Humility, of course, is a noun derived from the word “humiliation.” Generally, one has to have a good solid dose of the latter in order gain the virtues of the former. I have had my share. In fact, one of the challenges in writing this rather lengthy essay was to select only two of scores of such experiences to share with you.
One of my earliest memories of humiliating myself in full view of all my friends and peers occurred in the eighth grade. I considered myself a pretty good speller back in those days. So, on this particular morning in Mr. Decker’s science class, the students were asked how to spell “vacuum.” Having a perennial “D” average throughout most of my school years, I was excited to have the rare chance to show everyone how smart I really was, even though I never did any homework whatsoever.
Hand up! Hand up! Me! Me! I know! I know!
“Okay, okay, Skip, please spell vacuum for the class.”
“Yessir, it is spelled v-a-c-u-m-e,” I said, quite pleased with myself, actually.
Back in my travelling days I had the occasion to test out my snow skiing skills in the low mountains of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. I was staying in Marquette in the middle of January, and one gloriously beautiful, crisp afternoon decided to head over to a nearby ski resort to check out the powder.
Having never actually skied in my entire life, I rented a pair of short training skis, as recommended, and, after figuring out how to get them on, headed out onto the snow. And with little baby steps, left foot, right foot, I managed to slowly skiddle, skiddle, skiddle my way over to the kiddie hill (those skis—very slippery, I found.) It was here that I was introduced to the first of various apparati required to get to the top of any given snowy mount. (Okay, in this case it was more of a snowy mound.)
The rope pull, a version of which I was introduced to upon my arrival at the base of the hill, consists of a rather thick, hemp line on two pulleys that moves in a continuous loop from the bottom of the hill to the peak. There was no one else around at the time, but I quickly figured out that one simply grabs hold of the rope while standing in the ski ruts next to it and gets pulled up the hill. Easy enough. So far, so good.
In fact, I managed to master this pretty quickly (those little kids aren’t so smart). Thus I was also able to practice a bit of actual skiing and learned, in the process, that I was pretty good at turning to the left on the slope, but could not seem to get my legs to work as a team well enough to execute a decent right turn. After several tries I was beginning to work up a sweat and, given my usual lack of interest in working hard at anything, decided that that was good enough.
So, off I went to my first actual mountain. It was the lower of two, and I was presented with yet another mode of slope travel—the T-bar. Now, this device also operates on a looped cable from the bottom of the slope to the top. the difference being that the cable, which in this case was braided steel, was now overhead and had steel bars hanging from it. These bars look like upside-down “T”s, with the vertical bar connected to the cable at the top, moving uphill, and the horizontal bar hanging about three feet from the ground.
I stood nearby for awhile and watched my fellow skiers execute their launch on this peculiar mode of transportation and could see that all one had to do was get one’s derrière in front of the oncoming T-bar (one side or the other—they were meant to tow two skiers at a time, usually) and let it pull you up the hill by the rear-end, again with one’s weight still on one’s skis as they run through sort of a snow rut, as before. I should also point out at this juncture that the vertical bar is articulated and has a spring inside, so it tends to sort of bounce and give a little, like a shock absorber, as one makes his progress up the slope.
Once the line of skiers dwindled a bit, I decided to take a shot at it. I was still pretty shaky, but I managed to position myself in front an oncoming T-bar without falling down and, sure enough, it grabbed me by my hind-quarters and started pulling me up the hill. I wrapped my right arm around the vertical bar and began to take in the scenery.
I was doing fine until about half-way up, when one of my skis slipped a bit in the rut. This was unanticipated and forced me to suddenly shift my weight in order to stay on my feet.
This seemingly benign maneuver caused my T-bar seat to abruptly slip off my rear-end and slide up my back (this is one of the disadvantages of having no butt to speak of).
I managed to stay on my skis, though, but now I’m basically in a squatting position with my right arm still wrapped around the vertical bar. And the T-seat has now nestled nicely up into my upper back, and, all the while, everything keeps right on moving. Moving. Moving (can you picture this?).
