WHEN THE GOING WAS GOOD

By Published on .

Simpler times.

One of the most charming pieces I've read appeared recently in the sports pages of The New York Times under the byline of Charles L. Howes Jr., whom the editors described in a note as a "member of the National Ski Patrol for 27 years" and as the operator of a "private weather bureau he started in 1932."

So we are talking here about agent of a certain age.

But one who writes marvelously. His piece, which ran the weekend the Winter Olympics began, was all about the 1932 games at Lake Placid in upstate New York, and about how he and his friend "Al," who was otherwise not identified, got to the Olympics and had themselves a heck of a time, without credentials, without spending much money, without having connections.

It is a story, and an adventure, I do not think you could replicate today. And the more's the shame. Here's how Mr. Howes' story begins:

"In our late teens my friend Al and I became real skiing nuts. On winter afternoons we would practice Christies, Gelandesprungs and telemark swings on the golf course near our home in Stamford, Conn. On weekends we would visit friends at Dartmouth College and tag behind the ski team. So when we learned that the best skiers in the world would be coming to Lake Placid in February of 1932, we just knew we had to get there no matter what. ..."

"Christies ... Gelandesprungs ... " How long has it been since I've even heard those words.

In any event, off went Al and Charles to the Olympics. Just like that. They rented a room in a private house in the town and used their skis to get around, saving bus fare. The cross-country trails had some bare spots so the two lads joined a volunteer crew filling baskets with snow and dumping it where the track had worn thin. Afternoons they dressed up and went to "tea dances." Mr. Howes explains that in those days there were very few women Olympians, only the skaters.

But at one of the dances as the orchestra struck up "Tea for Two," the boys introduced themselves to a couple of honeys, to be greeted with smiles. Said one of the young women, "I'm Maribel Vinson with the U.S. team and this is Sonja Henie skating for Norway. She doesn't speak much English."

But she could fox-trot. "We laughed and danced until supper time," Howes remembers.

The speed skating was outdoors and there is a delightful photo of the rink with nine or 10 skaters whizzing around past a sole judge in an overcoat while just beyond a chicken wire fence are the houses of Lake Placid. There are some people standing behind a rail, rooting. No stands are visible. The figure skating, however, was indoors, and, lacking tickets, Al and Charles volunteered to help a movie newsreel crew carry in its heavy gear. And from the camera perch the boys saw Miss Vinson win bronze and Miss Henie the gold.

The ski jump was at Intervales, two miles away, and our young Connecticut pair skied there and, when the landing hill turned slushy, joined officials in helping to stamp it flat before taking a quick run themselves without authorization.

"Sure, they bawled us out, but that was a fantastic run and unforgettable!"

Unforgettable, as well, the ski jump awards ceremony under spotlights in a falling snow while national anthems played.

The bobsled run was at Mount Van Hoevenberg, eight miles from town, but that, too, was just a cross-country ski jaunt away and off went the boys, arriving just in time to see a limo at the base of the run discharge the mayor of New York, the honorable Jimmy Walker, "and his movie star girlfriend." The mayor, suggests Mr. Howes, was drunk, "lurching and stumbling ... a sight to see in those Prohibition years."

And when the American sled won gold, "What a thrill to see our United States team flying by ..."

And what a thrill to read something so simple, so human in scale, so intimate.

Skiing was like that once. So much of American life was like that.

Skis were wooden. The only ski instructors were Austrian refugees who'd gotten out when Hitler came in, men like Hannes Schneider. You wore ordinary trousers tucked into heavy socks and coats called mackinaws. I skied a whole day once with a banana in my mackinaw pocket (the skiing was so good I forgot to eat lunch) and was cleaning out mashed banana from the pocket for a month.

The first three or four years I skied I never saw a lift. You climbed up, you skied down. Then I was permitted to go to Bear Mountain where they had a rope tow. We also got to ski the landing hill at the ski jump. No one stopped us, Georgie Geistweit and me, maybe because it was a weekday and it was pouring rain. We loved that landing hill, never having skied anything that steep.

My first skis were pine and had no metal edges and only a toe strap. I skied in galoshes. Later, I got poles.

When I got to college we had connections at Middlebury. A girl knew another girl who knew a boy in a fraternity house and ...

We drove up from the city on a Friday afternoon in a borrowed car, six of us, and stayed at the frat house, sleeping on the floor, and skied all day and partied half the night and skied all day Sunday until they shut down the tow and we drove all night to get home. I had surplus ski trooper skis by then, big heavy boards painted white. And with real bindings.

And in the annual put out by the National Ski Association there were stories about new places out West, especially about a mining town called Aspen that the Tenth Mountain Division had used as a ski training center before embarking for Europe and the hard fighting up the spine of Italy against the Germans. Some of the ski troops, the annual said, now that peace was here, were returning to Aspen. There was talk it might become an important ski resort.

Simpler times. Maybe better times?

In this article:
Most Popular