|The Perfect Turn
ski fiction by
I'm a ski writer myself, but I have never dared to try writing ski fiction. In fact, there is almost no ski fiction, almost no short stories or novels about this white dream of a sport. How great, therefore, to find a piece of creative ski fiction that I really love. I read Dick Dorworth's story, The Perfect Turn, quite a few years ago. I never forgot it this is simply the best piece of skiing fiction I have ever encountered. Dick, of course, is as brilliant a skier as he is a writer; he is a former coach of the US men's ski team, a contributing editor to Mountain Gazette, and nowadays, he skis, writes, and finds time for Zen meditation, in Ketchum Idaho. I am delighted to be able to share this story with you. Lito
Years of sun had purified skin into a permanent crust tan with strong creases of long life in a face around peculiar blue/green/gray Pacific Ocean eyes. Bill Clarkson's hair was white, befitting an old man, but his hair had lost color at an early age. He looked the same for so many years that friends and colleagues in the ski school tended to think of Clarkson as without age, but of course he wasn't. He was an enthusiastic old man with a reverence on his mind. he seldom chose to talk about.
Skiing provided much of his livelihood. His mind and spirit had been largely molded by it, and he was on a private quest for the perfect turn on a pair of skis. He had been conscious of it for 20 years, but age had revealed to him that his path was the same from boyhood; the perfect turn. It existed in that place where snow and ski meet to sculpt man, the connector. Clarkson had come close many times, but he never quite made it around the perfect turn. The prospect excited him.
His manner, reputation and appearance, with fathomless peaceful eyes encouraged others to attribute lofty aims and levels to Bill Clarkson. Few imagined his inner expedition. He was no longer allowed the athleticism of the good. young skiers on the mountain, but he was respected for the style that comes only from a lifetime's work. Serious students of skiing sought his advice, demonstration and that form of energy called encouragement, but few persisted. He spoke only of essentials. The truly determined would figure it out, and Clarkson knew he could not shorten their process of discovery. The dilettante, too, always figured it out.
His students often wound up talking about two of his interests, science-fiction and submarines. Sometimes lessons continued beyond skiing to several glasses of red wine in The Avalanche, a dining/drinking spa across from the lodge at the base of the mountain. Clarkson loved conversation, but he rarely spoke of his privately perfect turn. He liked to talk about the ideas of Heinlein, Herbert, Dick, Bradbury, Clarke and Wells, and he made impassioned verbal solo runs on the importance of the submarine to man's evolution, though he had never seen a real submarine. True students don't mind eccentricity, and the coquets were content to be in the presence of Clarkson's reputation and personality.
From November to April his days were regular and similar. He rose early and breakfasted with Eileen, his religiously minded wife of more than 30 years and his closest friend. Their marriage had ridden the storms and endured the slack times of that institution to reach the safe harbor of familiarity, self-acceptance and habit. Their two grown children had married and moved to the city. Their favorite ongoing intimate jokes were built around the theme that while Bill hadn't quite worked out the perfect turn, he was doing as well as Eileen's God was with His world. The joke had innumerable variations.
After eating and morning talk, Clarkson kissed his wife and walked the mile from their cabin to the mountain. He enjoyed the walk. The last few years he needed it to loosen up for the day's skiing. He knew he had a fine instinctive feel for skis, snow and terrain, polished with solid technique and many years. Still, he felt his age. Certain runs Elevator, No Deposit Chute and Larry's Bowl (named for a man killed there in an avalanche) Clarkson wouldn't ski anymore. He could ski them if he had to, but he neither enjoyed fear nor saw merit in imposing it on himself without interest or necessity.
At the lodge he drank coffee with others in the ski school, talked about the weather always a prime topic the world news, the latest ski, local gossip and how the snow was likely to be that day. He relished this part of the morning, especially if Hal Sanders was pleasant. Bill and Hal were friends and skiing companions of nearly 40 years. Sanders felt like a comfortable old coat to Clarkson, warmth against the chill of unfamiliarity Clarkson felt around some of the young skiers. Most of the younger instructors were too abrasive, abrupt and insensitive, both on and off skis, in Clarkson's educated opinion, but he remembered being stupid from fighting identity battles that were no longer his concern. He was comfortable with people and things known, and his living enemies had abdicated or aged with as much elan as his own in the face of the falling inevitable. Morning coffee with Sanders was like a favorite and old piece of music to the mind and spirit of Bill Clarkson.
