At age 7 or 8, I discovered skiing. Discovered isn't quite the right word, I had been hypnotized by the controlled chaos of Buddy Werner. How could anyone come so close to human flight, turning and twisting through feeble bamboo gates with an unseen abandonment?
My grandmother told me stories of "gently gliding" across snow-covered hay fields. Gently gliding, my aching ski boot! I wanted speed and total abandonment; no, I needed to be a rocket shooting downhill.
Several weeks before Christmas, I was given a used pair of wooden skis with "bear trap bindings" and a small card telling me I was signed up for a season of lessons with a gentleman named Kay Smith, who, I learned many years later, had served with the 10th Mountain Division during World War II. In Grandma's handwriting, the card was signed "Santa."
The kind and patient Mr. Smith taught me the basics, and I taught myself a multitude of bad habits.
Yet, at 12, I was a member of the Alpine Training School and learned to race. I soon found out my coaches didn't idolize Buddy Werner's technique as I did; they truly appreciated the silence when they told me to shut up about "what's his name." My hero was killed racing an avalanche; the world as I knew it was empty.
I became a ski-aholic. If there was snow somewhere, I was on it. Regardless of cost or consequence, I was going to ski. I bused tables, washed dishes, cleaned septic tanks - whatever it took to get that ski pass. I skipped so much of the ninth grade, I had to take an endless battery of tests to make it into high school.
My why-bother-with-school winter was filled with excuses and fibs about homework and report cards I had filled out myself. It didn't matter, I was skiing.
One morning, in Brighton, Utah, I was cutting tracks in fresh powder when a voice with a heavy foreign accent said, "On your right," and glided past me into the mogul patch.
Who was this "gliding ballet boy" who dared pass "the Rocketeer" (a nickname I carried with pride for many years)?
Into the moguls I shot. No attempt was made to turn; my only goal was to beat this "ballet boy" to the bottom.
Someone yelled from the chairlift, then another, and cheering was all around.
I rocketed by, screaming, "Move over pretty boy."
I smoked him.
I slid to a stop, spraying snow everywhere. My arm went up in victory to the sounds of cheering. I looked up to see how badly I had beaten this guy.
There he was, not halfway down, and the cheering seemed louder. Where I had shot through the moguls, barely touching the tops, this "pretty boy" was carving turns through the patch like nothing I'd ever seen.
The louder cheering was for him and his stylistic skiing.
As he neared the end, he picked one mogul and headed straight for it. Just as he reached the base, his body leaned like he was going to fall.
Victory would be mine.
He sprang at the lip into a forward flip and landed like there was nothing to it. He then glided - yes glided - over to me. Sliding to a gentle stop, he smiled at me and said, "Nice run kid. Want to try again?"
My ski-aholic days were over. I had a new hero and a new technique, his name Stein Ericson; his technique, beauty and grace on snow.