Watching the Winter Olympics on television, I think back to when I was at boarding school outside of Boston during World War II and badly needed the relief valve that skiing provided. There was a hill, Big Pirate, about half a mile from the school buildings, that you got to on a trail through the woods. Paul Hwoschinski, a shy, thin, pale-faced boy from Poland, was always the first one there, having been turned into an Olympian by the first heavy snow.
I tried to catch up to Paul, once. He was breaking the trail, and the snow must have been a good eight inches deep, but he seemed to run on his skis, taking huge, gliding strides. Following him, I felt foolish and clumsy as I clumped along, falling farther and farther behind.
By the time I reached Big Pirate, he'd already taken his first run, had side-stepped back up the hill, and was ready to go down again.
I pushed off past him through the powder, making slow, cautious turns, and there was Paul grinning up at me from the bottom when I arrived. We started up the hill together, but I was only halfway there when he flew down in great, swooping arcs. When I reached the top of the hill, some other boys had come, and after we packed down the slope, we set up a slalom course.
Paul beat us all at that, too.
Sometimes, if we could persuade one of the masters to take us, we'd go to the public hill a few miles away where the slope was already packed down and there was a rope tow. There, we would race up and down as fast as we could so as to get our 25 cents' worth. Often the hill was crowded, though, and by afternoon there would be bare spots or icy places.
Skiing in those days was very low-tech. I was practically out of school when I got my first steel edges. Bindings that you could tighten with a clamp in front of your boot were something new, and even then your heel came up a little when you took a step. Parallel skiing was only for the most proficient; and moguls, body suits, helmets, and 80 m.p.h. were something in the Buck Rogers future. Hwoschinski was our gold medalist, but even he couldn't jump-turn his way down through deep powder.
If the winter snow held, and it usually did well into March, we would build jumps and additional trails on Big Pirate. The jumps were mostly packed-down snow, but there might also be a foundation of boards and cross pieces. If we were airborne for more than two or three seconds, we thought we were flying. The trails were steep and narrow and as full of turns as possible.
THERE were other sports you could do in the winter, but skiing was the most liberating: I loved the clean smell of the snow and the sweet acridness of balsam branches as they brushed by you; the excitement of being almost out of control; the joy of a soft landing. And afterward you skimmed back along the trail as the light shifted from reds to purples, fading at last into star-flecked night; the total exhaustion of having skied.
I never did learn how to parallel ski. After 10 minutes on a T-bar or 20 on an open chair lift, I had to stamp around for quite a while just to thaw out. I never did get accustomed to all the fancy gear, or fully appreciate the excitement of "Suicide Six." Dodging moguls all afternoon wasn't my idea of fun. I gave up skiing, feeling that the sport had become too much for me.
It wasn't until cross-country skiing came along that I took up skiing again. Everything about it was comfortably familiar: the way your heel came up off your ski when you pushed out; the snug feel of your boot; the ski itself, thinner but wooden, without steel edges. I had forgotten how much I enjoyed scudding along a trail at my own speed, taking the dips and rises in stride, breathing deeply.
When I came to the top of a hill, I might push off in imagination, following Paul Hwoschinski down the slope in easy, sweeping arcs. But more likely, I would just stand there, resting, leaning on my poles, taking in the view. One with the silence and the woods around me - senses a-tingle.