I’ll never forget, this memory from the very early 1940s is utterly vivid: Jones Beach, I’m a toddler, playing in the wave wash. There’s a shell, being tumbled, there’s a sand flea … Ooo. If I’d picked up the sand flea even I could have crushed it; but little Paul didn’t crush things, I just gadded about the surf wash, Ooo, Ooo.
I know my mother was watching me, calling, reassuring me every other few seconds. But quick, before I could notice, before my mother noticed, a wave grabbed me, knocked me down, held me down, held my face mashed in the seething sand and broken shell of the liquid beach / ocean world-grinder mix … I was utterly helpless. I was utterly shocked. I’d never imagined being so helpless. Compared to me ground by that wave a rag doll is Superman. No time was wasted deciding that I’d better hold my breath, I held my breath, automatically: my first conscious experience of anything automatic. No time was wasted telling the wave than it had no right to grind me. Ground by the wave there are no rights, there’s no ought, no imperative but the wave’s.
The wave mashed me, held me, but then dragged me, inexorably, at some tangent to the beach: eastward, a bit out to sea (as my older mind reconstructs it). I’d already held my breath for a good several seconds, now I had to hold it still, several seconds more. I never doubted that I might have been in the final moments of my life, that my consciousness was about to be wiped. I had no quarrel. Total helplessness was actually very peaceful. I didn’t waste time imagining my funeral, like Tom Sawyer (whom I wouldn’t hear of for another half-dozen years), I didn’t imagine my mother’s grief. My mother was irrelevant, my mother was nothing compared to the dictation of this wave.
I’ve been knocked about by many a wave since that first one. I’ve never again had my face held in the sand like a puppy being toilet trained: maybe because I know better than to resist any wave big enough to spike me into the broil. My first I may have tried to resist, the futility instantly learned. I know one thing: I absolutely loved, and miss, that total helplessness.
Maybe that’s what Germans were looking for when they followed Hitler! Maybe Hitler gave utter ecstasy to six million Jews, grinding them helpless, and eighteen million dissidents. But no: no Wehrmacht is strong like my wave was strong. My original Platonic wave.
Near thirty years latter I had another ecstasy of helplessness. It was a Saturday. The snow at Sugarloaf was superlative, the weather gorgious. But I’d promised to help officiate a a downhill race on the long trail that wound around the backside of the mountain: intermediate trail, very famous, I’ll think of the name: same slope on which I broke the clutch handle of my Yamaha trail bike, big sprocket, trying to climb up the mountain! I don’t remember what I was doing. I wasn’t a timer, maybe I watched a particular gate to see that any participant crossed it legally, maybe I had the power to DQ. (Now I remember: it wasn’t a Colby race, it was a warm up for the Olympics. Suzy Whatsername was in that race.) Whatever, it took all day. So it’s almost time for the lifts too shut down before they thank me and dismiss me. I race for the gondola. If I blitz the gondola trail I just maybe can get two runs in. If not, I should take my time, savor the descent.
At the top I check my watch. Sure: I’ll bust it, ski this mother wide open, catch the gondola still operating, back up for another: that the last of my day. I pound the gondola trail hard. The moguls are beautiful, I’m smashing them into spray. No, no, that takes time, ski straight, schuss! Ah! That’s what I’ll do: that one crest, that’s mountain, not mogul, that’s ground that’s projecting that lip, offering a really scary jump for the intrepid.
Skis on snow are faster that airborne skis, but it will only cost me a second: I’m feeling super, I’m going to catch so much air here, I’ll ever come down, or I’ll be half way to the lodge by the time I do: and on the intermediate part of the trail, not this black belt expert hair monster.
gondola trail cut straight down, at right
I take the lip, I time the kneebend, the leg kick for launch, and, just as I’m about to enjoy my flight, it’s for sure going to be the highest, longest, by far, I’ve ever jumped, something in the snow ahead catches me eye. It’s wool, it’s colorful, it’s stretched on the snow: some kid was skiing ahead of me, the ridge obscured him, he’s fallen, I’m about to ram the steel and fiberglass tip of my 207 cm K22s into his ear. I froze!
