maria and I become best friends, but she witnessed the turpentine drinking episode first hand. She was also the friend I called at three am decades later as I announced in tears that I was getting divorced. Maria was tolerant of my many mistakes and loved me anyway.
I still don’t particularly like getting caught at being wrong, but I am more of a civilian about it nowadays. I accept my mistakes, I learn from them, we all make mistakes. But in my journals where I record things as they really are, I keep them organized in such a way that if I suddenly become aware I am about to be sucked off the planet I can press delete so no one will ever know.