Some Off-Snow Education

In my skiing scrapbooks is a newspaper clipping:


Portillo, Los Andes
Chile, Sept. 2 (UP)

Ralph Miller, former Dartmouth skiing star, now serving in the United States Army, today sped down a specially measured 45-degree Andean slope at a speed of 175.6 kilometers (109 mph) per hour.

He exceeded by 19 kph (12 mph) the former record skiing speed of 156 kph set by Italy’s Zeno Colo.

Others who bettered the Colo mark but failed to equal Miller’s were Bud Werner of the University of Denver; Marvin Melville of Salt Lake City, Utah; Ronald Funk of Sun Valley, Idaho; and Chick Igaya, the Japanese skier who is attending Dartmouth. All are training for next year’s winter Olympic games.

Dick DorworthThat was in 1955 and I was 16. My school beer-drinking fellowship drove automobiles that fast, but the 16-year-old mind stampeded at the concept of 109 mph on skis. It magnified the living legends that were Ralph Miller and Bud Werner in the mind of a young ski racer for whom ski racing was everything. The teenage competitor tended to view living people in mythological terms, suspecting that good downhill racers were better humans than poor ones. At the time, all downhills frightened me, and I progressed in admiration and sometimes awe of the mythic downhill racer. I studied this breed, reaching to understand what enabled them to go straight where I couldn’t or wouldn’t. I even categorized courage according to three men — Ralph Miller, Bud Werner and Dick Buek, on anybody’s list of the best downhillers of the time.

Ralph Miller’s courage was studied, thought out and calculating. Miller looked at possibilities and consequences, prepared better than anyone else and jumped in to do his best. It is revealing that Miller gave up racing to become a doctor. He would have made a great general.

Bud Werner had courage as hard as marble and as cold. Bud gave you chills because, once he had chosen his territory, there would be no retreat. Bud’s courage was win or lose, succeed or die, black or white. Werner said, “When you’re afraid of speed, it’s time to quit.” He also said, “There are only two places in a race, first and last.” And he must have known some lonely moments. Bud Werner was the leader of an age in American skiing, a peculiar sort of genius, a loner, the last of an American species, and he was loved the most.

Buek possessed a courage opposite to Werner’s — hot, loud, indulged in for its own sake. Dick got his kicks more from the moment lived in heat than from the results of the race, though he was a hard, conscientious competitor. Dick was nicknamed “Mad Dog” and he laughed the most. Dick carried the reputation of amazing feats and he enjoyed his life and himself, and he was long dead in a plane wreck before I knew the joy of mastering fear.

Courage was a calculating risk, a primitive hardness or a touch of insanity. What chance had a boy who lacked an essential trait of the brave? I couldn’t know then that confidence and resolution are organic and that there are more than three varieties. Each person carries his and her own courage within, and we cease growing when traveling heavy or feeding lean. Like anyone who reflects the past as a future hint, I know much now I didn’t know then, but I knew there must be a way to true desires and false ones will sooner or later show their hands. I knew a person’s endeavors are closely related to his or her inner needs, and I needed a lot.

In March 1957 something happened in an Aspen bar that followed me around for years.

It was the night of the Roche Cup banquet after the races, the end of a good time. After my first semester of college, I moved to Aspen to train and race, living in a rented room with Tony Perry and Ron Funk. Ron was just divorced and leading an athletic, monastic existence and we did not learn to be good friends that year. Tony and I were American college fraternity boys (he an SAE at Denver University and me a Sigma Nu at the University of Nevada, majoring in journalism), and we made up in Aspen social circles for Ron’s seclusion. In terms of ski racing, it was a discouraging winter, but my 18-year-old fraternity house mind saw a form of success (a word one distrusts more each day) in parties, romance, lust and participation in the races. I was sorry the season was over.

I was having a beer in my favorite saloon with my old friend Howie Norton of Piedmont, California. Howie is about 5”6’ and 120 pounds. Suddenly, a gentleman estimated at 6’2’ and 200 pounds became pushy about ordering a beer and he and Howie exchanged words. Howie was raised in a society where barroom fighting is looked upon the way Norman Mailer must have appeared to Jacqueline Kennedy when he informed her he wanted to write a book proving the Marquis de Sade’s sainthood. Howie would no more consider a barroom brawl than he would have invited Lenny Bruce to dinner.

My background did not preclude barroom fighting, but I was clearly outsized and under motivated and told the heavyweight we didn’t want any trouble. He asked me if we were “chicken shit” to fight and I said “yes” and that seemed to satisfy him and he left, my pride a foolish sacrifice to peace.

Soon, he returned. We learned later that this fighter was a miner, married to the sister of a friend who was one of the best American skiers. He was neither satisfied nor about to be less than the traditional Saturday night liturgy of a certain strain of man who earns his subsistence by hard, physical labor. Again, he and Howie exchanged words. A disaster was imminent. I got off my stool.

“Hey, man, we don’t want any trouble.”

