On skiing

Wintry wonderland still within our grasp

Email|Print| Text size + By Tony Chamberlain
Globe Staff / December 22, 2005

Of sleighs, sleds, and General Henry Knox.

You know how most humans tend to see the world through the eyes they had as a teenager?

For instance, a friend of mine, who once played Pony League baseball under the 1950s rule of no hair peeking out from under the cap, has held all men with long hair (ponytails particularly) in utter contempt.

A certain rapprochement occurred when his daughter showed up with a boyfriend who looked like Yanni, but alas he's fallen back into his anti-hirsute attitudes and still is heard to mutter something about hippies a half-century later.

Well, I must confess in this Christmas season to a certain prejudice that formed like a black pearl around a grain of sand when I was around 8 years old.

I hate Rudolph. There. It's out. Rudolph is a phony. An interloper. Who ever heard of a red light bulb for a nose? How stupid.

Back when Christmases were real, say when I was 6, there were only eight reindeer and I could recite them all more readily than I could the Pledge of Allegiance or the Lord's Prayer. They were Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Donder, Vixen, Blitzen, Cupid, and Comet. NO RUDOLPH.

Then one year -- maybe around 1950 -- the real Christmas crumbled. Everywhere on the radio was this song about Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer. The illustrations showed a dumb creature with a red light-bulb nose. What idiocy! Worse, what faith-busting heresy that was. Sleighs and reindeer might be able to soar through the sky, that was real enough. But never were they led by a reindeer with a bright red nose.

And by the way, it didn't get foggy Christmas Eve, it got snowy. This Rudolph story was a phony from start to finish.

Well, maybe somewhere deep in people's love for skiing and snowboarding is that ancient Christmas myth of soaring magically through the sky, which, after all, is the essence of the sport. Learning how to do it surely and gracefully is another question.

Most of the kids where I grew up were on sleds long before skis. My own Flexible Flyer was a magnificent vehicle, crafted of red-painted steel and varnished oak with a red arrow through the crest, pointing straight ahead. How we groomed our sleds. Fine sandpaper in one pocket and an old candle in the other, we'd sand and wax our runners to keep them maximum slick. We gave them names.

Some kids sat on their sleds -- as did any adult with a baby -- to ride. But the preferred method was to get a running start to the crest of the hill, then belly-flop on the sled and careen down the hill with eyes a few inches off the snow, steering with the wooden handles that could bend the runners left and right.

Packed snow was OK, but the preferred surface for real speed was ice, fairly common on our coastal town where it rained as much as it snowed and then crusted over. When there wasn't any snow, we'd go skating, but spent a long time trying to devise some kind of sailing rig on a sled for a homemade ice boat, which never worked very well, and a ripping game of pond hockey always got us distracted from our inventions.

Whatever the surface, the medium was winter, the time when the earth froze and got shiny and magically fast. Commuters come to hate ice and snow, forgetting that almost universal childhood love we all had for it. Fresh snow also kept our pockets swimming with money, as mornings after a fresh storm were spent in shoveling brigades.

In ski towns and resorts, people talk with excitement of a big snow storm on the way, and of the anticipation of hitting the lifts for the milk run in fresh powder. I suppose our friendly relations with snow began to fall apart with automobile travel, which is why the life in ski towns is kind of a reversion to the childish joys of winter. No one has to drive anywhere, only sit in a chairlift.

And go back a little further in history to a time when snow actually aided travel. And in fact the history of our country might have been quite different had it not been for the winter surfaces of ice and snow.

In one of his great histories, David McCullough gives a fresh narrative to an old New England story. In ''1776" he retells the tale of the British Navy holding Boston hostage with its fleet of warships in the harbor. Nothing George Washington's Colonial troops had could match the firepower of the hundreds of cannons on British ships, and as a port city, Boston was all but shut down and being strangled throughout the difficult winter.

But in November of that year, a 25-year-old book dealer, Henry Knox, who had read everything he could to learn about artillery, joined Washington's forces and convinced the general to let him lead an expedition to Fort Ticonderoga -- liberated by Vermont's Green Mountain Boys -- to retrieve some 50 cannons and drag them hundreds of miles to Boston.

Weighing an average of two tons each and facing mountainous topography with few roads in midwinter, there was only one possibility for the success of what many considered an impossible mission: slide the cannons over the snow and ice. At one point they had to wait for snow in order to keep the cannon train moving. Over frozen lakes and over mountain passes, the expedition slid toward Boston.

And after one immensely successful evening of non-stop work, the cannons were dragged into place on Dorchester Heights. In the morning of March 5, when the British looked up at the Heights, they could not believe the sight that awaited them. With command of the high ground, the Americans had taken control of Boston Harbor, leaving General Howe and the British fleet little option but to cut and run for New York.

So, in this winter solstice week, in the time that the earth hardens and freezes and gets slick, think of it as a time of physical liberation, of noble sleds and soaring sleighs, and, of course, getting vertical with steel edges under our feet -- the biggest kick of all.

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