The Boy Who Invented Skiing: A Memoir

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9780312310936: The Boy Who Invented Skiing: A Memoir

In his memoir, THE BOY WHO INVENTED SKIING, Swain Wolfe captures a West that no longer exists--from growing up on ranches in the high country of Colorado and Montana to working underground as a miner for Anaconda Copper in Butte.
 
Swain Wolfe spent his childhood in magical places, exploring the mesas and tunnels of his father's tuberculosis sanatorium near the Garden of the Gods and later his step-father's six-thousand-acre ranch on a horse named Joe.  Nature was his mirror, allowing him to escape his parents' failing marriage, his father's despair, and his mother's brutal second marriage.
 
As a young boy, Swain risked life and limb by strapping his galoshes to homemade, cross-country skis he found in the hayloft.  Aided by milk barn brooms for poles, he invented a primitive form of downhill racing.
 
Family violence forced a move away from the mountains and wild rivers of Colorado to Missoula, Montana.  Having defined himself in the natural word, he found the people in town as alien as they found him.  He spent his life attempting to understand his intelligent, dangerously complex mother, who was far ahead of her time.
 
He discovered he could immerse himself in work as he had in nature.  He learned to work with draft horses and saw the end of the era of horse-drawn farm equipment.  He worked in lumber mills, led a crew into one of Montana's worst forest fires, and cut timber until the trees started talking to him.  But it was mining thousands of feet below the earth's surface that changed his life.
 
Swain absorbed the skills of natural storytellers--ranchers, loggers, and miners--and tells the stories of the free thinkers, hardscrabble philosophers, desperate characters, spirited women and outsider artists who embodied the boom spirit of the West after World War II.

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About the Author:

A former documentary filmmaker, Swain Wolfe is the author of THE WOMAN WHO LIVES IN THE EARTH, LAKE DREAMS, and THE PARROT TRAINER, which won two Southwest Book of the Year Awards.  He lives in Montana.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter One  Grandfather's Bricks and the Secret Room
 
A doe stood on the hillside, still as a stone. I couldn't tell if she was real or a statue. The ambivalence made me dizzy. Then she turned and looked at me. Others came into view--four doe and several fawns, grazing on the sparse, pale grass, working their way up the slope through the pines and evening shadows toward the sandstone house of my childhood. They were stately, fragile animals--pets to the Catholic nuns who nurtured them, fed them treats, and talked to them in quiet, nun voices.
 
I moved a step at a time toward the grazing deer until I reached the end of the path, where steps descended the hill to the old hospital grounds. The deer were only a few feet away. They stopped and lifted their heads. When I said hello, their bodies tensed. The soft, whispering murmur of nuns had been replaced by an unexpected male voice. They turned and walked away, down the hill and into the trees. The last time I was here, there was neither deer nor trees, only grass.
 
I turned to go back to the car and noticed I'd been standing on a patch of white firebricks. There were no other bricks anywhere around, only these. They'd been carefully laid faceup to display the words "Denver Fire Clay Company." Firebricks were not meant for a footpath or even a building. They were heavy, oversize bricks used to line industrial boilers and ceramic kilns, made to withstand temperatures over 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit.
 
It took a moment to grasp how the bricks came to be at the end of the path and what they meant. These bricks had been made by my father's father. Grandfather must have carried them home one or two at a time in his lunch pail and given them to my father, whom he'd put through medical school by working ten- and twelve-hour shifts loading and unloading the hot kilns. Whether the bricks were Grandfather's idea or my father's, they were dense, guilt-laden bricks.
 
I tried to recall if the bricks were there when I was a child, to imagine my father on his knees, nearly sixty years before, bending over his work, carefully adjusting each brick to fit flat against the next. I had no memory of the event, but I knew these were serious bricks.
 
Grandfather had fled the czarists across the Caucasus, found a Russian wife in Austria, and made steerage to the land of peace and plenty. He'd survived to work under slave labor conditions in Denver's factory gulag. At that time, Denver was 300,000 souls a mile high, infusing the air with the scent of desire and desperation that still clings to the men and women of the West.
 
