Learning to downhill ski all began with a $15 high school birthday present. A friend and I had seen a skiing movie and it seemed so easy, gliding down snowy slopes and carving turns. We needed to get our hands on the equipment and teach ourselves how to slide down hills. What could be simpler? We were soon wandering the floors of a downtown sporting goods store.
New ski equipment was appallingly expensive, but we found used wooden rental skis for sale at $15 a pair. The ski bindings were called Ski-free, with metal cables and springs to hold ski boots in place against a swiveling toe-plate. We would have to guess how to adjust them. In theory, when a ski twisted, sliding downhill, a spring-loaded part rotated to one side and released the ski boot instead of breaking an ankle. We were now snow-bunnies, but needed poles. I found a pair so short the grips only came to my waist, not knowing they were sized for six-year-olds. I couldn’t afford real ski boots, but World War II movies showed soldiers skiing down mountains with heavy packs and weapons. Since they wore combat boots, why not install toe clips on old ill-fitting combat boots I already had? Today, a single ski ticket and lesson cost more than my total outlay.
Determined to learn to ski as soon as the snow flew, I enrolled in the first Detroit Free Press Beginners Ski School. It was free to anyone who found their way to a now-defunct ski area called Mount Dryden. In the parking lot, just before the 7:00 p.m. lesson was to start, I discovered a binding so loose a critical ball-bearing had fallen out and was lost. I was about to miss my first lesson unless I fixed it. Rummaging in the gravel, I found a tiny round stone and inserted it in place of the ball-bearing. Reassembling the binding, I didn’t realize I had effectively locked it in position. Instead of releasing normally, I would snap an ankle as easily as a Sunday dinner chicken leg if I fell. Carrying my now-almost-lethal skis to the top of the beginner’s slope, I fastened the combat boots on and joined eight other participants.
The crisp evening was enchanting, snowy slopes sparkling in Mount Dryden’s arc lights. So this was what downhill skiing was like. How wonderful watching real skiers swoop and swoosh past, and we all hoped to be doing the same in an hour. Our official ski instructor glided over and did a double-take inspecting my strange equipment. Since everyone had signed a waiver absolving the Free Press if anything went wrong, he shrugged and slid a short distance below before showing us how to align our skis in a basic ‘snow-plow’ position. We all leaned forward, putting our weight through our boots into our ski edges, but mine didn’t seem to work very well. A snow-plow maneuver is the first and simplest method of controlling speed and direction we were supposed to learn.
Each of us slid gently forward a few yards before stopping, again forming a line. Everyone with the right equipment had no problem and turned expectant gazes on the last one in line, me, having arrived a few minutes after my parking lot repair. They didn’t have much time to watch because without any structure in my combat boots, I couldn’t transfer any weight into the ski edges. Once I began sliding toward the group, I had no control. Even with the skis in proper position, I couldn’t turn, slow down, or even stop. This may explain why ski schools are no longer conducted at seemingly the top of the tallest hill in a ski complex. I flew past both instructor and open-mouthed group with a yell, accelerating over the edge and down Mount Dryden’s steepest slope.
It was a hell of a ride and why I never fell half-way down and broke something, I have no idea but I must have been traveling 50 mph at the bottom when I ran out of Mount Dryden’s well-groomed artificial snow. In fact, I ran out of Mount Dryden. Understanding I had probably finished my first and last ski lesson, still traveling at a terrific pace, I flew between the last hay bales and arc lights before exploring Lapeer County’s interesting countryside in total darkness.
With no way to stop, other than falling and breaking something, I hoped I wouldn’t run into a fence or a tree large enough to break me in two. I sincerely doubt management thought any skiers would find themselves out beyond their property line. Unfortunately, that left a frozen swamp facing me, mostly underbrush, cattails, saplings, and rough-plowed field, to stop an out-of-control snow-bunny. I was far beyond a lot of it when I finally somersaulted in a tumbling heap of skis and poles.
I lay there, head spinning, ears buzzing. Miraculously, nothing was broken or sprained, just a few bits of torn clothing to show for my adventure. Still wondering what happened, I lay there deciding I must now be a downhill skier since I was now downhill and had begun by wearing skis. So it had been a successful evening after all. I retrieved everything in total darkness and began the climb back to civilization, managing to skirt both ski-instructor and group on the way back.
When I got to the car, I discovered the locked-together Ski-free binding was, sure enough, still locked together. Perhaps, I decided, I should break down and get some real ski boots and bindings before trying again.