A short story by
Gary Ritner, Ph.D.
Harry loved skiing, especially at Rolling Hills because it was so convenient. The slopes were a short distance from downtown. Harry lived just a few miles away. The price of a season pass was reasonable - less than $300 - and the view of the river valley was so beautiful. He had been skiing here for over thirty years. He knew every staff member by name and they knew him. This season he received recognition for skiing more days and more vertical feet than anyone else. He only missed twenty-seven days all season.
The emotional connection to Rolling Hills for Harry was that it seemed so much like the ski and golf resort that he lived by and worked at in West Virginia through his high school years. At age sixty-six, Harry was glad to be alive but skiing was a big part of his life that he had not imagined possible when he first started skiing fifty years ago. He was hoping that he could ski into his 80's, but he also knew that he was just an injury away from not being able to walk, let alone ski again.
Weekday mornings were Harry's favorite. The grooming was so perfect. There were so few other people on the slopes and he could ski right into the chair. After a big snow, the powder was untouched for hours. Fresh powder provided a canvas for Harry's artistic carving. Plugged into his favorite music on his phone, Harry experienced skiing as a dance with rhythm and tempo. If people would just stay away and leave Harry to ski alone, all would be perfect.
Days below zero kept the less-than-serious at home, but Harry had all the right clothes to stay warm. It was never too cold for Harry. He knew what it took to stay warm. His mittens were double-lined sheepskin. He wore boot covers with oxygen-activated charcoal toe warmers. Around his neck, he wore as many neck gators as it took to keep out the cold. Sometimes it took four.
Just when he thought that skiing alone was the best, Harry made a friend. Jason was nearly 70, a retired social worker who shared a passion for skiing. He had four season passes to ski resorts in Minnesota and alternated days between them. Among other things that Jason and Harry shared was an impatience with the bad habits of other skiers and snowboarders. They couldn't understand why everyone else couldn't be as kind and courteous as they are on the slopes.
They had different styles of skiing. Harry liked being in the crouch like a racer with his legs wide apart and bobbing and weaving like he was going through slalom gates by throwing his weight from side to side. Jason learned parallel skiing with his feet close together. It was a beautiful look that Harry admired and learned years before. However, there were times when Harry tried it again and easily lost his balance and crashed - thus deciding it was just not for him.
Lift rides provided time for talking. It helped to pass the time of the long, slow lift rides. More than a few times they shared their complaints about the bad habits of others and how annoying those folks were. First, there were the line cutters - those who did not go to the end of the line but jumped in front without apology for their infraction. Had they NOT gone to grade school and learned how to get into a line?
Then there were the oblivious - those who jumped up to snowboard or ski or to enter a trail without looking uphill. Would you pull into traffic without looking right or left? Of course not, but the oblivious did it on the slopes and expected everyone to avoid them.
Snowboarders had a habit of sitting down to buckle their boots after exiting the chairlift. If several were there in a group, they formed a roadblock that left no room for people getting off the chairlift or for people trying to get by them and go downhill. Would you sit down in the middle of the street and expect cars to drive by carefully avoding you? Of course not! But they did it.
Skiers seldom stop in the middle of the slopes, except for instructors and their students, but snowboarders have a habit of stopping in groups and sitting down. God bless them for being so social, but isn't there a chalet or an out-of -the-way place for socializing? There sure is!
It is understandable that parents with young kids need to enter the chairlift carefully. This means that a chair may go by with no one riding it as the parent and child coordinate their timing to be sure that the child does not fall off. Fine, but there are lifts where this is expected - not the lifts with black diamonds at the top. What are they doing here?
Then there are the lift line socializers. They arrive in a group and stop to talk while chairs go by, but nobody can get around them as they chat with each other and do not even look at the chairs going by or the people trying to break through their barrier.
Not to be forgotten are the children who think this is a safe place to goof around. Two on a chair start hitting and pushing each other thirty feet above the ground, oblivious to the danger of falling and breaking bones. Kicking of feet in scissor fashion while sitting on the chair is harmless enough, but then a ski release mechanism gets kicked and a ski falls off, maybe nearly hitting someone or causing the lift operator to stop the lift to retrieve and reattach the dropped ski.
As they chat about these abuses, Harry and Jason both become visibly upset. Harry says, "It's like road rage. I get so upset at other drivers sometimes. I just want to crash my car into theirs or run them off the road and over a cliff. On the slopes, it's slope rage. I want to push them over the edge and watch them fall a thousand feet below."
