Chapter I: Beginnings

January 18, 1980 

Today I skied for the first time.  I started late, at 16 years old.  My parents don’t ski, and flat Chicago, Illinois, has few hills within striking distance.  My friend, who grew up in the penthouse apartment of a hotel downtown just off Michigan Avenue, went skiing all the time.  He did family Christmas in Aspen every year, and his father was a volunteer ski patroller at Wilmot Mountain.  My friend loaned me his old boots and his little sister’s old skis, and last night I slept over. 

We stayed up late in the utility room, dripping P-tex into the old skis’ gouges, scraping, filing rusty, worn edges, and ironing a thick coat of Sex Wax into them.  I put on the boots, and my friend adjusted the bindings, having me step in and kicking my toes out, making me lean forward until the heels popped.  I thought it was just about the coolest thing I ever did. 

I like sports that require serious equipment because I play goal for the Highland Park Leafs hockey team in my suburban park district league.    I had been playing defense until our goalie didn’t show up one night, and the coach asked for a volunteer to take his place.  I almost jumped off the locker room bench, shooting my hand up and shouting, “I’ll do it!”  My Dad has season tickets to the Blackhawks, and I am a huge Tony Esposito fan.  I always wanted to play goal, but the other kid had all the equipment, and he got the position by default. 

The rink manager took me to the equipment bin and fished out some stinky, old leg pads, a blocker, and catching glove all cold and damp with old sweat, and a goalie stick with a big flat blade.  I put them on and skated out to the net.  I did my best Tony-O imitation, scraping my skates back and forth in the crease, taking the bumps off the ice, and sweeping the snow off to the sides with my stick.  The other players took a few practice shots, a few aimed at my head, and the game started.  We had a late 1-0 lead when the other team got a breakaway opportunity.  I watched the skater bearing down on me.  Crouching deeper, flexing the mitt open and closed, I pushed out to the front of the crease to cut down the shooting angle.  My vision and hearing narrowed and focused the closer the puck came to me.  I heard skates scraping and watched the puck go left, right, and left again.  I knew where the shot was going before it left his stick, and I followed the puck with my eyes right into the catching glove. 

The team won, and I racked up a shut-out.  The following week, when Goalie Kid returned, he was told I would be the new goaltender until further notice.  I still remember how it felt when my mom took me to Sportmart to get my first pair of leg pads.  Thick, heavy caramel brown leather CCM made in Canada.  A blocker glove with Swiss cheese holes in the covering showing the white plastic stiffener below, and a catching glove with heavy wrist padding and woven leather pocket. As soon as we got home, I put the leg pads over my sneakers and had my little brother shoot tennis balls at me in the driveway. 

In the morning, we drove an old Ford faux wood-paneled station wagon to Wilmot Mountain, Wisconsin.  I didn’t see a hill.  My friend said it used to be a landfill, and the mountain was on the other side of the cinder-block lodge rental shop and restaurant.  We bundled up and headed out.  My heart was pounding out of my chest with excitement.  Looking down at the 400 ft vertical, I was thrilled.  My friend pointed out a girl in a yellow jacket just starting down.  “Watch.  She doesn’t know how to ski.”  She was all windmilling arms with poles flying around like nun-chucks, nearly taking the eyes out of other skiers, screaming straight down the slope, gathering speed.  Her pom-pom hat flew off; not slowing ing or turning gravity crashed her into the 3-foot chain link fence separating the skiing from a small forest and creek.  One of her skis went under the barrier.  The other tip dug into the snowbank, and as her body slammed into the fence, it bent her leg back ankle to ear.  “The first thing you need to learn is how to stop.” 

I started figure skating at age 5 and do a hockey stop on skates.  My friend showed me a little kid on skis almost as small as his boots, “See how he’s doing a pizza slice with his skis?  Bending his knees toward each other?  You can stop that way too.  Ready?  OK, follow me.”   A couple of runs down and back up the rope tow in the “beginner” area, and it was gloves off.  “Just turn where I turn.”  We were on the “Expert Black Diamond” run, three moguls, and a jump.  I was hooked.  By the end of the day, my shins were raw and bloody, and a busted ski tip held on with duct tape.  “Can we go again next Saturday?” 

