Vail Daily column: A cold night in Boston
It was a very cold, winter night in downtown Boston. It was 20 degrees out, to be exact, with the wind gusting about 20 miles an hour when I slipped and almost fell on the icy sidewalk. Years of experience showing my ski films in this part of the country had me prepared for the auditorium probably not even being half-full on such a miserable night as this, but much to my surprise, the high school auditorium was standing room only because of the hard work of my sponsor and his ski pupils.
He was running a ski program out of downtown Boston in a really tough part of town and most of the students were from single-parent homes. He had been able to scavenge, beg or borrow used or obsolete rental ski equipment from several of the ski shops in Boston. Armed with skis, boots and poles, he was then able to promote the use of several vans from a local automobile agency and an airport service company. Armed with such equipment and the cooperation of a small local rope tow hill, he could offer a rope tow ticket, a hot dog, a Coca-Cola and transportation to and from the ski area for $5. He was introducing inner city kids from very poor families to the greatest freedom sport in the world!
Minimum wages in those days were a dollar and a quarter an hour so $5 was very difficult to come up with, especially for the multi-racial, inner-city young people living way below the poverty level.
The black leader of this ski club required that the young boys and the few girls who joined his ski program to bring a note describing where they earned the $5, how they earned it and have it signed by the person that paid them.
I was so impressed with his program that I started working the telephone in my hotel room the next day and was able to get 25 pair of Hart skis with bindings and 25 pair of ski boots donated from my old friend Jim Wolner. The sponsor of my film could then take that many more young people from the inner-city and offer them their first taste of total freedom on the side of a ski hill.
After showing my personally narrated ski movie that night, this energetic and kind sponsor and leader of this inner-city ski club and I walked to his office where we started counting the tickets and money. In his very clean and tidy office full of beat up, green Army surplus office equipment, we talked about freedom and how difficult it was for the inner-city kids, of every color and background, to ever get to a ski hill and he told me that after many of them saw my ski movie for $1, they would be ready to get a seat in the next van out of town to the local rope tow hill.
He told me that one of his first-time skiers, who was a known heavy drug user, on his first trip to the 200-vertical-foot rope tow hill was standing at the top with him and the young man said, “Man, this beats drugs any time. I’ve never been this high on any drugs I’ve ever used.”
The sponsor told me that he had been skiing for six years and quite often he would be the only black person on the hill and quite often the only black person at the ski resort itself.
When I told him of the large black ski club in Washington, D.C., with over 2,000 members who came to Vail almost every year for a week or two, I told him that I would send him contact information so he could get in touch with them and maybe join them for a week in Vail that winter.
Having lived every winter since 1946 in ski resorts all over the world, I never thought a lot about the lack of minority skiers at the resorts I visited until that night in a very enlightening conversation with, to me, a very important person who was doing a lot of life-changing with that $5 package of a rope tow ticket, the use of ski equipment, transportation, and the lunch of a hot dog and a bottle of Coca-Cola.
I know for a fact that a person’s first trip down even a flat ski hill is their first real experience with total freedom and you could even call skiing a freedom drug, because it is so addicting.
Ask anyone if they can remember their first day on skis and if it was after the age of 4 or 5, they will remember everything about it — which mountain they went to, how they got there, who they went with, the clothes they wore, even the food they ate that first day.
Our conversation lasted for many hours and for a short time my new friend let his anger over segregation get the best of him and the injustices caused by segregation spilled out of that anger and frustration.
When I told him I had gone to a 100 percent white high school in Hollywood, California, where I was born and that I had no experience in segregation even while I was in the Navy. I had no black men in my platoon when I was its leader at midshipmen school, nor on the ship I served on in the South Pacific. With the rest of my life spent in ski resorts I could only understand one thing that I consider to be very important: In my entire life I have never shaved a black face and he has never shaved a white face.
Behind those two faces, the untold millions of neurons that are affected by personal experiences and are connected in a different manner by those experiences.
That night in Boston happened about 50 years ago, and I hope that he continued to change people’s lives with that low-cost ski experience. And I hope that I changed a few with my ski films.
I can no longer ski down a hill looking through the lens of a camera while pointing it back between my legs, but I can sit here at my computer dredging up a few of those million neurons in my brain that have memories connected to situations such as that night in Boston. May I suggest that you take a non-skiing friend skiing, and change their lives?
Filmmaker Warren Miller lived in Vail for 12 years, and his column began in the Vail Daily before being syndicated to over 50 publications. For more of Miller’s stories and stuff, log onto WarrenMiller.net.
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