Skiing with the Father
The man was on top of the world. Or on top of New Hampshire. Or, merely, on top of New Hampshire’s Mount Sunapee.
He sat on the deck of the summit lodge with a 360 degree view, interrupted in a few directions by clumps of trees, and in one direction by the mechanism of the ski lift. The sun was warm, for February. There was little wind; the ski runs were well groomed. It was a Wednesday. School vacation week had brought families to the mountain, the man’s family included. At the moment, though, he was alone.
He was exhausted by the blandishment of the present time.
During vacations, many persons desire to drop out of the present, the man included. In a week, the same public arguments and scandals and breathless excitements will once again nail them all to the—might the man say ‘to the Cross’?—of the present moment. But vacation offers a momentary cessation of the noise.
“I’m looking even more like my father,” the man had said to his wife that morning, after shaving.
“Yes, you are.”
The man’s father had died twenty months before at age one hundred and one. The man’s father had been a poet—highly regarded, internationally lauded—whose fame had then faded before his own demise. But the father had possessed the toughness to hold stubbornly to life.
“You know the critics?” his father, sitting in the sun at age ninety-nine, had asked him.
“They’re all dead.”
His father had smiled. “And I’m not.”
After the man’s father reached a high place at age one hundred, he continued to push life’s rock uphill for one more year.
The man missed his father fiercely. Often, when he was driving alone, he put into the CD player a spiritual which promised that those who are separated by Jordan will one day find each other on the opposite side.
Also, his father had been a skier. In his father’s day, athletes ascended mountains by strapping sealskins to the bottom of their skis and walking there. A day might be occupied by a long climb, stopping now and then for a breather, a swig from a flask, and a refreshing pipe when the view inspired. There would be a picnic in the snow at the top, and then would come the reward at the end of the day—that one, long, delightful schuss back downhill again.
Today, of course, we use a speedy chairlift to carry us through the air to the top of the mountain, and we are able to enjoy a score of downhill runs in the time that the man’s father had experienced one.
Mechanical devises nowadays truly do make life’s uphills easier to master than was the case a mere century ago. But that does not justify chronological snobbery, as C.S. Lewis called it, our unexamined assumption that things of the past ought to remain in the past and ought not to trouble us cleverer moderns.
Our chronological arrogance allows us—or so we think—to dismiss the truth that things of the past had their own integrity in terms of their own time. We are allowed—or so we think—to judge the things of the past in terms of what we believe are our own more enlightened modern insights.
The man was sixty, and he was feeling about his own past a new weightiness. There were now accretions upon him. They were the results of life assumptions, relevant to himself in years before, of the events and philosophies and choices by which he had lived. He was beginning to experience the old person’s anxiety that these important events and possibilities and choices were hidden from young adults of the present.
What must the burden of the past have been on his father at age one hundred? That man could reach back nearly to the Boer War. The Boer War! Scarcely anyone today has even heard of it, but it was a bellwether of its time.
Lounging in the winter sun on his New Hampshire deck, the man thought back through forty of his own years, and he remembered himself on the deck of another summit lodge such as this one, but on the other side of the world. Then, he had been high in the Bernese Alps, enjoying the same mid-winter ambiance as today, except that the mountain scape was limitless—dazzling alpine peaks, stretching all the way into Italy, with the Jungfrau as a magnet to the eye.
On the deck with him were skiers who had taken the train up the valley from Schoenreid to the base of the funicular car. Then the funicular car had carried the merry group to the summit, where they had debouched upon the deck of the summit lodge and now sat in the sun, drinking beer or schnapps, and eating fat sausages with sauerkraut.
As compared with the present day, no ski garment worn by anyone on that long-ago deck was an advertisement.
The man’s father came along the deck and sat down next to him. “Just like the 1920s,” he said, and then he laughed, “Except in those days we needed to climb up, and once we got above the tree line, it was harder.”
“There wasn’t any way to know which route across the snow fields was safe. If you were the first to cross.” He filled and lit his pipe. “And we always wanted to be the first to cross.”
The man had a vision of his father as Nick Adams, from Hemingway’s Cross-County Snow, but as a Nick touched more closely by the muse than Nick the brawler ever was.
“In those days, were you ever here, right here?”
“Above this valley, yes, but lower down,” he gestured down-valley, “by the Diableret Glacier.” His father mused a bit and then said, “You know, if we time our runs right, we could make it there today. It means skiing the snow fields above Saanen and Saanenmoser. Then we could ski back down to Gstaad and take the train back up the valley to Schoenreid for dinner.”
And was there ever anything more romantic sounding than that?
As it happened, the man and his father didn’t make it all the way to the Diableret. His father was more comfortable with a slower series of runs, and they ended by dropping down out of the snow fields and into the trees above Saanenmoser. So the up-valley train ride was shorter, and they were early for dinner, and the man’s mother was pleased.
The man’s memory up there on top of New Hampshire could take him back only forty years, to the 1960s, to the conflicts he had himself lived through, for good or ill. But when his father had been young and was skiing the Diableret, back in the 1920s, the lessons his father was concerned about came from another great conflict so recently ended—from The Great War.
The French speakers were wounded and vengeful; the German speakers were resentful and truculent; the English speakers (except some of them like Churchill) were hoping conflict itself would go away; the Russian speakers were saying nothing at all because they sagged under the Bolshevik weight and were silenced. And the Americans were ascendant…and talking all the time.
Less and less was privacy valued in society. Taste was for publicity, and human aspiration and salvation was adjusted now in political terms—what can government do about man’s lot, how can government use humankind for its own glory? And Christianity was no longer the one world religion that was generally understood in the West to be true.
But the man’s father had his own father—the man’s grandfather—back in the 19th century. The lessons learned by the adults of that 19th century time concerned what had happened in their own pasts.
Big were colonialism, its pros and cons, and also rationalism’s challenge to religion. Manifest Destiny was, indeed, still manifest. Explosions were occurring in what was later to be called psychology, physics was bending time and finding that light has gravity, and cubism, Dadaism, and other movements of the artistic avant-garde were delighting or affronting, depending.
The big storm that rumbled over the horizon was the fight between capitalism and communism. That would have its hellish impact later…but only after the democracies finally decided to fight back against their own destruction and defeat fascism. Then they could turn to communism.
Yet, as the man mused in his silent space atop that New Hampshire mountain (he had recently re-read a good deal of C. S. Lewis…together with the Gospel of John), there’s a longer perspective as well, and it was there in the man’s father’s day, as well as in the day of his father’s father, too.
There is an even greater Father still, and He saw the universe at its beginning, knows its present, and understands its future. He isn’t compelled by chronological snobbery; he has not our limited human perspective. What all persons struggle with today is no different from what persons struggled with in ages gone by. All persons climbed through life, up their snow fields, and they took their looks from their summits all around.
We today are also comfortable with the sins we have chosen, until we learn to ski with the Father.
The man walked down to the snow, stamped into his skis, and pushed off for the long run home.