“Make it to the bottom and I’ll buy you a beer!” Jesse said.
Wednesday, January 20, 2016
“I am quite sure this is not a good idea,” I remember thinking as the last plastic cinch strap was clicked around my right elbow. I had never put my arm in a vice and cranked to see how much force was required to break bones, but I am guessing these custom bindings were within 20 or so foot-pounds-per-inch of snapping my radius and ulna like breadsticks.
“If you’re going to run into anything or your arms get torqued, just bail,” said Jesse, the owner of this unusual bit of kit. “Your CG is super low--you can’t get hurt.”
“Roger! Can’t get hurt. CG.”
Normally, I speak in complete sentences, but we had spent the previous five hours shooting snowboarder, Jesse Hokanson, ripping up the half pipe at Buck Hill in 12-degree weather and my tongue and lips were functioning on reserve power. Jesse was one of our featured athletes, one of our para-olympians. The 19-year-old looked a bit like John Kennedy, Junior. Except that he was alive. And he had no legs. He had lost them to cancer. Or was he born without them? It matters not. What does matter is that Jesse mistook my faked interest in his custom snowboard for real interest and now I was obliged to try the unnatural tool out. Jesse had suggested I rest my knees on my elbows, apparently mistaking me for a troupe member of Cirque du Soleil. I gripped the handholds that were inside the arm binders and raised my knees off of the deck so that I was essentially balancing on my knuckles, something I found more than a little painful. This might be the shortest ride in history.
I looked over at our videographer for encouragement. He drew a gloved finger across his throat. I reminded myself that he was our seating hostess’ cousin and I had to be nice to him since he wasn’t getting paid.
“Make it to the bottom and I’ll buy you a beer!” Jesse said.
“You’re not old enough,” I said. But it came out, “Yieeeeeha!” I was moving.
It is common, when facing imminent death, to be treated to the spectacle of seeing one’s entire life pass before one’s eyes. I must have retained some hope of survival, because I was getting the Cliff Notes version of the last three months. Here I was, mopping up barf in the men’s’ at Smugglers’ Inn and trying to recall when we were a busy branding agency in addition to a restaurant serving surf ‘n turf in Blaine, Minnesota. I watched myself saying farewell to Pongo, our ginger-haired former dishwasher turned marketing strategist. Crying in the storeroom. Now, a happy image—Carol, the day manager, and myself being briefed about a re-branding assignment from client The American Humane Society, a return client. How we smiled!
The sound of my own involuntary scream brought me out of my reverie. I was moving over the snow at an impossible speed. The rational part of me knew this was a misperception was owing to the fact that I was viewing my progress from almost ground level, but I instinctively leaned back on the board in an attempt to scrub off some speed. Instead of digging my edge into groomed snow and traveling in a graceful backside arc, my knees and all the weight of my legs pitched forward, unbalancing me. It was only through superhuman effort that I was able to keep from eating it then and there.
Instead, I ate it two-and-a-half seconds later when I encountered a patch of ice and the tail of my board pulled even with the nose and suddenly the world was going by sideways. I just had time to crank my neck to look downhill when I caught an edge and face-planted. The crusty snow came up to meet the front of the helmet that I had been talked into wearing with a loud, “CRACK!” Normally, this might be the end of my run, but in my compact pose I somersaulted twice and continued hurtling down the hill--although now my right arm was forward and my left arm was back, in reverse of how I had begun. “Fakie”, we used to call this in the ‘80’s.
I was not worried about running into a tree. All trees were behind me. The only dangerous obstacle was the nozzle of a snowmaking machine and that was well to the left of me. As I fixated on it, I headed straight for it.
More flashback. Jorge III, Smug’s exterior maintenance engineer, weeping as I cut him loose, supposedly for not shoveling our loading area, but secretly to save his 10 man-hours a week. Now, Carol and I on a conference call, talking with our American Humane client, who is leaving and, subsequently, pulling the plug on our assignment. “Sorry about that.” (Us too, pal.) “But hey, my wife is on the St. Paul City Council...” We’re listening.
I can make out icicles hanging from the nozzle of the snow maker. I spy a single flaccid traffic cone marking the hazard. Some ski or a snowboard has partially flattened it. I won’t even be the first to snuff it here.
Where was I? Yes, flashbacks. I am six and riding on a pony. I am jumping out of an airplane. I am moving to a trailer, all my worldly possessions fitting in Karmann Ghia. First kiss. Dropped ice cream cone. Green ribbon for “participation”. Now, cleaning up that barf in the men’s again. Catching a bullhead off a dock in my pajamas. Saint Paul City council City Council is giving us a check. Paralympics…2017 Winter Paralympics in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Agency of record: Smugglers’ Inn! Back in the game!
I realize that I want to live--I HAVE to live. With superhuman effort, I look away from the rapidly approaching snowmaker. My body follows my eyes and my back-to-front snowboard arcs left, missing the lethal obstacle. The terrain shifts and I feel myself slowing down. When I arrive at the edge of a patch of powder, I DELIBERATELY fall forward.
I am cold, I am out of breath, but I am ALIVE. The next sensation I have is of hands rudely pulling me to an upright position. My near-death experience has shaken me to my core. I look up in the fading light and make out the silhouette of a man with a camera.
“You look like Kat’s cousin,” I say to the silhouette.
“And you look like a dork,” says the silhouette, before taking my picture. I see my legs splayed in front of me, but no snowboard.
“Guess I don’t have to worry about buying that beer.”
John Kennedy, Jr. is coming to help. For some inexplicable reason, jon-jon is wading through snow up to his waist. He propels himself on his hands quite athletically.
“I thought you were dead,” I say. Right before, “Where are my arms?”
Laughter. John. F. Kennedy, Jr. frees my arms from the bindings and snowboard that are behind my back. I can wiggle my fingers. It is a good sign.
In the lodge, they pour hot chocolate into me and slow-walk me until my brains un-scramble. Jesse autographs a youngster’s helmet and talks to everyone. People KNOW him. I learn that my run was 100 yards, total, and lasted less than a minute. I was never in danger of hitting the snowmaker, which was on the blue run next to us. There had been no obstacles on our slope because our slope was the bunny run.
The stills and action footage of Jesse are “awesome” (not my word) and that’s all that matters. We can now get started crafting materials to go out to potential sponsors. My own wild ride was never documented. (“No, really, I forgot to hit “record”). I’ll believe this until I see it on YouTube. New Year’s Eve was hell for our restaurant, but then, the restaurant, but nearly always is. Smuggler’s Inn, the ad agency, is off to a promising new year. About time.
Happy 2016, all.