Jason says, "I have guns, lots of guns! Could you imagine pulling out a gun and just shooting some of these people for their bad behavior!"
Harry realizes that Jason is just joking, and he joins in the fun, "Yeah, I'm Dirty Harry. Make my Day!" Harry gestures as though he is holding that big long-barrled gun held by 'Dirty Harry' - aka Clint Eastwood - in the movie by the same name. Harry pretends to shoot in the direction of some snowboarders coming down the hill. They both burst into laughter.
After the laughter subsides, Harry adds thoughtfully,"I get so angry sometimes that I want to poke somebody with my poles. I have told the lift operators my fantasy that the chairlifts should have a trap door. When somebody missed their chair and makes people wait, the trap door opens and swallows them up so that the next person can move into the chair. I probably should go to an anger management group."
Jason laughs and says, "Do you think?"
Harry adds, when you are not here on the busy weekends, I ski for a couple hours in the morning before the crowd arrives and the lift lines become long. After taking as much annoying behavior as I can handle, I have to leave. My patience usually lasts about three hours and then I am out of here."
Harry and Jason ski to the bottom of the hill where their cars are parked and they say goodbye.
The next evening Harry is skiing in a whiteout. A foot of snow has fallen in late March. Lights provide some visibility, but there are patches of darknesss that are not penetrated by the lights. As Harry passes under the bridge over the trail between lifts sixteen and seventeen, a snowboarder appears from out of the trees to the right, then he vaults from a cliff and flies through the air very close to Harry. As he lands, a cloud of snow hits Harry in the helmet and goggles. Harry's vision is restricted by the snow on his goggles, so he stops to brush them off.
Then Harry makes a beeline for the lift to catch up to the offending snowboarder. He gets there just before the snowboarder gets on the chair. Harry yells, "Be more careful next time. You almost hit me!"
The snowboarder yells back, "Sorry, old man, stay out of the way!"
Harry is seething about the snowboarders reaction all the way to the top. When he gets off of the chair, Harry grunts at the guy, "If you are going to board like that, you should wear a helmet!"
The guy keeps buckling his boots to his snowboard, jumps up, looks Harry in the face and smiles saying,"Mind your own business, old man!"
At the bottom, Harry catches him again, "You should look up hill before coming off that cliff. You might land on someone - me."
The guy looks over his shoulder and yells, "If you are coming from uphill, you are the one who should avoid me!"
Harry gets more and more annoyed as he rides up the chairlift and thinks about hitting the guy or swinging his poles at him, but he knows this would be too much. Besides violence would be wrong no matter how annoyed he is with the snowboarder.
As Harry gets off of the chairlift, the guy has already started downhill. Harry keeps his eye on the snowboarder as Harry moves to the other side of the run to stay out of the way.
The snowboarder jumps from the cliff on the right side of sixteen lift run and then veers across the slope as close to Harry as he can without hitting him, throwing snow up into Harry's face. Then he cuts back to the right and into the trees as if he is escaping into the cover of the trees so that Harry can't chase him.
Harry hears a thump and a groan, like a collision between the snowboarder and a solid tree. Though visibility is really limited in the trees where there are no lights, Harry sees a cloud of snow hanging in the air.
Harry saw enough to know what must have happened, but he kept going because he was still so mad. He thought, "Too bad, but he got what he deserved." Harry continues to the bottom of the hill and gets on the lift. He expected the snowboarder to be back on his feet and going downhill. He squints, trying to see into the darkness of the trees. Harry imagines that the guy might have been hurt a little, but that it surely was not serious. He does not want to go into the trees for fear that the guy will hit him out of anger over the crash.
The wind is blowing hard and the snow is drifting over quickly. Within minutes the tracks into the trees are covered. The reality that the guy may be hurt seriously begins to dawn on Harry, but he is too scared to find out what happened. Harry feels guilty for not reporting the accident to the ski patrol immediately but also feeelings of revenge satisfied and mental actions of denial outweigh those guilt feelings.
After a few more runs, Harry leaves for home to avoid anyone discovering his negligence of not reporting the accident. That night he has nightmares that the police show up at his house and handcuff him. He awakes in a sweat before sunrise and turns on the news. Perhaps the man was found and taken to the hospital. But there is nothing on the news.
