I could hardly believe it. More than a year had passed and it had once again been time for the annual company ski trip to the Pocono Mountains. Unlike last year, almost everyone had decided to go the night before and stay in the same hotel, getting a full night’s sleep and reaching the slopes early, without getting lost on the way. Or so I thought. Although Sidonie had intended to join us the previous year, her excessive amount of alter-names had proven too many to fit on the invitation and she had therefore stayed home. This year she had been asked verbally. But perhaps the greatest difference between the two years is that this time I would attempt to ski, an experience, I must admit, I greatly looked forward to–with as much enthusiasm as root canal therapy without Novocain.
Having been the first to make the almost three-hour drive, I approached Mount Pocono shortly before 7:00 p.m., seeing the sun, low on the western horizon, cast a soft, yellow glow through the ubiquitous, bare, brown trees on the snow-devoid mountains. Wait, I thought, no snow meant no ski. The thought of not having to face my ski schizophrenia provided a momentary relief, but I felt sorry for those who had really come for the experience.
Although Mike had not traveled the night before and therefore had not shared the room with me, his ability to dictate my unearthly wake up time had hardly been eradicated. In order to reach the slopes by 9:15, I had to get up by 7:30–at least physically. He would see the rest of me by noon, I had warned.
Making my way down the long hallway and into the breakfast room like a zombie the next morning, I immediately caught glimpse of equally sleep-deprived Dorit, the other company Duty Manager.
“Did you sleep?” she anticipatorily asked.
“Nope,” I answered.
“I didn’t either,” she responded with a hint of desperation. “How could I with the noise in this hotel?”
“What noise?” I inquired.
“From the group,” she answered.
“You mean our group?”
“Yes, I mean our group.”
“What time did you get here last night?” I wondered.
“I arrived at 11:45 and the rest came at 1:19.”
1:19, I thought. At least her state had not robbed her of her accuracy.
I later learned that their late arrival had been due to loss of directions and the need to stop at Burger King.
“It seems they availed themselves of the hotel’s facilities,” she continued to explain, “going from room to room, to the pool, to the Jacuzzi,” whereupon, one by one, they entered the breakfast room, pajama’ed and barefoot. This year had already begun to vie with last year for “events,” I thought.
Leaving the group to its lengthy, “morning-after” preparation, Dorit and I decided to depart on time, as scheduled, she in the lead car with David and I in the trailing car with Damian. David, requesting a momentary bathroom visit before departure, reappeared 20 minutes later, at which time we drove out of the parking lot. Boy, did he have to go, I thought. The wait reminded me of and emphasized the need for a proper diet. One must eat all the food groups, not just the ones he likes, in order to ensure an easy “flow,” particularly in the morning. I once traveled with another colleague, for instance, who saw no particular need for fruits and vegetables and consequently ended up constipated for up to a week. When it finally “emerged,” it was nothing short of a solid piece of lead, cracking the toilet as it hit the bottom of the bowl. “Oh, shit!”–or at least that is what he used to yell with clenched fists and muscles as tense as a brick wall from the other side of the bathroom door, as if he were trying to give birth through the wrong end.
Adhering to a self-restricted five words per day, David confidently led me to believe that he would not shatter Dorit’s cherished, early-morning silence during the drive.
Following her jeep down the long, winding road toward Jack Frost Mountain, I turned into the parking lot. One year later and there he stood: the Mike. I had awakened at 7:30 and could barely see through my eyes. (I had actually forgotten that Damian had been next to me the entire time.) He had awakened at 5:00 and looked so damn chipper and cheery. With a positive mood like that, there must be snow up here somewhere, I thought. All right, so much for Plan A. There must be a Plan B.
Tires crunching over gravel alerted me to an approaching red car containing the only three who had not elected to drive the previous evening: Annie, Sidonie, and Jenner. Sidonie, wearing her Viking hat, sat in the back and folded the map a final time. Annie, owner and driver of the car and a person who had little patience for lengthy, embellished conversations, sat next to Jenner in the front who, unlike David, restricted herself to five words per second. In fact, she had initiated a sentence upon entering the car in New York and had just reached its verb as it pulled into the parking lot three hours later. As Annie opened the door, I attempted to read her thoughts, which assuredly must have gravitated round a single desperation: I need a Valium!
Jenner, getting out of the car, adjusted her sunglasses and stood before me.
“How was your ride?” I inquired.
Thinking it over, she responded with her universal, one-word-fits-all-occasions response, “Lovely!”
Walking across the road, we entered the lodge. Ordinarily used as a lounge and designated “Canteen,” it had been four times larger than last year’s and had featured a bar, multiple tables and chairs, a fireplace, a sofa, wall-hung sleighs, and a wooden, outdoor deck with picnic tables. Serving as the group’s base, it would be the location to which we would return throughout the day.
As the others settled in, Damian and I elected to inspect the public areas and have a look at the ski slopes. Opening the door and catching first glimpse, I went into mild panic. There it was: the white stuff, blanketing the mountain. Didn’t it know how late in the season it was and that it should have melted by now? The snow and I were already not getting along. Oh, God, where was Plan C?