Then he went to the crowded ski instructor's room. People changing into uniforms. Many voices at once. Heavy ski boots stomping on a concrete floor. A ritual preparation for the day's skiing encompassing several meanings: sport, business, craft, meditation, goal. It was a bit of each to Clarkson and the path toward a balanced mystery he thought of as the perfect turn. He believed in the grace and worth of the self-indulgence of guiding a pair of skis upon a field of snow with precision and intelligence. He bet a part of his life that the turn existed. It presented itself to his mind, over and over and over, as if it had happened before and would of necessity again. The perfect turn was wonderful to contemplate. Deja vu.
Ski lifts started an hour before classes gathered in clusters before ski school signs of ability A*B*C*D*E*F stuck in the snow before the lodge. More than many instructors! Clarkson used that hour for his own skiing. Often he skied alone, sometimes with colleagues who had no idea of his deepest mind. It wasn't their fault they didn't know.
Nor was it his.
It was just that way.
Eileen knew. Sanders had an abstract comprehension. Sometimes at instructor's gatherings when talk turned upon the theory or purpose or some such armchair concept of their profession, Sanders pontificated in the manner of the righteous that Bill Clarkson embodied the substance of skiing and knew something no one else did. Sanders was unable to determine what that something was.
During the savored morning chair lift ride, a portion of his mind took in the matutinal mountain light on the ridges and the white/blue snow and the green frosty trees and the clunk-whirrrr of the cable passing over the lift support towers and the motors of the sno-cats working ski runs into a smooch, soft blanket and the easy breeze rustling trees and gently swirling across the snow and the stark cold air that hit the face like a slap encountered nowhere else but in the high mountains. At such times Clarkson felt extraordinarily lucky.
At the top came the best part, first run of the day. He felt titillation as if he had never stood upon a pair of skis, and surging doubt quickened anticipation as he debarked the lift. He knew he could ski, but it was a special sensation to incinerate faint anxiety in the purifying flame of action. The act of skiing transmitted a familiar pressure to the skilled soles of his feet and up his old bones to his brain. Skiing was in that moment the entire reason for his existence. He guided his skis down the mountain along the smoothest line of least resistance, for that time master of his destiny. Excessive exertion was a waste, a sloppy turn a mental and moral lapse in Bill Clarkson's soul. Skiing is composed of pressure and angles in constant flux. Like leaves, rivers, snowflakes and people, no two turns are the same and once made can never be retracted or redone. Each turn in life is a complete statement, and Clarkson was sure the integrity of a turn persisted. It was important to make correct turns and to never give up the work of refinement, the process reaching toward the perfect turn. Two runs of several hundred turns each could be fitted in before classes.
A popular and good teacher, the consummate "old pro," Clarkson lived off his knowledge that there's more to skiing than recreation. When business was brisk he often worked the entire day until lifts stopped, skiers left the mountain and the afternoon light began its fade. If Clarkson missed lunch, evening surely found him in The Avalanche, eating, drinking red wine, talking. He preferred to be with Sanders, another friend or an old client, but a festive mood infectiously followed him, and many a late night grew out of a sandwich and a glass of wine with Clarkson after skiing. He had a celebratory quality, but he opened only to those he chose according to the private standards of a private man. Kitty Reese was one, a 20-year old girl whose passion was photography, whose love was skiing, whose friend was Bill Clarkson. They were a sight. A pretty girl with long, light blonde hair and deep brown eyes and a quick, easy smile, and an old white-maned man with a weathered face and unfathomable, strange eyes. Easy talkers had the two as lovers, but it was not so. If he were younger or alone perhaps it could have been, but that is no more sure than the vagaries of all relationships and statements beginning with "if." Their friendship grew from Kitty's eagerness to photograph his skiing. She was a nuisance at first, but he was kind and by consenting to ski for the camera he learned appreciation for the photographer. She took up reading science-fiction. He critiqued her work with the unbiased eye of the non-photographer.
Kitty once told Bill she would “give anything" to ski like him. He looked at her and said nothing, his Pacific Ocean eyes flooding her with embarrassment, and Kitty never said anything like that again. She settled for being pleased when he granted her skiing or photography a word of approval. Conversation between them revolved around such topics as the possibility of intelligent life in other parts of the universe, what lived in the depths of the sea, astral projection, the ethics and significance of "transplanting parts of the human body, the concept of good and evil, and of the necessity to strive for the perfection which includes both the seemingly unattainable and the presently possible. Like good friends do, they spoke of the contradictions and difficulties of life.