I’d been dreaming of catching a lot of air, of imitating the tip hanging picture of Pepi Stieglitz on the cover of the magazine. Everything’s great, I have lots of air, I’m hanging my tips, and I see a kid, helpless, right in front of me. Jean Claude would have spread eagled, kept his skis away from the kid, miss the kid by a mile. But me, I froze. I did not realign my skis with the terrain after my tip drop. I just froze. I landed. My tips dug straight into the nearly bottomless snow of 1969. The mountain grabbed my tips, and held them. I blew out of the bindings, my leather safety thongs disintegrated. I tumbled 180, 360, 530 … through the air. I landed, whump!, blasting a snow burrow, yes, almost to where the sexpert trail whimpers to intermediate, near half way back to the lodge. I extricate myself from the burrow. My left ski is off to my left, God knows where my right ski is.
But I’ve got to check on that kid! I’ve heard no screams. Surely a kid would have family nearby. What lone kid would be skiing the goldola line at 4 PM? I see my right ski. It’s quivering, slowly now, in the snow a huge distance back up the mountain: that’s by far the longest tumble I’ve ever taken. I realize that I’m completely alright. If anything twisted, if there’s going to be any pain, it will come later. I pick up my left ski and begin climbing toward the companion. Where’s that kid? What the hell did I see? think I saw?
It’s a scarf. Someone lost a scarf. A long scarf, worn by an idiot, a scarf like that can strangle you. You’d think people would learn from … come to me in a minute: Isadora Duncan, strangled by the spoked wheel of her sports car. Anyway, I reach my right ski. I’ll put it back on first, make a solid platform from which to struggle with the left ski. But I’m not getting any purchase! I reverse, put on my left ski, now I’ll struggle with the right.
I try to ski and fall straight back down on my face. Now I see it: the right ski has totally delaminated. All the component layers are unglued, unsandwiched: wood, glue, air, fiberglass, steel … nothing. It’s a banana! No, wait, I’m wrong. Not K22, they came later; these were Heads! Head 360s, 200 cm! The Heads were soft, not like my K22s, but not that soft.
So: I wanted an adventure? I wanted to skii two runs? Well, I had two adventures: I flew through the air, and II got to ski back to the lodge on one ski! I put my left ski on my right boot, right’s my strong leg, carried the deconstructed ski and my poles lying across my arms, like a course setter carrying the flags, and skied, skidded, jumped back to the lodge.
Once on Mt. Washington, Tuckermans, spring, maybe spring 1969, I saw two girls ski down to Pinkham Notch on one ski apiece. That way they’d have only one pair of skis between them to have to carry back up to their camp! Man, those girls! Either they can’t ski worth crap, or they’re so good, you can’t ski with them! These girls skied on one ski almost the same they’d ski on two! Strong! Brave! Beautiful.
Still: I skied the one ski better than most would: and would have skied it more gracefully with practice.
My target coming up, but I breath for a moment
The wave held me, helpless. My fall spun me, tumbled me, helpless. Momentum, gravity … natural forces … Forces!
Caliban: heave; Ariel: light.
We do this and that with the earth: build railroads, go to the moon, we’re such hot shit. But we don’t know what’s coming. One minute we’re playing in the wave wash, ooo, I’m the big monster, that sand flea is so little … And wham! The wave knocks all vanity into a cocked hat.
Cartoon I loved long ago, New Yorker, 1950s: preacher stands pointing to some passage in some limp black book he’s holding. Alpha military type behind a desk demands, “Does this God of yours realize he’s dealing with the United States of America?”!
PS Resorts are constantly engineering new trails. Does the above pic show my Sugarloaf of 1967, 68, 69? I can’t tell. At least it’s a pic with trails cut straight in the fall line, and shows a gondola line.