Immensely detailed and scholarly books can be found on the history of skiing in Europe. Luckily for the reading public, no such works about American skiing are possible. It took centuries for skiing to spread from Finland to the Alps; over here events began to happen in the late twenties at a clip no chronicler could follow. Looking back over this compressed and scrambled segment of history, many important competitions are but the haziest of memories, while certain unrecorded incidents stand out sharply. Imagine, for example, a downhill race in Newport, New Hampshire, on a very hot day in August. And this was no dream.
The ski madness had but recently infected a lot of people in New England. It had hit them hard; like firewater and the red man. Skiers just couldn't wait for next winter to come, and some misguided fanatic had discovered pine needles were slippery. Being in the ski business, we felt obliged to go along with the idea. As I remember it, a couple of us outstripped the field, having cheated by gluing celluloid to our ski bottoms.
All known technique was useless. The only way to turn was to jump. You had to fend off the pine trees with your poles. We ended up not only bleeding and bruised, but completely black. Dives into pine needles encrusted everything but our eyeballs with dirt, pitch, and sweat. It really combined two sports - skiing and tar-and-feathering.
Fortunately some wandering skiers around that time discovered that winter comes to Chile when summer comes to New England. The thrilling sport of pine-needle skiing was finished.
Out-of-season skiing—on pine slopes, sand dunes, and indoor deathtraps lined with borax was just one of many odd results of the sudden craze. "Dry-skiing" classes-in-city gyms were mobbed by eager novices. (Memories of lining up a hundred women in the Y.W.C.A., all in their skiing gear, and putting them through kick turns and stembogens—what a clatter!) A smart shoe manufacturer made a fortune out of "ladies" ski boots; the things had pointed toes and couldn't be fitted to any kind of binding.
Many optimists, showing up for lessons in downhill running, were outfitted with Finnish langlauf skis about ten feet long and two inches wide. One chap went around trying to sell a binding of his own invention we called "the bear trap." It gripped the whole leg up to the knee in an arrangement of ratchets, levers, toggles, and springs, and must have weighed twenty-five pounds.
Among my own modest contributions were metal edges made out of bronze clock springs, a patented ski with a stepped bottom, and a technique known as "figure skiing." Using eight-foot double-ended skis, it enabled the skier to approximate, somewhat loosely, much of the repertoire of Sonja Henie.
We even had the temerity to try figure skiing in Austria, where it was received with something less than enthusiasm. I went out alone for a limbering-up of spins and outer-edges on a vast Arlberg slope one afternoon. Coming back to the village I met Herr Direktor of the ski school; he was a sort of regional dictator of everything pertaining to the sport. He stopped. I stopped. He peered at the upturned points of the rear ends of my long skis. Then he said, "Shees for dancing, hey?", roared with laughter, and went on his way. "Very funny, you old goat," I muttered at his departing back. Afterward I took a feeble revenge by doing telemarks around his classes and inviting the instructors to try them. It was strictly verboten to be seen skiing in any other style than that ordained by the master. But some of our American innovations were destined to develop the sport considerably and were later adopted in Europe.
In the early days we had to import all our equipment. A ski was made of one solid piece of wood and could be broken by a bad spill. As a result, we had hundreds of skis smashed for every leg that was broken. Then we started to mass-produce laminated skis, and soon after, metal ones. These are so superior that now we have hundreds of legs smashed for every broken ski.
In the early years we were at great pains to sell the public our belief that skiing was a safe sport. We must have overdone it, because we were besieged by many specimens that would have caused veteran European instructors to throw in the sponge. There were retired bankers in their late seventies who had even given up golf. One large Boston matron, insisting on lessons, probably hadn't taken so much as a short walk in years. With such formidable girth and battlements, when she caught an edge it was like a mighty pine toppling. We would have to round up all hands to get her back on her feet again.
In New Hampshire a few of us took up skiing because the most glamorous alternative winter occupation was the cutting of cordwood. We learned the Norwegian system, which emphasized a graceful, upright posture. The technique was well explained in a book by an Englishman published around 1920. There were many photos of the author in action. He wore knickerbockers, white gaiters, tweed jacket, and square-visored cap, and sported a luxuriant mustache. In every maneuver the straight briar pipe in his mouth lent him an air of calm nonchalance. And his posture was always very upright and graceful. This posture came in handy much later. After some fifteen years of sliding about the slopes all, doubled up in a most uncomfortable squat known as the Arlberg crouch, it again became fashionable to stand erect.
There have been, of course, many refinements of the three main systems (Scandinavian, Austrian, and French or parallel) that succeeded each other in American skiing. Some of these refinements: weighting the outer ski; weighting the inner ski; weighting both skis; unweighting both skis; going "down-up-down"; going "up-down-up"; rotating with the shoulders; counter-rotating with the shoulders; and just whizzing down the trail and the heck with all of it.
A point fervently stressed in all the newer systems is the forward lean. For several years some new maestro would come along every winter claiming his method enabled one to lean a degree or so further forward. When the Austrians started infiltrating the Laurentians, bringing this fetish with them, my friend (whom I'll call Pierre) was annoyed.
Pierre, a superbly graceful skier who all his life had been teaching people to run the gentle Laurentian slopes, saw no reason to lean further forward. But all he heard from morn till night a shouting of "Vorlage! More vorlage!" One day he had an idea. Behind the heelplates of his skis he fastened metal rings; from these he passed stout straps around his ankles. He then went out and took up a prominent position on the Austrian-staffed school slope. Slowly he bent his lithe form forward until his nose actually touched the points of his skis; then he straightened up and skied victoriously down the slope.
Pierre it was who advocated, with no success, a ski event I would dearly love to, see someday. He was sure it would prove more popular than hockey or football. And indeed the idea not only combined some aspects of hockey and football with skiing; boxing and dueling were also thrown in. Two teams were to race six times up and down a rope-tow slope, all at the same time. They would be allowed to shake each other off the rope on the way up, body-check and trip on the way down, generally mixing things up with no holds barred. I'm still hoping some farsighted promoter will get hold of this.