As I squeezed into rented boots, my daughter G warned, “Papa, stay away from black diamonds with a menacing name.”
The precocious 12-year-old knew her dad and the mountain. She knows me from years of listening to my inane comments. She knows the mountain after hours of studying the Killington trail map on the drive to Vermont. Indeed, trails named “Panic Button,” “Devil’s Fiddle” and “Vertigo” can be menacing to a sporadic intermediate skier with no business attempting steep runs on notorious east coast ice.
Following the longest season in sports, the only real vacation any of us in the industry get is around Christmas. (I hope I can say that word that without offending anyone.) After that, everyone’s preparing for the new season in Daytona. The current season ends, then come the Series banquets, then Daytona looming over your head like a safe dangling on piano wire. A late-December respite in Vermont with my family is the so-called much-needed battery charge.
The day after Christmas, we were enjoying light lift lines. The mercury was hovering at a comfortable 30 degrees. This was my trip to move beyond an “intermediate” level of skiing; I’d have four more days to distinguish myself and get better.
For the proverbial Last Run of the Day, my wife and I came across a black diamond called “Superstar.” Certainly, this name would pass a concerned daughter’s muster: strong and confident with notions of red, white and blue achievement, Wonder Woman, Mark Spitz and Michael Phelps in their USA Speedos.
V is smooth and light on her skis. She describes my style as Jean-Claude Kiley on the green bunny runs and Jerry Lewis on the blacks.
Today, Jerry is absent. I haven’t gone down once. The legs feel good. It’s time to master the elements, move past the fat part of the bell curve for skiing proficiency, and enter the rarified realm of the expert. I am a super star.
I point a pole to the beckoning trail sign: Superstar. V nods, and a bad idea quickly builds momentum with the trail’s steepening decline and slick surface turning into wind-blown moguls. (Are the scary bumps called “moguls,” because they resemble the shape of Donald Trump’s hair?)
My wife is out in front, finding her way down the suddenly icy difficult slope. I pick up too much speed through the bumps, heading left. I try to cut back in a groove between moguls. I’m off balance. The skis hit a rut and pull to the side. The physics are all wrong. My top heavy body surges forward as if launched from a circus cannon. Except my arms aren’t planted stoic at my sides. This is a flailing, out-of-control, agony-of-defeat cartwheel.
NASCAR drivers have said they see crashes happening in slow motion. Wayne Gretzky once explained when he scored a goal, time slowed, the puck looked to be the size of a pizza pie, the goal as wide as the Hoover Dam. None of that for me. The Fall happens fast – an instantaneous, oh-snap blur. I see nothing but a glittering white canvas screaming toward my face. Greg Louganis couldn’t have hit the surface at a more precise 90-degree angle. The snow goes crunch. I bounce like a Super Ball. On the second revolution, my head smacks the rock-hard surface like a bowling ball dropped from your roof. Finally, silence.
It is a sad reflection of our You Tube culture that sitting there, thankfully breathing albeit stunned though reassured my skull was not split like a rotten pumpkin, I wonder if the spastic circus-act flop was captured on video from the chair lift. I’m destined to be an internet laughing stock. Without royalties.
No cameras. No laughing. I’m alone, in one piece. This can’t be that bad. The morning papers said a Manhattan window washer survived a 47-story fall.
All my digits are moving, but I can’t get up.
I realize that initial crunch wasn’t the give of snow. It was a bone breaking.
My wife kept her wits and balance, and had pulled to a stop below. The grade was too steep for her to ascend the hill to help. All is OK, I reassure her with a lefty thumbs up. The right arm is dead. No worries, I’m cool. The covenant of marriage allows you to tell your life partner things you do not believe. She tells passing skiers following her gaze up the mountain, “Oh, he’s fine. He’s just catching his breath.”
All I can do is flash a dumb smile and that thumbs up with the arm I can move.
“Baby, just put your skis on and ski on down!” she urges.
Maybe an expert skier could do that. I’m just an eternal intermediate, forever checking that middle box on the rental line, a reckless overachiever who flirted with bragging rights beyond his proficiency and has paid the price. As the commercial says, I’ve fallen and can’t get up. I’m not a senior citizen yet, but should have Life Alert. Why couldn’t the run have been named “Devil’s Emergency Room” to scare me away? I try to stand, but the shoulder is shot and powerless, and I slide on my ass across the slippery surface, faster and faster down the hill, ah shit, I am picking up speed, until I can dig boot heels into the ice.
I catch my breath. The slope is quiet. I crawl, inches at a time, across the mountain, toward the woods. Isn’t that where animals go to die?
A ski instructor waves his poles and calls down from the lift. “Do you need me to radio for help?”
On those lifts, I’ve looked down at the powerless humiliation of the injured, the daring, the clumsy, those unfortunate skiers who are strapped in and carted away on the Red Cross snow sled stretcher. Yeah, call it in. Now I’ll know how it feels to be present for your own public funeral procession. Like driving a stock car at the track in Charlotte, I’ll check off another bucket-list experience.
V says they closed Superstar after my crash. Too treacherous; some intermediate from New York City took the black diamond and nearly got killed on the lower moguls. My fast-fading manhood is revived. It was the ferocious mountain, not me. Mother Nature won today’s battle, the war is mine. I am a superstar. Of course, V was probably conjuring a well-meaning fib, something a married woman says with the best of intentions but not a shred of truth.
The doctor examining me says he’ll take x-rays but it looks like a broken collar bone. “What do you do for a living?” he asks.
I’m with NASCAR, I tell him. He makes eye contact for the first time and asks if Jimmie Johnson is going to win a third championship.
I see in the mirror I basically have no right shoulder. Its disappearance is a sickening sight. My arm is dangling low like an ape’s, the shoulder completely gone. I want to puke.
“This looks pretty bad. Do I need surgery?”
“I don’t think so,” he says. “I want to know this. Earnhardt moving to Hendrick: is that going to change the competitive balance in the sport. I mean, Dale Junior, Gordon, Johnson – that’s like a Murderers Row or the Purple People eaters. What a lineup! They’re gonna dominate!”
I’m in starting to shiver, slipping into shock maybe. The pain is starting to spread to my chest. I’m wondering if they’ll screw rods into my body, and I’ll be limping around like Evel Knevel.
“Do I have to stay in the hospital?” I ask.
“We’ll fix you up here, and you’ll be out in just a few. You did hit pretty hard. How about those HANS devices and new softer walls? They really have made NASCAR much safer, haven’t they?”
“Doctor, I’m on the first day of a five day vacation. Do I have to go home? We can get back to New York in about five hours.”
“It’s up to you. Frankly, you’ll at first be uncomfortable wherever you are. You can stay in the lodge. Hey, speaking of New York, is it true that track’s not going to happen?”
This dance goes on for a few more minutes. The doctor gives me a Velcro controlled sling and a bottle of horse pills for the pain. He tells me to see an orthopedic surgeon back in New York. As I'm walking out the door he asks if I'll be in Daytona in February. I keep walking, looking forward to the first handful of pills.