Friday, October 29, 2010

Water When You Don't Want It

Mid-City YWCA in 1954 (before I was born)
As I've stated earlier in my blog posts, I grew up in a swimming family. This was made possible in part by my swimming instructor mother.  But since she worked at the YWCA in downtown Philly, we had a number of advantages made possible by the Y. Swimming was just one. My mother was always scanning the Y class list, looking for things that I might want to take. They included judo, aikido, French, and fencing. I can't remember if I took French before or after fencing, but I do remember that my fencing teacher was French and I couldn't understand a word the guy said. But since he was holding a long pointy stick and was better at wielding it than I was, I paid more attention to him than any other teacher in my life. No drifting off in this guy's class.

But the other class or really group activity at the Y that we availed ourselves of was the ski club. Now being an African American kid on the ski slopes in the late 60's and early 70's meant that I was more than a minority - I was a super minority. I could have worn a cape. I was so rare on the ski slopes that the only way I could have been more of a minority was if I came down the slopes playing hockey and carrying a golf club... wearing a yarmulke. Unbeknownst to me at the time, I probably caused a few cases of whiplash. “Whoa, is that kid lost?”

We didn't go skiing every weekend in the winter. We couldn't afford it. Even back then skiing was expensive. There were the lift tickets, the rental of boots, skis and poles, then the gas to drive from the city to what ever northeast ski resort was within a 4 hour radius. The closer the better. People don't generally think of New Jersey as a Mecca of downhill skiing - and it isn't. Think Atlantic City with a vertical drop; a small vertical drop. Those aren’t bare patches, those are top soil pylons; this is the Garden State. Just go around ‘em!

From about age 10 to 13, five or six times a year I would go with my mom on YWCA ski group trips to Elk Mountain, PA, Big Bear, NY, or some cheesy hill in New Jersey. Hey, if we could afford it, we would go. Sometimes I would go without her, just me and some kind woman skier from the Y. And at that age I didn't even care that I was spending the day with a cute single young woman with a car. All I cared about was going down hill fast, catching some air on the moguls, and doing it as many times as I could before the time and the calories from my multiple flattened peanut butter and jelly sandwiches ran out.

I stopped skiing when I was 13 because... who knows why. Perhaps it was because my mother stopped working at the Y and dropped down from working two jobs to just working at her full-time school district social work job. Perhaps it was because my interests drifted to skateboarding, or math & science, or swimming. Or perhaps it was because I was more interested in paying attention to all the girls who were ignoring me. One of those.

I didn't ski again until I was 17. I was a senior in high school and on the swim team. The competitive swim season was coming to a close in the spring and I had serious senior-itis. That was when the announcement came down that the senior trip for my predominantly black high school was going to be a day on the ski slopes. This will be something new they'll remember, I'm sure the administration thought. We went to a hill that didn't have a noble animal name like Elk or Bear. It was in the Pocono mountains – the Alps of the Keystone State. Now if one wouldn’t necessarily consider Pennsylvania the Mecca of skiing, then Pennsylvania in April is like the anti-Mecca. Picnics perhaps – but skiing?  Not so much.   I wouldn't call it snow that was on the ground. There were rocks, there was slush, and there was water. We could have done some chilly laps in the pond at the bottom of the only active slope on the hill. Strange that they had a pond in front of the ski lodge. Was it always there? If we were smart, that would have been a red flag.

Imagine a couple bus loads of black teenagers from the city, at the base of a mountain of barely frozen water, getting fitted for boots and skis. "Hey, has anybody ever done this before? I never skied before. How do you walk in these things." Keep your mouth shut, Kevin. You're just the geek that swims. That's how they know you. Just be cool. Ok, perhaps you could just suggest one thing… "Try carrying the skies until you get to the snow."

(not me)
Imagine two bus loads of black teenagers on a rope tow for the first time. I've seen WWII movies with less carnage. Bodies all up and down the slope.

"Kevin, you ever done this before?"

"Yeah, a couple times, a long time ago. It's been years, really. So long ago that I doubt I remember how."

That was the juiciest half lie I had ever told. It's true that it had been years - about 4. Did I remember how to ski? Hell yeah! What's to forget? Stand up, point the skies down hill, snowplow all the way down with a little Jean-Claude Killy ain’t-no-big-thang slide turn at the bottom. Hell yeah! "Hey, Kevin's skiing!" It took an hour to get back up through the rope tow carnage and down I went again, with two bus loads of classmates staring at me, the geek. Now it is true that the cooler and more athletic of my classmates did eventually get it. And hats off to them for learning to snow ski in a downhill water ski zone. But I was the only student who really knew how. True, I discovered that I wasn't the only person who knew how. I think it was an assistant principal who went down faster than lightening. Clearly he was one of those noble animal ski slope people who actually pay real money to ski in the winter – on actual snow.

Since high school I've only skied once or twice. It's fun, but just way too expensive. When I finished grad school and got a job, I took my kids skiing for a day. Spent a fortune! More than I had ever spent on an outing with them. I recently saw an ad for a masters swim club in my area, where you pay for a membership for 4 months at a time. Each 4 month period costs the same as taking my kids skiing for just 3 days. Damn that’s a lot of money! And it’s just for me.  But sorry kids, this one I might do. So if you want to ski again, start saving!

It's not a magic toboggan.  Come back
 in the winter when there's snow.