Wednesday, December 15, 2004

1983: a holiday to remember

Ted Kennedy made a memorable run down Baldy

Express Staff Writer

This was not good, not good at all, not a good Christmas omen, not good for Ted, not good for Dick.

Twenty-one years ago, Christmas 1983, I taught skiing for the Sun Valley Ski School. At the time it was a great job that paid reasonably well, kept me on skis, and introduced me to many fascinating and memorable people, experiences and realizations. During that particular holiday season I wound up skiing with Sen. Ted Kennedy and several members of his immediate and extended family. As a group, the Kennedys were all decent to excellent recreational skiers, intelligent and fearless conversationalists and a great deal of fun. They approached skiing with the same engaging, competitive and determined enthusiasm that marks the public lives of their more public members. Ted Jr., who had lost a leg to cancer, was an outstanding one legged skier. Skiing with the Kennedys was a great gig for a ski instructor, and it was a holiday season I both cherish and will always remember for several reasons.

It was Sun Valley Christmas cold, Bald Mountain was covered with snow, skiing was excellent, and we skied hard. Each morning I met the group at River Run and we organized the day and went up the mountain. The practicalities of cutting lift lines and ski school rules involving money dictated that instructors never ski with more than four in a private lesson, but the Kennedys then and now are champions of democracy, well know warriors in the battles against dictatorships of all kinds. In theory, each day began with a plan of which members of the group I would ski with for how many hours and where and when we would meet up to change groups. But, as Emerson wrote, "The astonishment of life is the absence of any appearances of reconciliation between the theory and the practice of life."

Needless to say, Ted Kennedy in a Sun Valley lift line is a highly visible presence. That and a familial gregariousness enhanced by being on Christmas vacation contributed to a unique (in my experience) ski lesson phenomenon: we collected people as the day progressed, usually but not always other members of the family who wanted to ski together. Among the non-family people collected was ex-Senator and Congressman John Tunney of California, son of the great heavyweight boxer Gene Tunney. We always started out with four in the group, but it never lasted. I was not nearly as obsessed with ski school protocols and rules as Ski School Director Rainer Kolb would have preferred (to say the least), but even so my powers of lift line and public diplomacy were stretched, stressed, challenged and put into debt to some very cool lift operators when I consistently showed up in ski school lines with a private lesson for ten. Fortunately for all of us, it was Christmas, skiing was excellent, and most people were in a good mood and understood at least instinctively that I was not of a mind or in a position to treat Senator Kennedy and his family like the normal millionaires, celebrities and icons of American life that frequent Sun Valley. I wasn't going to or particularly wanted to do that.

My favorite of the group was Jean Kennedy Smith, who, a few years later would become U.S. Ambassador to Ireland. For whatever reasons, I wound up riding the lifts and talking with her more than to anyone else, and she was bright, curious, concerned about the world and about individual people, and, it seemed to me, a model of engaged compassion and intelligence. Her husband, Stephen, handled the money for the group and was a very generous tipper, which, naturally, insured my devotion to helping them have the most enjoyable Christmas vacation possible.

What I most clearly remember about that Christmas was Ted Kennedy's last run. We were having lunch at Round House when the Senator asked me if I would be kind enough to ski down with him and then return to pick up the rest of the group. Of course, I said, "Of course." Senator Kennedy was and is, in my opinion, one of the great senators and defenders of the people in all American history. He and his family have paid dearly in the coin of grief for their service to America, and Ted Kennedy has worked exceedingly hard and effectively to keep care of its citizens. I, for one, have always have been grateful to and for him because of his work in the Senate.

Unfortunately, at least in those days, he had not worked equally as hard to keep care of himself, and it showed. Though he was a very good intermediate skier, he was overweight, out of shape, thousands of feet higher than where he normally lived, and obviously not at the top of his game. We took a leisurely run down Round House Slope and Olympic Lane. It was snowing lightly, the light was flat and it was cold, probably about 0 degrees Fahrenheit. We were the only skiers on the run. All went well until we were about a hundred yards from the end of Olympic where it joins River Run. The Senator was following me and he fell down. I stopped about 30 feet below him, expecting him to get up and continue as he was obviously not hurt and he had fallen before and always gotten up by himself. He didn't move. I asked if he was alright and he said "Yes." I waited. He didn't move. I waited. Finally he asked if I could climb up and help him. I did. When I got to him I saw that despite the cold and the fact that he was not wearing a hat, Senator Kennedy was sweating copiously and breathing as if he had just crossed the finish line of a four minute mile.

Heart attack was my first thought. All the signs were there.

This was not good, not good at all, not a good Christmas omen, not good for Ted, not good for Dick.

The second thought of a moderately compassionate, engaged, intelligent, caring, responsible person and professional ski instructor should have been something like "What can I do? How can I make this better? What will make him comfortable?" "How can I get the best help the fastest?"

Alas, I must admit those were, at best, my third or fourth thoughts.

I was momentarily paralyzed by my second thought that I very badly did not want to be present and involved in the demise of the third Kennedy, the younger brother of John and Bobby. Fame is a double edged blade. Anyone of my generation knows exactly where they were when they heard about the assassinations of John and Bobby, 20 and 15 years before, and what they meant to America and the world. I suddenly did not feel very good or imbued with Christmas cheer and was thinking more of John and Bobby than of Ted. It took a moment to realize that the Senator felt a lot worse than me and to bring myself back to the present. The next few minutes took a couple of years to pass, and I'm sure for Ted Kennedy they took a couple of decades. After an indeterminate time, (probably 10 minutes), to my great relief and his comfort, his breathing leveled out and he felt better and got back up on his feet under his own power. We skied down to River run and I walked the senator to the Sun Valley bus and he got on and the bus drove away.

Seeing Ted Kennedy on that bus was one of the fine Christmas gifts of my life. I rode the lift back up to Round House with a sense of concern for the Senator's health, and a huge sense of relief that my first thought after he fell was erroneous. It was, after all, a Merry Sun Valley Christmas.

Two days later Senator Kennedy was checked into Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C., suffering from exhaustion and other unspecified ailments.

Ted Kennedy is still a vital force in and one of the best servants of the public in the U.S. Senate, one of the best there has ever been. He seems to be keeping better care of himself these days, perhaps in some part because of his last run on Baldy.

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