Vagneur: I think Stein might have been the god of skiing
“Life is a tragedy,” goes the saying, if anyone says anything at all. If you think about it, the following William Butler Yeats quote could have been written by me giving deference to my Irish roots: “Being Irish, he had an abiding sense of tragedy, which sustained him through temporary periods of joy.”
If life isn’t a tragedy, then it must be a comedy, for those are the choices Shakespeare gave us, although in spite of our proclivity for the same, shouldn’t there be room for more than “either/or” for alternatives?
In Aspen, the news that Stein Eriksen had died made the rounds with lightning speed, and the sadness and loss was felt by almost everyone, as evidenced by casual street conversations and replies on Facebook. Thursday was the Norwegian New Year celebration at Snowmass, a tradition that had a solemnity not recognized in prior years. Ah, but the smiles of old friends gathering one more time told the tales of lives well-lived and memories cherished forever.
Sometimes it’s the little things we remember, those seemingly unimportant interpretations that stick with us, buried just behind the conscious, waiting for the right moment to reappear. I clearly remember the last thing Stein ever said to me, and it’s so small you may find it totally inapt, but it’s my memory.
As high schoolers, we skied at Highlands most of the time, and in his inimitable way, Stein would occasionally catch up with us and make a run, sometimes offering a bit of advice, but mostly just letting us flow with the aura that was Stein. I remember those times well but can’t exactly recall anything that he might have said, other than, “Follow me.”
It was an odd day, Stein and me both skiing on Aspen Mountain, and it wasn’t by design but rather coincidence that we shared the mountain that day. My group had started down Ruthie’s for the second or third time and I headed for some bumps I’d been eyeing. As I got close to my target, Stein’s presence on the old No. 8 lift coming up out of Schaller’s Gully (in a signature Norwegian sweater, of course), caught my eye, and then it was time to fly. I hit a great double-bump, landed it perfectly, and as I fell into a tuck, a big grin crossed my face as I heard Stein holler, “Nice.”
Life is not all glory on the mountain, although folk singer Bob Gibson wrote a song about the “God of Skiing,” a humorous attribute toward Stein that has remained a classic for the past 50-some years, ending somewhat like, “He couldn’t be the god of skiing – he just went into the men’s room.” Actually, Mr. Gibson, I think Stein might have been the god of skiing, or as close as we can get to having one.
For 20-some years, Stein was a customer of mine when he owned what we always referred to as the Eriksen-Bowman Building, an edifice that housed more than a few high school teachers over the years. It was a business relationship I always cherished.
Icons of Aspen skiing are hard to keep track of, particularly since there are so few, but mistakes can be made. Hurrying to the gondola the other morning, a friend was stopped by an out-of-town regular who breathlessly exclaimed, “Did you know Klaus died last night? He was 86.” The man was sincere in his desire to spread the news, even incorrectly, of a tragedy he felt, but didn’t really understand, and the most you can say, I reckon, is that he was approximate, but even at that, not really. Of course, that underscores the importance of these men in our lives.
And so it is in tragedy, a spark of humor, intended or not, comes through the dark mist, and cloudy though our hearts may be, we have to smile and muster onward, thankful for that minute brush stroke across the canvas of life that exemplifies our existence. As Erma Bombeck said in one of her many columns, many years ago: “There is a thin line that separates laughter and pain, comedy and tragedy, humor and hurt.”
Bon voyage, Stein, and trust that we still love Aspen, the town that for so long was in your heart, the town that makes us smile with its oddities and allegiance to its heroes.
Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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