I stood on the guilty bricks, watching the deer drift down through the long-needled pines, thinking of my father in his suit and white shirt, on his knees, struggling with his tribute to the man who had worked half his life in a Colorado brick factory to raise his six children and put his brightest son through medical school. It was no accident that Grandfather's bricks were the first thing your feet touched after you climbed the 105 steps to the top of the hill--where you could turn and look down on the magnificent little valley and see my father's hospital.
 
I once saw a photograph of my grandfather wearing a porkpie hat and a rumpled suit not made for the muscular, hunched-over torso of a working man. You couldn't tell from the snapshot that his hands were thick and strong--more mechanical grippers than hands. What it did show was a man who knew life was work and work was his duty.
 
I met him only once. My father drove our beautiful red Buick down the clay driveway and stopped behind Grandfather's Model A Ford. Grandfather was standing in front of his small house as though he'd been waiting.
 
Grandmother did not come out. She might have been ill, but knowing what I know now, she was probably angry and humiliated, because her son was ashamed of his family. He never introduced them to my mother, never took them to see the hospital where he saved people, and never invited them to the big stone house on the hill for Christmas dinner.
 
The day I met him, Grandfather had just come home from the brick factory. It was the middle of summer, 1943. He was wearing three pairs of pants, a heavy wool shirt, and several sweaters. The third day after the burners were shut down on the huge beehive kilns, and the bricks had cooled to around 300 degrees Fahrenheit, the company required the men to remove the bricks. All those layers of clothes were insulation from the searing heat. To keep his face from blistering, Grandfather wore a wet gunnysack over his head.
 
My father owed his grand position, his beautiful wife, and his fine life to his parents, but he was embarrassed by their ignorance and their backward, Old Country habits. No amount of education and status could wash that off. My father regretted anything associated with his parents, including hard labor, poverty, and, obviously, himself. Much of his life was devoted to the inventions and rationalizations necessary to conceal his shame.
 
 
I looked up at the house of my first memories. It was two stories high and stood on a hill overlooking the small valley. When I was little, the valley seemed vast, stretching off toward the rim of the known world, marked by monumental sandstone pillars eroded by wind and water into alluring shapes with bands of soft yellows, oranges, and reds. Their tops were mushroom caps of harder sediment. On the valley floor were several buildings made of stone, including father's hospital. To the east of the hospital were a hundred tiny, white, six-sided cottages where individual patients lived. The place was called Woodman. It was a tuberculosis sanatorium.
 
 
From the window of my room on the second floor, I could see the grass stretch down across the valley and up the other side through the sandstone pillars with their mushroom caps. Our house was made of the same sandstone. The other houses were white with porches.
 
My room had windows on three sides. When the sun came in, the room would glow. I would sit in the bright room and think about how the world worked. I understood nearly nothing and was often unsure of what little I'd learned. Every day there were new things, so many things. Sometimes, on warm days, I'd fall asleep on the blue rug and dream and wake up and wonder if what I'd dreamed was real. Everything was a mystery. It was my job to explore, to understand the mysteries.
 
Late in the afternoon on a summer day when the sun slanted in, I woke from a nap and noticed something new near the chest of drawers on the wall without windows. It was a door I'd never seen. The door was white like the walls and about four feet high. A small glass knob left a faint blur of rainbow daggers scattered through its long shadow. I lay on the blue rug, wondering what was on the other side of the door.
 
I got up and walked over to the wall and felt along the edge of the door. I pulled the knob, which was just right for my small hand, and the door opened. The room was nearly black except for a bright doorway on the far side. I thought I saw a boy standing in the doorway. How could someone be living in there without my knowing? I waited. Nothing happened. Then Mother called from downstairs. It was dinnertime. I walked down the steps wondering about the boy in the secret room.
 
By the next morning the door had disappeared. I made several passes along the wall, running my hand over the plaster between the bureau and the windows. I stood for a long time with both hands and an ear pressed to the wall, listening. Mother and the maid were making noise downstairs, so it was hard to tell where the sounds came from, but it seemed like something was on the other side. It occurred to me that the door appeared only when the sun struck the wall, and I'd have to wait until later in the afternoon. For several days, when I woke in the morning, and later, when the sun stretched across the wall, I searched for the door, but I never found it again.
 
Copyright © 2006 by Swain Wolfe

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