And then I hit another bump.
At this point I completely lost my footing. Thus, my legs flew out behind me and my situation had deteriorated to the point where I was being dragged through the snow as I held on for dear life with the vertical bar crammed even more securely into my armpit.
And I still had another half-mile to go.
Then I heard this guy on the T-bar behind me. He had been closely watching my antics while making his way along with his girl friend in the other seat. At this point he was red-faced and screaming at me. “Don’t let go! Don’t let go! (…you f*ing idiot! Clearly implied). “If you let go, the cable will come off the pulley at the top of the mountain and the whole thing will come down!”
Just the cable, I presumed.
Now, the people in front of me, feeling the jolt in the cable from my extracurricular activities, were looking back and also bellowing at me not to let go.
I had, by then, become the focus of everyone’s attention. I couldn’t help but notice, however, that nary a soul seemed to be particularly concerned about the uncounted pounds of wet snow and ice being snow-plowed down the front of my fashionable ski jacket. Well, this went on for another twenty yards or so as I was dragged along with my face in the snow and everybody all up and down the line making what I considered to be less than helpful suggestions or laughing their rear-ends off. But, enough is enough. I gave a big pull on the vertical bar, which reduced the tension on the spring so it would bounce less, let go and rolled out of the way of the two oncoming skiers. They didn’t even thank me for not knocking down the whole shooting match.
Ah, but I wasn’t done.
I now had to figure out how to get off that danged mountain. I could see the actual ski slope to the right, about twenty yards or so away. But between me and the slope was a wooded area with about three feet of freshly fallen snow.
It took me nearly fifteen minutes to travel that short distance, since with every step my skis went straight down through the fluff to the rocks and tree roots below. I finally made it to the slope and managed to actually stay erect long enough to get to the bottom of the hill.
Jeez, that was fun.
But not fun enough.
To heck with that T-bar. After emptying my ski jacket of its snowy ballast and regaining my composure I skiddled over to the big slope where I could ride the elevated lift. I was determined not to fall out of this one (which was important, since it reaches a height of about forty feet off the ground at its apex).
I reached the top and managed to execute a standard dismount without further incident. Getting the hang of this, ay? Then, I skiddled my way over to the lip of the slope where I tentatively inched forward, left – right, left – right, until the front half of my skis stuck out just over the edge. I cautiously looked down between my skis. I still could not see where the surface of the slope began. That was because, I was dismayed to learn, such slope consisted of a virtually vertical drop of some unimaginable distance beyond my view. I watched with growing trepidation as one after another of my co-skiers went over this event horizon and simply dropped out of sight.
It was also at this point that I learned that one was not allowed to ride the lift down the mountain. Only up.
Fine. I pushed forward a few more inches, once again studying my counterparts to see how they executed this first step. Okay, so I could see that one simply bends the knees, leans forward and takes the plunge. So, deep breath. Lean forward a bit. And I was off. Whoosh.
I immediately found myself travelling straight down at just slightly under Mach one. And then a flash of memory: the idea is to go back and forth across the slope, while making nice “ess” turns in order to keep one’s speed in check—we’ve all seen this on TV, right? So, I managed to execute a pretty decent left turn, while almost colliding with another skier. Then, with a stand of pines on the opposite side of the slope coming at me at an unnervingly rapid pace, it was time to turn downhill again and do a right turn.
The remainder of my excursion down that slope consisted of a series of nicely executed left turns followed by an abrupt face plant and a twenty-foot slide. Back up on my skis, down the hill to the right, left turn, face plant, slide, etc., with people screaming at me the whole time to get the hell out of the way.
So, upon finally reaching the bottom of the run, I decided that was enough skiing for the day. I turned in my equipment and headed for the A-frame to get a beer and flirt with the young ladies who, I noticed earlier, tended to gather at the big round fireplace after a long day on the slopes. I am pretty sure I remember being mentioned in the lodge’s newsletter that week, although they spelled my name wrong. As usual.