TONY J BENDER: That’s Life — Rethinking Winter Sports

When I was a kid, Whitey, Gare Bare, Hawkeye and I would play football in the snowbanks beside my house. Because we had brain damage. Tackle football in subarctic temperatures didn’t help. The end result is my career choices came down to either column-writing or politics, but I still had too many healthy brain cells for the latter.

You don’t see many ranchers indulging in winter sports. After spending half the day coaxing the tractor to life and dodging irritated bovines, a warm hearth seems to be a better option. If they have a snowmobile, it’s a work tool. Let’s face it, a snowmobile is a winter motorcycle, and when I ride my Harley, I don’t want frostbite.

My Grandpa Spilloway, however, famously pulled into the yard in the ’70s with a new Rupp on a trailer. Grandma stalked out into the yard and said, “Where’s mine?” So, he got back into the pickup and bought her a Polaris. Mostly, they were for us grandkids, though, because they kept us out of the house, and they didn’t have a football.

That brings us to the annual pilgrimage of pickups to the bottom of thinly iced lakes. Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t want a dunk in frigid waters unless it’s preceded by a sauna, and that never made much sense to me, either. If I want to sweat, I’ll bet on the Vikings.

I’ve long held this theory that ice fishing is a silent, desperate plea for help, and the time spent on the ice is proportionate to the happiness of one’s marriage. Some guys would live out there year-round if the ice didn’t eventually thaw. In June. For some, sinking to the bottom of the lake in a Silverado coffin is more appealing than facing the old lady with four small perch and peppermint schnapps on your breath. Maybe I’m a cynic, but I’m not sure what “cynic” means exactly because I have brain damage. But I know enough to come in out of the cold.

Now, anyway.

When I worked radio in Juneau, Alaska, which is way warmer than North Dakota, I got an annual pass to the ski slopes on Eagle Mountain, where Olympian Hilary Lynd learned to ski. She became a national champion at 16 because everyone else died up there.

So, why did I ski? Because the ski pass was free in exchange for me giving the resort free plugs on the air, encouraging people to commit suicide on the slopes which is a much more exciting way to go than sinking to the bottom of a lake in a Dodge 4×4. Besides, it was free, and I’m a frugal German. I’ll do things I don’t like, even if they’re dangerous if it seems like a good deal. I mean, hook me up with a ticket to a lutefisk dinner, and I’m there, and no one likes lutefisk. And there are always fatalities.

I got off the air at 9 a.m., so I headed to the slopes everyday in the winter, which in Alaska is every day. I had the slopes to myself. Just me, the lift operators and the cadaver dogs. I wasn’t skilled, but I was fast. Because I wasn’t particularly good at turning. I spent much of my time crawling back up the mountain to pick up my goggles, gloves, poles and skis that were scattered during my frequent falls. Then, I would proceed to the lift where a transplanted Jamaican — true story — would score my gymnastics. “Nice tumble, mon!”

Once, I found myself skidding at about 600 mph on my gore tex ski pants — the only article of clothing I didn’t lose — toward some trees. This was pre-Sonny Bono. I cracked my shin but was able to limp-ski my way back to the lodge, fearing that if I laid there too long the cadaver dogs would eat me.

I was back the next day. Because, well, it was free.

I’m officially retired from all that stuff. I now limit my winter sports activities to shoveling, getting vehicles unstuck and feats of derring-do in a Bobcat. (Keep the bucket down, dummy.) But it does have a heater.

Happy New Year.

© Tony Bender, 2022

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