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A Yankee Notebook

December 16, 2013


MONTPELIER, VT – It was 55 years ago that I arrived at the Mount Van Hoevenberg Olympic Bobsled Run, so a few of the details of that first day on the job are lost to me. I do remember approaching the gatehouse on an access road through a spruce swamp whose denizens obviously hunted snowshoe rabbits; every front yard featured a small tree hung with frozen carcasses awaiting skinning and cooking. And as I got out of my car to look for the office, I first heard the distinctive sound of a four-man sled rumbling through an icy curve up on the mountain. A few seconds later a huge plume of ice chips, sparkling in the sun, flew into the air as the sled, unseen behind a wall of ice blocks beside the track, applied its brakes to slow it to a stop at the end of its run.

I’d never met the boss, only talked to him twice over the phone. Roy shouted, as if he thought it a bad connection. The first call informed me I was hired if I could get the approval of my local Republican committeeman; the second, that if I could get myself to the bob run, I could start that day. He was easy to find; even standing still, his body shouted: big, burly, and red-faced, dressed like a state trooper in khaki jodhpurs and high boots; a trooper’s sealskin hat; heavy khaki winter coat with hand-warming pockets. He sized me up, from insulated rubbers to wool tuque to deerskin choppers, with a look suggesting he’d just smelled something bad. But he turned me over to the bookkeeper, who signed me up. I was now an official employee of the great State of New York and on my way at last toward solvency and independence.

It was a great job. There were probably 30 of us on the crew, ranging in age from me and George Farrell, in our early 20s, to George Umber and Spencer Branch, probably in their 70s. Except that we went home every evening, we were as varied as an old-fashioned logging camp crew – some of the gang were, in fact, alumni of the logging camps – and I loved it.

The bobsled run today is a high-tech refrigerated tunnel; back then it was old school. In early winter, we cut blocks of ice on the Cascade Ponds, carted them to the run, and set them like stone blocks as side walls in the straightaways. The curves, lovely parabolas of unmortared stone first built for the 1932 Winter Olympics, we plastered with layers of slush that froze into hard white ice. The straightaways were planed ice-rink smooth by a weighty steel framework that mounted a razor-sharp horizontal blade. It took six men to pull it downhill with the blade biting, and then back up again for another go. After each pass Howard Shackett, who adjusted the depth of the cut, assessed the results. The sentence we hated most to hear him say was, “Yeah, we gotta go back.”

My first job was “treading,” shoveling snow into piles, running water into it from a constantly trickling hose, and treading it into slush that I then tossed up onto staging planks above me, where “plasterers” slapped it onto the curve structure and worked it with the backs of their shovels into a smooth surface. To this day I prefer a long-handled, “square-pointed” shovel to a snow shovel for serious work. Treading was deadly dull work, as evidenced by this journal entry, a couple of years later, for February 1, 1960: “Spent the day, which was warm and equinoctial, mixing mud for George Umber and Harold Bushey in Shady. A trying experience – trying, that is, to keep from freezing to death from inactivity.” Harold and George were a little slow-moving.

Spencer Branch, the crabby old guy who ran the starting shack at the one-mile start, took a dislike to me for some reason. Every morning, when I went to the shed for my shovel, I found it leaning against the outside wall, under the eaves and covered with ice. In situations like that, you say nothing; you wait. One day we took a tea break up at the mile start, and Spence went outside to have a pee. I’d been preparing for just such an opportunity. I had a Campbell’s soup can I’d filled with snowshoe rabbit turds. I poured them into Spence’s lunch pail. Nobody who saw me said a word; they knew what was going on. After that, Spence and I left each other alone.

Roy, it turned out, had a job for me that nobody else wanted, but that I really enjoyed. I was to be the announcer, “because you haven’t got an accent.” I stood most of the day in a windowed, heated booth with the public address equipment and 45-rpm record player, describing the progress of each sled as it was reported on a conference line by men in booths at the main curves. Between sleds I urged visitors to hop on the trucks waiting at the finish and ride up the mountain for a thrilling slide down. And it really was thrilling for some people. Old Art Yando in the finish booth kept a supply of army blankets to wrap around young ladies in stretch pants who were in no shape to get up off the sled without some shrouding.

Most of all, I marveled at the use of primitive technology – levers, inclined planes, gravity, and lots of manpower – that accomplished wonders over a mile of icy track in all kinds of conditions. We had lots of fun, too. At the end of the day, after turning to and shoveling the run down to bare ice for the night crew to spray, we sat on our shovels, with the handles sticking out between our knees, and rocketed down the mountain like madmen. I spent lunch hour watching Harold Bushey work at his forge, making incredibly sharp chisels for shaving the curves into shape. He could tear down a Ford 3500 V8 engine before lunch and have it back on the road – new rings and inserts, valves ground, the works – by quitting time. When the world championships came to Lake Placid, I got to chat with champions from all over Europe, and learned to talk sleds down in their languages.

It was lovely, but like the winter itself, it couldn’t last. The old guys didn’t seem to enjoy it as much as I did, which was kind of a message, so I went back to college. There are only a few of us still alive now who remember the thunder of the old open bobsleds on the frozen mountainside.

Photo by Willem lange