Because the group would travel the same short distance as Dorit and I had and would not be given misdirections by Adam, who had been unable to attend this year, they should theoretically have trailed us by only a few minutes, but, in fact, pulled into the Jack Frost parking lot almost two hours late.
“Where have you been?” Dorit inquired, as they filed across the road to the lodge.
“We stopped in McDonalds,” Patrick explained.
Could this group not go anywhere without stopping at a fast-food place first? I wondered.
Back in the lodge, Mike prepared to purchase the ski tickets. Counting the number of people who intended to take lessons and those who intended to partake of full-fledged skiing (do you think I was part of the latter group?), he temporarily left and returned with the stack of ski passes, the sight of which sent fear through my body like a bolt of lightening. Those tickets may well have been gallows! I could not believe that I was going to go through with this!
Mike distributed the triangular-shaped hangars which attached to one’s clothing and on which the peeled, gummed passes were glued. Examining these two items, I could not imagine how they could possibly be united into a single, hanging identification badge, and took some 20 minutes of attempting multiple configurations before I had been able to do so. If attaching the badge were this complicated, I thought, what would it be like putting on the actual skis?
The sheer thought of this only heightened my nerves–so much so, in fact, that a fart slipped through my body, but got stuck between its exit point and the hard, plastic bench on which I sat, vibrating with earthquake intensity as it attempted to escape and sounding very much like submachine gun fire. Bobbing up and down in a virtual blur, I assuredly must have looked as if I rode atop a jackhammer.
Somewhere at the ski resort, a nasal voice asked, “Ena, what’s that noise?”
“I don’t know,” an equally throaty voice croaked back.
I later learned that Ena and her friend had been in an enitrely different room.
Successfully hooking the assembly to my pants, I stood up.
“You suddenly look very confident, Robert,” Mike observed.
Silently looking at him, I thought: there’s a fine line between confidence and stark terror. Besides, I had also just released enough wind to create a tornado and my body was now a lifeless sack of organs.
Thus provisioned for my pending trauma, I left the main lodge with Sidonie, Damian, and Jenner, crossing the snow-covered ground to the ski equipment rental shack. Directed first to the ski boot room, we walked among the aisles of boots. If Jenner had so much as hinted that this lead-weight, Jolly Green Giant footwear appropriate only for walks on the moon was “lovely,” I was going to scream! No shoe store ever looked like this, I thought. “Look at these fashions,” I commented, attempting to deliver a milder statement, as Damian, making no attempt to ascertain the correct size, aimlessly began to try on the closest boots to his reach. Then again, there seeemed to be only one size: HUGE!
Deciding upon a set of boots (did they have to have a pair that fit me?), I moved to the next station. As I clumped across the floor in my 100-pound foot armor, displaying as much finesse as a rhinoceros walking down an aisle of Swarovski crystal, I shared a reflection from last year’s ski trip with Jenner and Sidonie. “Now I know what Joseph was talking about last year when he put his ski boots on for the first time and said, ‘These shoes are damn tight,’ only damn’ wasn’t quite the word he had used.” Sidonie gave me that glazed look.
In order next to obtain the properly-sized skis, we had to present ourselves at two counters, where we were required to complete and sign a consensus form more detailed and complicated than that preceding open-heart surgery.
“You have to circle one of the numbers between one and three,” the representative instructed me.
“What do they mean?” I asked.
“One is the lowest amount of ski experience and three is the most,” she answered.
“Don’t you have anything lower than a one?” I desperately inquired.
Assessing my ski boot size, she then waded her way through the racks until she had found the corresponding skis, returning to the counter and, after tightening them with a screw driver, handed them over to me.
Shakingly, I cradled them in my arms and looked at her pleadingly. Puzzled, she looked back, wondering what I could still have wanted. What, I thought, no prayer? I’m a first-time skier!
Now fully outfitted with boots and skis, I walked toward the exit, following Damian, Jenner, and Sidonie, at which time one last person stopped me. Did he want to see my ski badge, too? I wondered.
“Wait,” he said, “you have to get your poles.”
You get those, too? I thought. For all I intended to do, I probably could have done without them.
As the four warriors now emerged on to the battlefield of virgin snow, led by Sidonie in her Viking hat, Jenner proudly proclaimed, “I’m not a novice! I’ve had former skiing experience.”
“Where?” I asked, already anticipating how inferior I would look in comparison to her.
“Holland,” she enthusiastically shared.
With a country entirely under sea level, you could have done better than that, I thought, and my anticipated inferiority image rapidly faded. Sensing my disbelief, she supported, “No, there are small hills there.”
I didn’t know that the country was so overrun with ants, I thought!
Damian had been the first of the four to actually ski…in other words, make the initial plunge into danger. Attaching his left boot to his ski and then the right, he stood erect, grabbed his poles, and catapulted across the snow-covered ground like an F.104 fighter launched from an aircraft carrier deck, careening into a snow bank.