When the skiing/photographing day ended, Kitty usually retired to the darkroom in the basement of the lodge. After she was finished with negatives, proof sheets, prints and enlargements, she studied and evaluated accomplishment and failure for that day. Then she often joined Clarkson, and usually Sanders, in The Avalanche. They joined a larger mass of skiers discussing the latest ski or ski boot or exploit of the hero of the hour, as necessary to any endeavor as bread to the Sacrament. In the altar of The Avalanche they drank red wine and enjoyed each other's company and conversation.
One clear day near season's end Clarkson volunteered to ski for Kitty and her camera. It was the first time Kitty hadn't suggested the filming, and she was happy for the unforeseen chance. He was relaxed and talkative and joked that she would never see him ski so well as he would that day, green/grey eyes reflecting his private laughter at her pretty surprise.
While they rode the lift he talked about his favorite ski runs and he pointed out for her once again the beauty he perceived the texture of snow, the vibrancy of living trees, the contour of a ridge, the honorable struggle of skiers battling their own fears and limitations, blue sky streaked with wispy cirrus clouds presaging a storm two days hence. Shadows. Peaks. Valleys. Sharp clear air caressing lungs. Bill Clarkson told Kitty Reese that she was very pretty, as pretty as the mountain with a new mantle of snow on a cold sunny day with color spectrum snowflake diamonds dancing in the air. And he laughed at her blush and at his own sentence.
Bill Clarkson was in a very good mood, the best Kitty had known of him. She watched his skiing through the camera viewfinder, and the elusive thought slithered through that the skier and the skiing had danced together so long that the two had become the same one. The idea passed. Clarkson chose the spots to ski and Kitty noted the light was excellent. She shot several rolls of film. At one point she stopped photographing to simply watch him maneuver through an old burn of scattered dead pine trees standing nakedly branchless. Free of the camera eye, she saw him with her own. Her admiration and attention was tinged with an electric feeling of ephemerality, a sense that Bill Clarkson's skiing existed on its own, while the man himself had stepped out for lunch or a date with his love. A chill passed through her body and mind like a cloud from nowhere crossing before the sun on a warm day. The moment passed. Clarkson skied up to her and stopped. Warmth returned.
"That's beautiful," she said. "Bill, that's lovely skiing."
"Yes," he said, smiling wide with his whole wrinkled and weathered face. "I’ve got it today. But I told you. I've really got it today. "
They parted when the late afternoon mountain sun bathed the passes and peaks in golden contrast to the dark blue valley shadows of imminent night. He kissed her on the forehead like he sometimes did and looked into her eyes and then he skied away.
Kitty went to her darkroom, excitement and nagging anxiety floating like corks on the quiet, strong currents in the rivers of her innermost mind. For a couple of hours she was completely involved in the celluloid/chemical/time/light world of the film development process. By the time the negatives were ready to inspect, Kitty was filled with charged anticipation. Using a magnifying glass, she began peering first at the individual frames of the strips of film she had taken that day of Bill Clarkson.
Nothing in her young life could have prepared her for what she saw. Frame after frame showed the mountains, snow, trees, the great open sky and the exact scene she had photographed in the perfect reverse focus of the negative except that Bill Clarkson and his skiing were not there. No skier was visible in any of the film.
Kitty looked with mounting perplexity through half the negatives before the tears burst from her brown eyes and flowed down the face that Clarkson said was as pretty as the mountain with a new mantle of snow on a cold sunny day with color spectrum snowflake diamonds dancing in the air. She dropped the magnifying glass. It made a dull thud landing on the work bench. She ran, leaving the darkroom door open behind her. A growling, short--breathed sob escaped into the night air as she emerged from the lodge and sprinted across crunchy frozen snow. With blurred, sorrowed vision she saw through the tall, plate-glass windows of The Avalanche a scene from a world that would never be the same: a brightly lit, smoke-tainted room; the long table in the alcove covered with beer and wine glasses and ash trays and empty pizza trays and surrounded by ski instructors; the animated movements of conversing people, as if seen upon the silent screen of an old movie house.
|And in the corner of the alcove furthest from the window, unnoticed by the others, sat Hal Sanders on a bench holding in his arms the slumped form of Bill Clarkson. Sanders looked straight ahead, his eyes wide and red, and tears streamed from them and down his old face like spring run-off from the mountains.|
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|photo above: the Elk Range near Aspen
© Burnhan Arndt