December 21, 1981 

We walked from the hotel to Morrie Mages Sports for last-minute stuff, my friend and me, and his “Summergirl,” a few years older, hanging out with us even though she wasn’t a nanny for his little brother and sister anymore.  I asked him once what her story was, and he said her family life wasn’t great, so she was just around all the time.  I craved a whole set of shiny new gear, but since I could borrow my friend’s old skis and poles, I had raided my savings for a ski jacket and pants last winter; a pair of boots would have to satisfy me.  I measured my own feet with a Brannock Device.  working summers at my dad’s shoe store, I knew what I was doing; I measured both feet because nobody has two of the same size.   The boots I tried on didn’t hurt, so I decided to get them.  Summergirl said they were excellent, but when I looked at the price, I spluttered that I would have to find something for less.  “These are less.  They don’t even have a brand name.”  She dragged me behind a rack of jackets and ripped a price tag off one.  “Just tie this on quick.  Everything is on sale; these boots should be too.”   She was blond and cute, two years older than me, and had no fear.  I liked her.  She barely noticed I was alive.  Taking the sale-priced boots to the counter, I felt like I would puke.  I couldn’t look at the salesclerk as I handed over my cash.  “Thanks.”   

The drive to Aspen took two long days.  My new Walkman played Squeeze’s “Coffee in Bed” repeatedly while I doodled pictures on my drawing pad of mountains I had never seen before.  “This is going to be a lot different than Wilmot.  You can’t see the top of the mountain from the parking lot.  It’s real snow, powder, not manufactured ice. “.  We slept at Motel 6, next to Bob’s Big Boy restaurant outside Lincoln, Nebraska.  As the sun rose over Route 80, I put in a John Denver tape, “…Gold is just a windy Kansas wheat field…”.  My friend’s mom took over driving for a while.  “Slow down, Leadfoot, or you’re gonna get pinched.”   When the siren wailed behind us, she swore, “Merde!”  She was a singer from Quebec performing at The Redhead Piano Bar when my “uncle” met her in Chicago.  “I don’t think I have my license in my purse…” “ARE YOU SERIOUS? Quick, slide over, and let me get behind the wheel.  The next time you decide to speed, at least make sure you have your license on you.”  “This drive is so long, why can’t we fly?”  “With all the kids and the gear?  And then we have to rent a car when we get there? Please just be quiet.” 

The car got very quiet for the rest of the drive. 


December 24, 1981 

              Our first night in Aspen was snowing like crazy, and all our shoes crunched as we walked to the pizza place.  Hi-top Timberlands were all the rage at HPHS, untied and flopping around; my new ones made blisters on my heels.  I put my head back and watched the snow fall towards me, swirling and gently landing and melting on my cheeks.   Chicago snow is different from Aspen snow.   Chicago snow never closes schools.  In Aspen, they probably go skiing for gym class.  The pie in Aspen was just as good as Chicago pizza, which says a lot.  I can’t remember the name of the pizza restaurant now, but the guy tossing the pizza crust was an awesome dude. 

Waking up in the morning, there was a foot of new snow. I had been up since 5, which was 7 in Chicago, ridiculous for a vacationing high school kid.  Everybody was still sleeping.  I couldn’t find the coffee maker.  I read my book, paced, ate two donuts, paced, looked out the window, put on my red Union suit, and looked for the coffee maker some more.  “Pete, what time did you wake up?  Don’t worry; you are going to be ex-haus-tid by the end of the day.” 

The powder is a whole other world.   I thought I could ski, but I obviously needed clarification.  At the proving grounds back in Wilmot I had been fearless – following my friend through the moguls, skiing in the drizzle without goggles, losing edges, and wiping out on the ice.  One day I took the jump, landing on the back tips of my borrowed 20-year-old skis.  The front tips slammed down with such force the metal Heart logo triangles blew off and launched me sky-high.  20 yards down the slope I planted a pole into a mogul and my solar plexus connected with the butt end, probably saving me from cracking my skull but knocking the wind out of me so hard I couldn’t breathe.  “Oh shit!  Pete, that looked bad.  You OK?  Breathe.” 

Aspen Highlands beat me to a gleeful pulp.  I fell so many times that I lost count, lost my skis, and places I didn’t even know I had started to hurt.  I had snow down my boots and in my underwear.  I couldn’t stop smiling to give my aching cheeks a break.  Couldn’t cover my teeth with my lips, so they went numb from the cold. At Cloud 9 restaurant we watched the ski patrol jump towing a sled across the roof and over the first aid shack.  Going up the chairlift, I saw a skier flying down the run cut into the woods.  He was out of sight for a few seconds, and then he burst out of the woods in a powder cloud and did a double daffy.  “Jake!  That’s the dude from the pizza place!  Holy shit!  Incredible!”  For the rest of the day, I fantasized about leaving home and getting a job in Aspen.

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