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. We didn't get a lot 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 news of this miracle came from Billy Romp, a high school classmate of mine. Billy had gone to work at the ski area right after graduation. He had always worked at some odd jobs, even when he was in school. Anyway, Billy said he had spent most of the summer raking stones off newly graded slopes and then seeding the slopes and spreading salt hay on the seed so the rains wouldn't wash the seed away. Now they were laying two lines of pipe up the side of each slope. These pipes would carry compressed air and water to be mixed in a 'snow gun' and discharged under pressure to release a mist in the air that would freeze and fall to earth as snow. He said there was lots of work, all kinds of laboring and construction, and they were hard up for help. Chair lifts were going up, and rope tows, and it was all quite exciting.
I had fooled around all summer, taking vacation, but near Fall I was feeling edgy. I knew I needed to be doing something, getting on with my life as my father would tell me every day. I should make something of myself, get a trade. My father was a carpenter and he said he could make me one too but I said no. I know that bothered him but I didn't want to be a carpenter.
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 that joining up would be good for me, make me grow up. He had been in World War II and believed every man should do the patriotic thing. I thought so myself, but I wasn't ready just yet. I think that bothered him too.
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. Thee would be jobs manning the lifts and tows, making snow, grooming the slopes, maintenance of equipment, work in the ski rental shop, and other stuff like that. The ski area would be open seven days and three evening a week.
Well it worked out fine for me. 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 people 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 yessir and go racing in to save the day.
Spring came and the weather turned mild. The snow began to disappear from the slopes. Skiing was open only on weekends to make the snow last longer but finally there just wasn't enough snow left so the place was shut down and layoffs began. The owner asked me if I wanted to stay on to keep the place up, doing maintenance. I had done a good job, he said. I would get a nice raise and a title. Mountain Manager, it was called. I said yes, sure enough. I loved that title. Billy Romp and two other guys were kept on too.
My father said I had taken hold really well but did this job have a future? I told him that it had next year in it anyway. Past that I didn't know.
The next winter my father found out that his own job had future problems. The USA was in a recession; construction was off, and my father was out of work. Temporarily. Until next Spring. After a week or so he asked me if he could get 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. Life father, like son, right?
Dad was put to work as lift operator at the top of the longest chairlift on the mountain. The platform where he worked was made of wood and stood about 25 feet above a jagged rocky slope. On the slope side of the platform there 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. Inside the booth was an intercom phone for communication with the base terminal and a mushroom button shutoff switch.
My father did really 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 made 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 under the cable. I climbed each tower and checked out the sheaves for bearing noise or wobble and how the cable was wearing on the sheave lining. As I was climbing down from the last tower near 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 tight 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 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 the terminal and start toward me and I waited for the lift to stop. Dad went by me and stood in the path of the chair and shouted "I told Billy not to shut it off. Let's hop on." I started to say no but I looked at Billy and he was laughing and I knew it wouldn't stop and that I had to get in front and do this horseplay thing with my Dad.
I think he tried to bump me a little but I'm not sure. I know he went for his part of the seat like a kid, fast, 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 moving chair approached the platform edge, I saw I had bumped too far or too hard because I could see he wasn't on the seat and the chair left the platform and my father slid down and off onto the rocks below.
For a moment I froze, then I looked back. My father wasn't moving. Billy was on the intercom calling. I turned around. Skiers going up on the other side of the towers pointed, gaping. What happened? one of them shouted at me. I saw a snowmobile with two ski patrolmen on it climb the slope, their jackets the color of dried blood. They looked like statues on a frozen sea.
I heard later that Dad, big man that he was, had hit the rocks hard, face down, breaking ribs, crushing his heart.
People asked me What happened? I don't know, I said. I'm not sure. Happened so fast.
I couldn't say what I thought, what I felt.
Anyway, afterwards, I got on with my life, like he always wanted. I was happy too. but I wasn't the same. No, I was different in a way that I didn't understand.