Watching the Olympics a couple of weeks ago, I got all excited during the bobsled competition. It brought back sensations I haven’t experienced for over forty years now: holding onto a steering wheel of only minimal influence, lurching like a train, and gaining sped on a sheet of ice while trees and snowbanks begin to blur alongside. Not knowing whether to be frightened or exhilarated — it was the winters of 1958-61 all over again, at the Lake Placid Bobsled Run.
I still have my journal from those years. It’s full of hair-raising accidents and disasters. But mostly it’s about a crew of wonderful old men.
“Cold and snowing today. We worked on the big curve at Shady. Dudley gave me some bear grease for my mitts. It stinks, but my hands were dry all day. Gabby Smith gave me some government surplus dry milk to pay for his rides to work. ‘Tisn’t much, but it’s all he can spare.”
The bobsled run was built for the 1932 Olympics, and a lot of its technology was pretty rustic, adapted from the logging camps. It used natural elements — cold, gravity, ice, snow, water — in the most ingenious ways imaginable to make our work easier. The men were the last of a vanishing race. I’d known it then, I’d have taken a thousand pictures. But at least I wrote them down, so they aren’t completely lost.
“Spencer Branch is a complete crabapple. I laughed a couple of weeks ago when somebody hit him in the head with a slushball, and he’s been getting even ever since: putting my shovel out under the eaves where it gets covered with ice; squirting the hose on my pants when we’re making slush. But today I collected a Campbell’s soup can full of snowshoe rabbit turds and poured it into his lunch. Maybe now he’ll get off my back.
Art Yando’s pretty old, has one tooth left in the front of his mouth, and is the best story-teller. George Umber brings magnificent lunches in a black steel pail, and he’s so slow, the boss says, “You sometimes have to squint to see him move.” Harley Branch is so goosey. if you even lean a shoulder toward him, he shouts and runs off about ten feet. Otie King hates the guys who follow the hatchery truck around. So he collects old bedsprings at the dump and throws them into all the trout pools where the truck stops.”
The biggest thrill, of course, was riding or driving down the run. After all those weeks of hauling ice blocks and making slush, we finally got to slide whenever the racers weren’t practicing.
“Got to drive today for the first time. Crazy Pierre rode with me. I should have known better. Just as we headed down the starting ramp, he pushed my helmet down over my eyes, and my glasses came off. I could have killed him; turned out, I damn near did.”
This is Willem Lange up in Etna, New Hampshire, and I gotta get back to work.
–Willem Lange is a contractor, writer and storyteller who lives in Etna, New Hampshire.