Editor’s note: In our March 2010 issue (MG #165), we ran an obituary, penned by Dave Baldridge (who has gained a certain amount of recent notoriety in our pages as the now-famous “List Guy,” whose words, and the consequent responses to his words, have been gracing our Letters page for several months now) of a man named Richard Barnum-Reece as part of a loosely aggregated feature package titled “Mentors.” Baldridge managed to dig up a piece that Barnum-Reece wrote for the Monday, April 5, 1976, issue of the Daily Utah Chronicle, which is justified, as Baldridge is a key character in the tale that follows. I liked it so much that I decided to re-print it herein.
We called it “playing the crease.” The Indian was an eternally naïve one-eighth Cherokee-Honkie mix and I, a professional sociopath, was his partner in the Ski Bum Trade.
The tale is ongoing. He is still in the racket and so am I. The crease has closed — or the crease is closing. Who knows? Maybe the crease was never there, perhaps it was an ephemeral dream as destructive as the green light that flashed, glinted and burned in Gatsby’s eye as he sought out the Great Blonde American Valkyrie.
This was at the time, mind you, when people came to college to address pressing existential questions. Those who thought of jobs and the “real world” were at the very least dullards. Ultimately, as the noose of self-investigation presented itself, we became queasy about college. What could we do and make a small living (nothing exorbitant to be sure) and still maintain our “integrity” (i.e. not working for the Los Alamos labs making A-bombs, in his case, and, in my case, not working for an evil father-in-law at the family car lot)?
The answer hit one day like a metaphorical bolt of lightning: become ski patrolmen! The problem was that we couldn’t ski. Still, we were jocks: college football players who had made the traveling squad but didn’t play in games. We thought we could pick up skiing easy.
“Let’s just get a season pass and ski our ass off for a year,” the Indian said. He supposed it would be enough to get us on a ski patrol somewhere. The idea was that we, as God’s own natural athletes, could mortgage our lives and then, miraculously, come up with a job as professional skiers.
So we became “Ski Bums.”
The term is invidious. It says nothing for the eternal optimism of youth. This is not to say that optimism isn’t justified for young, hungry, take-on-the-world crazies. It’s just, I suppose, that the battle had just begun.
But where was I? Yes. We were going to become ski patrolmen. Someone told us they made $500 a month. We figured $500 was a fortune. It would be enough to support our other, more vicious dream of becoming a consummate mixture of Ernest Hemingway and Albert Camus. At least we thought so.
The advertising con had a lot to do with it. There’s nothing like a stacked blonde in front of a crackling fireplace with a jar of hot buttered rum in her hand to convince you that skiing is your sport. Nothing.
Don’t misunderstand me. I happen to believe in skiing as a lifestyle. It’s just that I tire of the skiing-as-a-sex-substitute mentality. It may be true — in fact it is true: the ski resort is an ersatz singles bar.
But it’s also a nice place to take the family after you transcend the Great Stud of the North business. Later, I was to learn that skiing is a great place to get rid of a hangover that came from the evil brew you consumed each night to relieve your memory of the day you spent on the slopes teaching middle-aged women, who had trouble ascending a flight of stairs, how to “Ski like Stein.”
So we hustled our parents, sold our football jerseys. And went skiing. Each day, we hitched up to Big Cottonwood Canyon, and, each day, we hitched down. It was fun for awhile, and then it wasn’t fun, so we stopped doing it every day. We did it every other day.
That’s when we started selling our blood to buy Vino da Tavola. A gallon jug just cost $1.25. I’ll never forget that. It was okay after the first three or four glasses. The best way to drink it was over a tall glass of cracked ice. That way, you couldn’t taste the faint sawdust bouquet of the wine. After the fourth glass, nothing mattered. Then you could drink it warm. The problem (we later discovered) was the purple vomit. Dave (that’s the Indian’s name) started the whole thing.
Those who are connoisseurs of cheap wine know that, when it becomes potable, it’s time to stop drinking. It’s just when it starts trickling down your throat without any trouble like an innocent soft drink that the danger is extreme.
As the wine worked its magic, we cranked up the stereo and started the ritual of self and counter accusations. It was a healthy purging of the bourgeois roots, we thought. We talked, yelled at each other, cried like babies in our acute wine melancholia. It was important to go beyond the middle-class bullshit. We wanted to sit at the foot of the Buddha. Perhaps drink some wine with him. Talk as equals, smoke a number even. We had taken a much-needed break for New Mexico, where the Indian had an adobe house and many equally crazy friends, who also sold their blood and replaced it with cheap wine. The wine had done its work, and I was there in the kitchen trying to seduce a doe-eyed beauty, when the mood which I was working for was destroyed from outside. We heard an incredibly huge blowing sound. It was the Indian doing his cheap wine St. Vitus dance in the night.
“That’s it, Indian, you can do it!”
“Thanks, pal,” the Indian said.
Of course it was inane, but we didn’t care. Life was fine and there was more blood where that last pint came from. In fact, we discovered that with the proper lies to the questions put by the blood people that we could sell our blood every other week. We could convince others on the odd weeks. We had it made.
Or so we thought. We fancied ourselves hipsters in the manner of Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassidy. At the same time, we were the American embodiment of Stein Eriksen, in our minds deftly unleashing the bra strap of every eligible young girl who came across our path.
That was right before the Indian’s assignation with the nun on the plane. It’s a story that will offend the entire university community. Out of a proper sense of decorum, I won’t go into it. Suffice it to say that it happened at night on a return flight from Albuquerque to Salt Lake and they took the arms out of the chairs to get enough room.
It says something about ski bums. Pagans. Pure and simple.
Soon we were back in Salt Lake and, to continue the tale, we finally got jobs. He’s a Sun Valley corporation cop now and I’m walking around in a trench coat as a ski instructor at Park West. Still trying, in my way, to catch hold of that ineffable light that glints steadily in Gatsby’s cataract-covered eyeball. Groucho Marx as a ski instructor searching diligently for the secret word.