Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Learning From My First Failure

My first ski lesson at age five was a disaster, maybe my first real failure and a decade passed before I tried again.  Doubtless this Skizee would have come in handy.

But that disaster may have had more to do with Dachau, Germany than with that frozen hillside that rose just across the “crick” below the barn and corral behind our ranch house on that late afternoon/early evening in the waning days of 1952 in the Teton-Yellowstone nook of Idaho

My instructor for that disastrous first lesson was my then-just-turned-30-year-old rancher Dad, only seven years removed from World War II and the indelible memories and stench of that 12 year-old facility where his unit stood guard.  Dachau was the first to be officially labeled a “concentration camp” by the Nazis.  It was the only one located in U.S. occupied Germany and only the second to be liberated by the Americans.

I had begged him repeatedly to take me on his Saturday ski excursions but his condition was that I first learn to snowplow and, with only a five-year-old’s perspective, I didn’t understand my Dad’s  intensity, determination and impatience juxtaposed with the frequent periods when he would sit alone in the dark, for hours and sometimes days, without speaking a word to anyone.

Snow skiing was Dad’s release.  He had learned in his teenage years before the War when Bear Gulch Basin opened up above Warm River just a dozen miles from the ranch my great grandparents and grandparents had homesteaded.01786_p_aaeuyfyqe1597

During almost daily Q & A tours through family photo albums and artifacts in the years before and after that failed ski lesson I learned that Dad (shown in the image in this blog if clicked to enlarge) and a couple of friends from his unit, had skied the Swiss Alps during a few days of Army leave just prior to being shipped home.

Long-since burned down, Bear Gulch at the time of my first lesson was a very simple rope-tow, t-bar kind of place, just a few miles up-range on the Idaho side of the Tetons from today’s world-class Grand Targhee Resort , which opened 17 years after my failed lesson.

I learned a lot about Dad from not only those photographs but also when going through the collection of European coins he kept in a yellow, plastic, water-proof case he once used for packs of cigarettes and  my Mom’s ultimatum when he got home that he give up drinking beer and smoking cigarettes.

While handling a hand-made dagger with a handle carved from an antler, I learned it had been given to him by a Communist prisoner at Dachau, and I learned that Dad’s hatred of the Soviet Union and Communism in general came from the fear he witnessed in that man’s eyes as he was liberated, so to speak, and put on a train to return home.

During frequent handling of a J.P. Sauer & Sohn officer’s pistol given to him by an SS trooper imprisoned at the camp, I learned from Dad that not all Germans were evil and that the soldiers who, had been summarily executed by American soldiers who were angered at finding a train full of dead bodies in the camp as it was liberated, had themselves been prisoners at the camp until ordered just hours before the liberation to guard the camp as others retreated.

I also learned that the prisoners found dead on that bullet-ridden train had not been machine-gunned by guards, as those who executed them had thought, but killed when the train was strafed by Allied fighter planes as it neared the camp.

In his description of photos of the gas chambers at Dachau, I learned how, in the 1930s, our Congress, along with other countries, refused to accept Jewish refugees being deported from camps like Dachau, leaving the tiny Dominican Republic one of the few that would.

Even from Dad’s always Spartan, emotionless, one-two- or three-word answers to my incessant questions about the photos and artifacts, I gleaned information that over time gave me insights into why, below the surface of my Dad’s can-do determination and passion and ultra-conservatism, he seemed bitter and cynical and conflicted and always more than a bit sad and alone at some level.

His marching me up and down that hill as a five-year-old in the dark, wet and cold may have turned me off of downhill skiing, which I eventually came to learn and enjoy for a 15 year period ending in my 30s. Boy my Mom was pissed but Dad did successfully breathe into me the will power and fiery determination noted by people during my successful 40 year career in community/destination marketing.

He also taught me how to think and the fact that things are rarely, if ever, clear cut and also to be wary of broadly labeling things such as good or evil without knowing the full story.  He taught me how to argue both sides of an issue, usually by seeming so stubbornly wedded himself to only one.

He taught me that things are never as simple as people make them seem and that even when you’re right, you can be partly wrong and that people who are often wrong, can often be somewhat right.

I just wish that somehow, before he passed away ten years ago at age 77, having skied well past age 70 when lift tickets were complimentary at most resorts, I had tried harder to lift his burdens the way he and Mom always lifted mine, and somehow replace memories such Dachau with those of skiing in the Alps.

I wish in my youth I hadn’t judged him so much or argued with him so often or let my hurt feelings and pride get in the way.  I wish I had told him more often how much I admired and appreciated everything he did for me and for my sisters and for this country just a handful of years prior to that failed ski lesson.

I wish I had told him that everything was okay.  But somehow I think he knows that now, and he’s free from the pain and he’s smiling about the fact that, at a much older age now, it is all making more sense to me.

I also bet he’s still skiing.

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