Harry returns to Rolling Hills, skiing far away from the accident. He asks a few probing questions to see if any of the lift operators know of anything unusual. But there is nothing. The lack of information is gnawing at him. He goes back and forth between thinking, "Of course, the guy got up and went home" on the one hand and "Oh my gosh, the guy is dead and nobody knows it yet."
After three long days of suffering without knowing anything, Harry picks up the paper and reads that a man has been reported as missing, last seen snowboarding at Rolling Hills. Harry begins to sweat. The guy must have died and he is still there, buried in the snow in the trees. Rolling Hills reports that he was there. A lift operator remembers him being there. No one recalls seeing him leave.
The newspaper article reports that his name is Jack Roberts, 23 years old, a graduate of St John's University. He is employed by Johnson Windows as an accountant. They reported that he did not show up for work. His mother is worried about the possibility of suicide, because Jack's girlfriend recently died of acute Leukemia. She said that Jack had been depressed and had been drinking a lot before he disappeared.
All of these details tore at Harry's heart. This was not just some jerk being hostile. This was a troubled young man, depressed, probably drunk, mourning his girlfriend's death, somebody's son. Harry cried for Jack, thinking for sure that Jack was lying beneath the snow and Harry was the only one who knew the truth. Harry cried for Jack's mother, thinking about telling her the truth as he felt for her loss.
Then Harry felt the urge to deny and escape his guilt. It was not Harry's fault that Jack crashed into the trees, Harry thought. What did he have to feel guilty about? Well, there was the fact that Harry knew and did not report the accident. Could Jack's life have been saved with swift action by the ski patrol and an ambulance to the hospital? Was there a criminal penalty for not reporting the accident? He was not sure if it would mean prison time, but the guilt was his prison no matter what a court would say about it.
Perhaps he could just wander into the area where Jack had gone down and accidentally discover the body. Then no one would know that he had known for several days that Jack had died there.
The ski season had come to a close as rain wiped out the last few possible days of skiing and the slopes had turned to ice. If Harry went to the slopes now and walked down over the hill, it would be obvious that Harry had known something that no one else knew. Weeks passed as Harry kept hoping that someone would find the body to free him from this prison of guilt.
Unseasonably warm winds from the south allowed for an early golf season. Harry thought that the thaw would surely reveal the body soon so he went to the opening day of golf expecting to see the area of the accident uncovered. On the first golf hole, snow is removed so that golfers can play there. The snow is pushed off of the fairway and down over the hill by snow groomers, creating a fifty foot deep mound under the bridge. Harry was horrified to see that the area of the accident was now covered by fifty feet of packed snow and ice that would not melt for another two months.
During these two months, Harry lived with the agony of guilt for Jack's family not knowing because he was too scared to tell them what had happened. These were things that might not have happened if Harry had not been so harsh in engaging Jack, if Harry had just kept his mouth shut and let the kid do his thing, if Harry had just looked the other way.
Harry realized that his impatience with other skiers and snowboarders was out of proportion to the crime. He thought about how his slope rage was just hurting himself. He would never be so crazy again, never so flustered by bad behavior. It was not that big of a deal - not life and death like Jack's death. He could just watch the bad behavior and be amused by it. Not everybody knows the rules. Kids are just kids and are learning. Nobody likes to wait and everybody would like to get a pass to go to the front of the line. Harry saw things differently after Jack's tragic accident.
Finally, the snow melted. Jack was found with an obvious head wound that meant instant death from the impact of the tree. Some of Harry's guilt slipped away with the knowledge that there was nothing that could have been done to save Jack after his accident. Harry went to the funeral. While he did not ever reveal that he knew and should have reported the accident, Harry consoled his mother with reassuring words about Jack dying doing what he loved.
Five months later, the ski season opened. Harry and Jason had not talked since the last ski season ended. Harry was afraid that he would blurt out a confession to Jason, so he avoided him entirely.
Jason and Harry greet each other with a hug. Harry has a big envelope inside his jacket. He pulls it out and he hands it to Jason as they stand at Jason's car. As Jason opens the envelope, Harry laughs and says, "I have been thinking a lot about our 'Dirty Harry' solution to annoying people out here. I have mellowed a lot since then. This will explain it a bit.
Harry grins, "I wrote a short story for you. It's loosely based on our conversations about wanting to shoot other annoying folks out here. It's called 'Guilty Harry.'"