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"Are you single?" inquired the soft, feminine voice from behind my right shoulder. I turned to face a beautiful, well-tanned blonde with innocent blue eyes and a pert little nose. It was my first skiing trip to a high mountain lodge and my first time to hear this curious expression. It means “are you alone” and “can I share a lift up to the top of the ski slope with you?” Tongue-tied by her beauty, l hesitated momentarily and mused, not only wasn't I single, but I even had four kids ranging in age from 13-25 and a two-year-old grandson. I gazed into her eyes and in my deepest voice lied, “Matter of fact, I am.” With that she and I shuffled forward to share one of life's most pleasurable activities.

The lift chair hit us squarely in the back of the legs and launched us high into the air, up above the snow-covered ground and ski trails below. The surrounding mountains jutted into the air, while great pine trees grasped at our escaping craft in a futile attempt to stop us. The cold wind stung my cheeks. Snow was falling lightly. The alpine scene spread out far beneath our fragile capsule. I turned my head to admire my prize.

She was a co-ed from a local college. I was a professor from a more distant university. She told me she loved skiing but didn't ski very often. Now, l had never been skiing in my life, but before I could stop myself, I was telling her that I had tried out for the Olympic ski team but didn't make it because of a leg wound sustained while capturing a trench during the war. She smiled, her eyes wide with admiration.

I knew we were reaching the end of the lift when I saw the sign saying, "Keep ski tips up.” We both prepared to eject from the chair. l glanced towards her confidently, stood up first, staggered and fell down. I slid some 15 feet forward on my stomach and lost one of my skis. Looking up through snow-flaked eyelids, I watched her glide away like a graceful swan.

The lift operator stopped the lift, waddled out of his little house, and with great ceremony, helped me to my feet. He turned to retrieve my ski and all the while I was transfixed by 50 pairs of eyes, neatly arranged in groups of two on either side of the lift cable, looking up at me. At that moment I felt like a little old lady being ushered across a busy intersection during the rush hour by a big cop.

Humiliated, I put on my ski and began the slow descent down the beginner's slope. Concentrating on holding my ski tips together and forming my best snow plow, I wondered how to best use my ski poles. Now, from reading science books and watching ballerinas and tight rope walkers, I knew that ski poles have a powerful influence on balance, and I remembered that I had to aim them in the direction that I wanted to go. If I aimed my poles to the left, I should go left. If I aimed them to the right, I should go right. The slope began to steepen and I picked up speed. I struggled to maintain my snow plow. I waved my left ski pole and I did ski to the left, but now I was flying across the slope like a bat out of hell. I waved my right ski pole, and I began rocketing straight down the slope. While preparing to fall and feeling — and I am sure looking — like a gooney bird preparing to land, I began to frantically flap both poles up and down. Nothing was working, and I was beginning to approach the speed of sound. Recognizing from sad experience that it never worked before and predicting that it was unlikely to work now, I prepared to try my last desperate maneuver.

I leaned forward and downhill and tried to spear the snow in front of me with both poles at exactly the same time. Like clockwork! It didn't work again. I began falling in kind of a cartwheel, with my hands hitting first and my skis describing a beautiful circle as I tumbled down the slope. I lost my left ski and both poles as I began sliding on my back, head-first down the slope. Although somewhat astonished, many people skiing in the more traditional upright position nodded pleasantly as I slid by.

Curious as to where I was sliding, I craned my neck to look down the slope. As my ear rapidly filled with cold snow, I spotted a large snow fence directly in my path. It appeared to be firmly attached to grey plastic piping, reenforced with 10-inch pine posts. Each slat appeared to be separated from its neighboring slat by about one inch. Just large enough to accommodate the tip of a ski presented vertically, which I was about to do at a great rate of speed.

At the last moment, I was able to turn my body so my right ski impaled the fence. There was a sickening thud, which at first, curiously enough, did not seem to involve me. Suddenly, though, the whole left side of my body, from shoulder to foot, screamed out in pain as my battered body embraced the base of the newly broken fence. My left ski and both poles were still up on the slope.

A loud gasp went up in my immediate vicinity. Several onlookers inquired about my general condition. Others described my encounter with the snow fence to their friends with considerable admiration. Several people helped me disengage myself from the fence. Others retrieved my missing ski and poles. Except for the aching pain in my right shoulder and the dull pain in my right leg, as well as a great loss of pride, I wasn't badly hurt. I stood up and hobbled over to my missing ski. 

At this point, two young Chinese men walked up to me. I had noticed them earlier, before l pirouetted down the hill. Indeed, they were hard not to notice. They were standing in the middle of the ski slope in black suits, dress shirts, ties and street shoes taking pictures of each other with a single camera, which they passed back and forth. Now as they walked up to me they shouted "Hello" and asked "Are you having a good practice?" I told them yes, and that I always practiced this way. 

They were two students from Taiwan University. One asked if he could take my picture. I agreed and his friend asked if he could be in the picture with me. I said yes, and he came over and put his hand on my shoulder. I handed him a ski pole. They asked for a second picture and the first fellow stepped into the picture with me. I felt like some kind of a national monument. They thanked me, bowed respectfully and retreated backwards down the hill. I slowly limped towards the lodge and heard "Are you single?" from behind my right shoulder. But this time the voice was masculine and gruff. I glanced over to see a guy with an earring. 

I said, “No, matter of fact, I'm not."

Jim McGrath

Dr. Jim McGrath is retired professor emeritus of physiology at Texas Tech University School of Medicine.

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