Sunday, May 10, 2009

A Falling Out (short story)

All spring and summer there was talk about a ski area being built on Mount Forge. This news seemed strange to me because I didn't know anyone who skied. Also we didn't get alot of snow in New Jersey. Some winters we got hardly any snow at all. But the word was they would make their own snow, if you could believe that.
The word of this miracle came from Billy romp. Billy was a classmate of mine and he had gone to work at the ski area right after our high school graduation. He had always worked at some job, even when he was in school. So it was no surprise that he had a job before his graduation robe was packed up for return.
Billy said he had spent most of the summer raking and seeding the newly graded slopes. Now they were laying two lines of pipe up the side of each slope and these pipes would carry compressed air and water to make snow when winter came. He said there was lots of work to do and the owners were hiring more help. Chair lifts were going up, and rope tows, and it was all very exciting.
I had fooled around all summer, taking vacation, but I was beginning to feel edgy. I knew I needed to be doing something, getting on with my life as my father would tell me almost every day. Make something of myself, get a trade. My father was a carpenter and he said he could make me one too, but I didn't want to do that work. I know that bothered him, but I just didn't like carpentry.
My friends and I talked about enlisting in the military, or was it better to wait for the draft. Vietnam was heating up then. LBJ, the cowboy President with the sniggery smile, was throwing the good old USA deeper into the mud with every speech. My father said joining up would be good for me, make me a man. Yeah, a dead man, I said. Don't get smart, Jack, he said and gave me one of those looks of anger mixed with sadness. Someday, Jack, he said, you're gonna break my heart.
My father believed every man should do the patriotic thing. I thought so myself, but I wasn't ready just yet. So I went to Mount Forge and applied for work. They hired me on the spot and they made it clear that I could stay on when the construction was done and work when the area was open for business. There would be jobs manning the lifts and tows, making snow, work in the ski rental shop, and other stuff like that.
Well, it worked out fine for me and I stayed on the payroll for the winter. I liked the job, the people, and all the activity. I was willing to work all the hours they gave me, and that made the owner happy because the jobs were seasonal and turnover was high. Sometimes employees just stopped coming to work and there would be no one to stand at a lift station or sell tickets and I would get called and say "Yes, sir" and go racing in to save the day.
When spring came the weather turned mild and the snow began to disappear from the slopes. Soon the place shut down and layoffs began. The owner asked me if I wanted to stay on through the summer and fall keeping the place up, doing maintenance. I had done a good job, he said, he would give me a nice raise, and a title, Mountain Manager. I said Yes, sure enough. I loved that title. Mountain Manager. So I had a full time job now. Billy Romp and two other guys were kept on too.
My Father said I had taken hold real well but did this job have a future? I told him it had next year in it anyway. Past that I didn't know.

Next winter, just before Christmas, my father found out his own job had future problems. The USA was in a recession; construction was off, and my father was out of work until next Spring.After a week or so, he asked me if I thought he could get some work at the ski area. At first I thought he meant carpentry and I said no, but he said he meant any kind of work, something to do to make money. Well, I asked the owner and he said Sure, tell him to come on in. He's got to be good, he said, like father, like son, right?So Dad was put to work as lift operator at the top platform of Chairlift One, the longest lift in the area as it stopped at the highest point on the mountain. The platform where he worked was made of wood and stood about 25 feet above a jagged rocky ledge. On the slope side of the platform was a booth where the operator stood to watch the approach of skiers and make sure they were ready to ski off out of the chair. Sometimes skiers would get talking and forget to raise the safety bar in time to ski off so they had to be reminded with a shout. Inside the booth there was an intercom for communication with the base terminal and a mushroom button shutoff switch.Dad did real well. He was older than most of the guys who worked there but he knew how to fit in. Things got better between us. He didn't even seem to mind that I was in charge of him, or that I was paid more than he was.One day, when things were slow, I decided to make an inspection of the chairlift towers. I had done this before. I'd start with the bottom tower and walk my way up the mountain on the right-of-way beneath the cable. I climbed each tower and checked out the sheaves for bearing noise or wobble, and how the cable seemed to be wearing on the sheave lining. As I was climbing down from the last tower before the upper platform I saw Billy Romp riding up to relieve my father for lunch. He smiled and waved. I yelled at him to tell my father to wait for me, we'd ride down together. He nodded OK.I finished climbing down and walked the last 100 feet to the platform. Dad was scrunched to the outside of the booth talking to Billy inside. He saw me and waved come on.Now the rules for safe operation of the chairlift were that the lift must be stopped for anyone getting a chair on the top platform for a ride down to the base. So when I got to the platform I stood to one side and watched an empty chair swing around and start toward me and I waited for the lift to stop.

My father went by me and stood in the path of the chair and shouted "Come on. I told Billy not to shut it off. Let's hop on." I started to say no and I looked at Billy but he was laughing and I knew it wasn't going to stop and that I had to get in front and do this horseplay thing with my Dad.

I'm not sure what happened next. I think he tried to bump me to hog the seat but I'm not sure. I know he went for his part of the chair like a kid, fast and grinning.

Like I say, I think he tried to bump me over a little, maybe not. I know I bumped him back but, just as the chair approached the platform edge, I saw I had pushed too far or too hard because he wasn't on the seat. The chair left the platform and my father lost his grip. He gave a little cry and dropped off onto the rocks below.

For a moment I froze, then I looked back. My father was lying face down on the rocks. He wasn't moving. Billy was calling on the intercom. I turned around. Skiers going up the other side of the towers were pointing, gaping. What happened, one of them shouted at me. I saw a snowmobile with two ski patrolmen on it. Their jackets had the color of dried blood. They looked like statues on a frozen sea.

At the bottom, people asked me What happened? I don't know, I said, I'm not sure. It was so fast. I couldn't say what I thought, what I felt.

Later, I heard that my father, large man that he was, had hit the rocks hard, breaking his ribs and crushing his heart. His broken heart.

Anyway, afterwards, I did get on with my life, like he always wanted. I was happy too. But I wasn't the same. No, I had changed. I was different, but in a way that I didn't understand.

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