I will certainly look more professional than that, I thought. Following his lead, I attached my ski to the left boot, praying that it would not fit (the moment of truth was at hand and I had run out of plans), and then the right. As if the plug on all friction had suddenly been pulled, I accelerated forward, passing Sidonie and picnic table in a helpless blur, and yelled, “Sidu..” until the facade of the lodge intervened and arrested my travel. So much for the improvement over Damian! I thought
New activities often provide new perspectives and I must admit that, during my initial ski experience, that I had had a profound revelation–namely, that everyone has a goal in life and that mine was to return to the ski rental shop and kiss my concrete-griping shoes to kingdom-come.
Mike, sensing the need for a personal ski lesson, stood next to me, issuing a submachine gun fire of instructions: “Stand up straight…poles on the side…skis directly ahead…bend the knees…lean back on the shin bones…ankles stiff…head forward…eyes ahead…center of gravity over the skis…in other words, work your way into a position like you have to go to the bathroom”
I shot him a glance and stated through chattering teeth, “It may not be like!”
“Okay,” he stated, “that’s it. You’re ready! (Ready for what, I wondered?) “I suggest you ski to the right toward the beginner’s slope.”
“Ah,” I nervously pondered, “I actually think I’ll ski to the left.”
“The left?” he puzzled. “What’s there?
“The place where I return the equipment,” I hesitatedly answered.
“Well, then,” he answered with attempted patience, “I’ll go off skiing myself.”
I almost felt sorry for him after all his work. I said almost, because the question of whether there had been a cast for every part of the body–yes, that part, too–had not yet been answered.
Jenner, upon inquiry from her Station Manager concerning her initial ski experience, stated, “I fell down” and promptly bent face forward to reveal, as evidence, the round, wet spot on the pants covering two half moons which, when put together, equaled a full butt, no buts about it.
Fear certainly has a way of distorting perception. First-time skier Ecaterina had somehow passed me and made it to the top of an 3,000-foot mountain with a vertical drop. “Robert!” she yelled. “You should see the view from here. It’s beautiful!”
“Marvelous,” I yelled, fearing a noise-induced avalanche. “Take pictures! I’ll look at them later.”
I subsequently learned that her elevation had been three feet higher than mine had!
While performing one of my cross-country ski expeditions–translated as between one picnic table and the other–a passing skier yelled, “How’re you doing? By the way, which group are you with?”
I stretched a crooked arm and pointed to the three souls clinging to the picnic table like capsized ship survivors clutching a floating life raft. Cowardly, yes, but they were my group and I loved them!
During one of my “ski walks,” which must have made me appear as graceful as a hippopotamus attempting the ballet, a blue, stocking hat image blurred by to the right, caught his ski on an ice protrusion, and plunged into an almost sequence-indistinguishable maneuver of impact: the right ski tripped on the elevated surface; the left ski rose vertically toward the sky; gravity pulled his rump toward the hump; the skier plunged into the snow, careening toward the left; the right leg flipped over; the head bored a trench into the ice; snow entered the left nostril like a plunger into a backed up toilet; and the entire discombobulated, white-sheathed ice bank came to a halt.
“Are you all right?” I yelled.
The snow pile nodded.
“I’ll try to make it there and help,” I returned, “but at the speed I move, I think spring thaw will get there first.”
Luckily, a more experienced skier passed, lifted the man up, and transformed him from snowman to human. By the time the situation had been remedied, I myself had significantly closed the gap to the scene–by at least a foot!
Meanwhile, picnic table-bound Sidonie had bravely attempted several unaided skiing positions herself, which justifiably must have made her very proud: at the end of the bench, on the middle of the bench, half a butt hanging off the bench, and a full, double-diamond switch–from the bench to the table. I could not help but wonder: why did she look more content than I?
The waning sun beckoned everyone back to the lodge, where the pear-filled schnapps glasses, sporting miniature flags, lined the picnic table on the outdoor deck, and the goulash, dumplings, and spaetzl warmed in chafing dishes on the bar, filling the room with aromas of Austria. One by one, they returned to the comfort and safety of the hut like soldiers seeking refuge in their barracks from battle, nursing their wounds: George, with a black-and-blue buttocks, Munny with a swollen leg, Ricky with torn ligaments, and Sidonie with splinters (from the picnic table). Swelling seemed to be a common denominator in Munny’s ski adventures. Last year, as I recall, he had brought some girl, disappeared, and did not resurface until the end of the day with very swollen lips, as if some cosmetic doctor had gone hog-wild on him with collagen injections.
All too soon it had again come time to leave and make the long drive back to New York.
As I drove out of the parking lot, I could see Mike recede in the rearview mirror and I somehow sensed that the recipe for next year’s trip had already begun to simmer on the back burners of his mind.
Driving through Pennsylvania on Interstate 80 and passing the Delaware Water Gap as Damian and Noemi slept, filling the car with a cacophony of snores and snorts, I reveled in the fact that I had come a long way in overcoming my ski phobia: last year snow tubing, this year ski lessons, and next year–who knows, I may actually put on both skis…