Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Trick Of The Elbow

Time has a funny way of doubling back on itself. A million years ago - or so it seems - my parents owned a "summer vacation" home. We spent our summers when I was a child at Harvey's Lake in Pennsylvania. We had a home on the lake, a dock and a boat. All these years later it remains one of life's great mysteries to me how my parents - especially during all of the years that Mom's primary job was raising their seemingly endless supply of children - afforded a "vacation" home - not to mention all of the neat stuff that came with it.

Neat stuff included of course the motor boat behind which I spent hours as a child learning how to water ski. It was a pretty good gig as a kid - spending summer days swimming in a crystal-clear lake and skiing on its surface,which during the week when the tourists (I do not think they were called Bennies) were not there was often glass-like.

I am the tailgunner in a squadron of six Kenny siblings. My older brother Kelly is eight years or so older than am I. When I was a kid he was the one who taught me how to water ski, which seemed appropriate as he had been the one who had also taught me how to snow ski. Kelly was an absolute freak of nature as a kid - blessed with both the best hand-eye coordination and balance of anyone I have ever known. He was a supremely confident skier, whether on water's liquid version or its more frozen cousin, and he brought that confidence to the way in which he taught me how to do both. He was a tough teacher. I still recall learning how to "skate" on my snow skis as a drill for developing leg strength and being taught to do so while pointed up the mountain on one of the beginner trails at Big Boulder desperately trying to remain ahead - for as long as I could - of the car on the chair lift that Kel designated as the one I had to "beat". At the beginning I thought he was trying to torture me but as my leg strength continued to grow at a rate that amazed me, I recognized the genius in what he was doing.

He is the one who not only taught me how to water ski but who also decreed, when I was about 10 or 11 that I was no longer going to ski on two skis. He taught me how to slalom. It bears pointing out at this juncture that on a lake full of folks who could really water ski, Kelly in my opinion had no equal. From the time he had dedicated himself to learning to ski on one ski, he had relentlessly and tirelessly honed that skill until he was an absolute joy to watch in action behind Dad's boat. I remember as if it was yesterday the day he purchased what was, at that time, the single coolest thing he owned: an O'Brien Team USA slalom ski with a concave keel and with a fin that had holes drilled into it (five I think) that allowed the skier to create a rooster tail. As a kid it was among the coolest things I had ever seen.

Once armed with the appropriate weapon to leap headlong into the battle of 'Best of the Lake', Kelly quickly reduced the other competitors to also-ran status. When I was not skiing I spent as much time as I could in the spotter position in the boat just to have a bird's eye view of him in action. I think I probably morphed into the role of designated spotter for him because I understood that from the time the boat pulling a skier moves from neutral to full throttle forward, it takes anywhere from five to ten seconds for the slalom skier to get completely free of the water and in the upright position. It is important as the spotter to not blow the call - to not presume that your skier is down simply because he is not yet completely up and when the skier in question is skiing on a ski with a fin designed to throw off its own spray of water, it can be hard to keep an eye on him during that critical beginning of the trip. I knew that Kel would never fall during his rise out of the water so I always erred on the side of giving him more time than I might another skier to fully clear the water. Not once did I make the wrong call.

And my faith would be rewarded by watching him from my front-row seat once he cleared the water. I recall when he added the "elbow trick" to his repertoire, a move that requires the skier to remove his back foot from the ski and essentially sit down on the ski while holding the tow rope in one hand. As he holds it in one hand, he cocks the other arm so he looks like he is resting his head upon it.....and then leans over to one side so that his elbow and his head are on the water. All the while this is happening, he is continuing to ski forward. My description does not do justice to this trick, I assure you. If YouTube had been around in the 1970's, you would be clicking on it right now searching for the video.

Kelly was a legend on the lake by the time that Dad died and Mom sold the house and my summers of water-skiing seven days a week slid permanently into my rear-view mirror. By the time of Dad's death, Kelly was out on his own, married and starting to raise his own family. The role of designated teacher fell to me. I was pretty good at it - having learned from a master certainly helped in that regard - but I never was the instructor he was. And try as I might I was never anything more than a mere shadow of the skier he was. I was leaps and bounds better than any of my friends but the distance between me at my best and Kelly at his best was greater still than that.

In the thirty years or so since I last spent a full summer at Harvey's Lake I have been water skiing on less than a half-dozen occasions. The most recent experience I can recall was close to two decades ago - prior to Margaret and I getting married - when her cousin Tommy pulled me behind his boat in the bay. Given how piss-poor my Jersey Shore geography is I have no idea which bay other than to say it was one very close to Silver Beach.

Yesterday, after Gidg and I spent the morning participating in the Belmar 5 Mile Race, running in weather conditions akin to the inside of a used gym sock, the Missus and me spent the entire day in Manasquan with Lynne, Gidg and Chris. Part of our time was spent on Lynne's boat in some body of water (I know it was not the Atlantic Ocean), during which Chris and I each tried our hand (and our legs I suppose) at water skiing.

Having not attempted to get up on two skis since I was single-digit human, I tried yesterday to get up slalom-style. I was reminded of just how great the distance is between forty-three and twenty-five (when I had last skied) and how much greater still it is between forty-three and thirteen, when I was at the apex of my abilities. While I was more than a bit disappointed by my efforts - and heartily applauded Chris's as he got up on two skis and actually did a bit of skiing (something I did not do) - I was happy to have had the opportunity to try. And I was happy to know that while my body betrayed me, the lessons learned a lifetime ago remained with me. I knew exactly what I needed to do to get up. I simply could not will my body to do it.

A lot of water has passed 'neath the hull of the boat since I was a kid and Kelly was teaching me how to ski. And not all of it has been tranquil. Most of it in fact has been pretty damn choppy. Yesterday I was reminded of a time and of a place where that was not the case at all. And it made me smile, which is not easy to do while picking seaweed out of one's teeth I assure you.

-AK

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