He shoved me violently against the bar, hissing obscenities. Next to my right hand on the bar was a full, long-neck bottle of beer. I picked it up. He threw his right, which I blocked with my left, and I hit him in the head with the bottle of beer. His eyes were like an electric light that has had the current switched off, and when I hit him with the left that had blocked his right it was like knocking over a wooden statue.

End of fight.

The bottle breaking against his head sounded like an explosion. There was blood and excited people. The wounded warrior had a serious concussion and several stitches in his face and head and he spent a few days in the hospital.

The bartender saw it all and he gave me another beer. When the scene quieted, I sought out the warrior’s wife to apologize and explain my side. Considering her husband’s condition, she was quite nice. She wished I hadn’t hit him with a bottle but explained with a wife’s patience that he had chosen that path before.

Then I sought out the owner of the bar. I’ll call this man Number Seven, a well-known personality, wit, skier and saloon keeper. I apologized. He accepted. In the ensuing years, we saw each other many times in the skiing world and always spoke and were friendly.

That night Howie and I left Aspen. A good winter and time in our lives left with us, the fight a good war story, an ugly memory.

At this point, let us more closely examine the 1955 UP (United Press, now United Press International UPI) story about speed skiing.

Zeno Colo’s old record was 159.292 kph, not 156 kph, and neither Werner, Funk, Melville nor Igaya bettered that mark. Melville and Igaya were never close, having quit many kilometers slower. The day before Miller’s record run, Miller and Werner went 158 kph. Funk was clocked at 156 kph, but fell in the transition and suffered a badly broken ankle and leg. Ron’s fall helped Werner decide that new territory might not be worth the price of holding.

Miller, who had MacArthurian traits, repaired the track after Ron’s fall and the next day went up alone as high as possible. Then he came down. He was timed by the great French skier Emile Allais with a hand-held stop watch over 50 meters, and his speed was actually measured at 108.7 mph/175.402 kph, not 109 mph. At 100 mph, a tenth of a second difference over 50 meters is about 18 mph, and anyone who has ever used a hand stop watch knows that two timers timing the same thing will always have a tenth of a second or more difference. For that reason Miller’s run is considered unofficial. He may have only gone 99 mph, but it is just as likely he went 112 mph. People who have raced on the Portillo track and know where he started tend to believe Miller was the first to go over 100 mph.

This revision of the 1955 UP story took me years to learn, and I was interested and spent many hours talking with Ron and others about it. What sort of truth and awareness could exist in the mind of a person who had, for instance, only that newspaper clipping to go on? So much of what we think — therefore do, therefore are — is based on newspaper and television reporting. We of modern civilization and culture are to some extent journalism products. I even majored in journalism in college before switching my major to English and graduating with a journalism minor. One of the better descriptions of journalism was given the world by James Agee:

“Who, what, where, when and why (or how) is the primal cliché and complacency of journalism, but I do not wish to appear to speak favorably of journalism. I have never yet seen a piece of journalism which conveyed more than the slightest fraction of what even moderately reflective and sensitive person would mean and intend by those unachievable words, and that fraction itself I have never seen clean of one or another degree of patent, to say nothing of essential falsehood. Journalism is true in the sense that everything is true to the state of being and to what conditioned and produced it (which is also, but less so perhaps, a limitation of art and science); but that is about as far as its value goes. This is not to accuse or despise journalism for anything beyond its own complacent delusion, that it is telling the truth even of what it tells of. Journalism can within its own limits be “good” or “bad,” “true” or “false,” but it is not in the nature of journalism even to approach any less relative degree of truth. Again, journalism is not to be blamed for this; no more than a cow is to be blamed for not being a horse. The difference is, and the reason one can respect or anyhow approve of the cow, that few cows can have the delusion or even the desire to be horses, and that none of them could get away with it even with a small part of the public. The very blood and semen of journalism, on the contrary, is a broad and successful form of lying. Remove that form of lying and you no longer have journalism.”

Part of the answer to why a man finds himself in big speed on a pair of skis is involved in and attributed to the journalistic mind. The American of my age was reared as much by journalistic media as by family and school, and I do not think it has changed. There is something uncomfortable about the desire to be better than other people, but the newspapers said it was a good way to be, and to a sports-oriented teenager, the path lay through the self-conscious swamp of his own fear, lack of knowledge and unripe skill. Step by step.

This is a methodical approach to one-upmanship, as opposed to more spontaneous forms of the game, but evolution is in evidence here. By continuing through the swamp of fear (or any other swamp), familiarity will make the difficulty known, then understood, then natural and bearable. By persevering through eternally new swamps of the mind, man has progressed to his present state. By forgetting where he came from while never letting go of what he came through, man binds his vision and freedom and lives on the brink of a threatening tomorrow, neglecting the fullness that is today. I learned something about this through speed skiing.

The preceding is an excerpt from “The Straight Course,” by long-time Gazette senior correspondent Dick Dorworth. The book, scheduled to be published this fall by Western Eye Press, recounts Dorworth’s speed-skiing days, during which time he once held the world record. Dorworth, author of “The Perfect Turn” and “Night Driving,” splits his time between Ketchum and Bozeman.