Willoughby: First came skis, then came crutches
Legends & Legacies
Today’s ski and snowboard injuries — sprained ligaments, wrecked wrists — seldom require props. But during the 1950s, wounded skiers hobbled around Aspen on crutches as commonly as surfers hefted their boards at a California beach.
In those days, Americans rationally perceived skiing to be a dangerous sport. The bindings, otherwise known as bear traps, faithfully held skiers to their skis throughout every mishap. When a ski slid in one direction while a body took off on a different trajectory, the divergence ended in a three-way split: pain, a broken leg and months on crutches.
Aspen’s cleaning closets hid as many crutches as brooms. Mothers believed those padded wood posts would serve as hand-me-downs. When the family collection reached a sustainable number, the crutches reproduced the same way that coat hangars do. Come spring, dads dispatched carloads of crutches to the Thrift Shop.
I avoided a spell on crutches despite my reckless behavior and the odds against me. When I was in elementary school, it seemed one classmate broke a leg as often as another one forgot to do homework. No one welcomed either catastrophe, but a broken leg garnered hours of sympathy, a few days of missed school and a week during which classmates carried the injured student’s books. Friends autographed the stark white casts. Better luck next time.
In 1956, two members of the fourth-grade class suffered broken limbs at the same time. In December 1958, Gary Brucker slipped into a leadership role with the first broken leg of the season. Eventually the list of fractured followers included Larry Hoffins, Rod Smith, Jenny Wright, Todd Pitcher, Henry Kagerer, Diana Beel and Beverly Ingman. A quick estimate of the number of students in those grades suggests that about one in 10 of them hobbled down the school’s hallowed halls sometime that year. In addition, three teachers broke legs that year. Bob Lewis, the science teacher, took an out-of-bounds trip down Little Annie and, as The Aspen Times described it, “hit a rock, lost control and careened into a tree.”
Negotiating Aspen’s icy winter streets was as hazardous as skiing. Although the crutches had rubber tips, the user had to muster concentration and strength to keep the awkward support system from slipping away. After a patient withstood the consequences of skiing for a month or so, doctors would provide some relief: They would change the full leg cast to a walking cast. Both types of casts featured an opening that allowed the toes some wriggling room. Knitters whipped up wool covers to keep those digits warm. But knitted comforts did not suffice when snow piled up beyond the reach of the custom-made socks.
Adults found their own ways to handle recovery time. One advertised “Sewing jobs of all types wanted by girl skier with broken leg.”
Songs of folk artist Bob Gibson nourished the young skiers of my era. These days we may not worry as much about breaking a leg. But Gibson’s song “Bend in his knees” echoes in our heads as we careen downslope. “Long after the spill and the doctor’s bill and he sold his boots and skis — now he can’t make haste with a cast to his waist — and he doesn’t have a bend in his knees.”
Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while teaching for Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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