Huddled in small groups, conversing in halting politeness, it was easy to read the discomfort and pain in their visages and postures. These were seemingly immortal men, once and still gods to their kith and kin, now unable to escape the reality of their mortality. At the front of the room, laying eternally motionless, was one of their own, a fallen member of their miniscule subculture. Death had shuttered his wild eyes, abrogated his capacious smile, chilled the warmth and mischief that used to pulse from him in equal measure. In his prime, he was an eagle soaring from a takeoff; now he was perpetually earthbound, leaving his compatriots to contemplate their lifelong quarrel with gravity.
It was the smell in the mortuary, and not the sight of their deceased friend, that triggered the most intense sense memories for the clan. The clinical antiseptic scent recalled another chemical odor: the humid fluorocarbons that they huffed for decades, hanging out late at night in the wax room, prepping their skis for the morning’s jumping. At Bear Mountain, in Lake Placid, in Salisbury, in Brattleboro, in other tiny, picturesque New England towns, on legendary road trips to Canada and lands farther afield, these men were bound together by their shared lunacy, by their dedication to the enchantment of temporary flight.
First, they had been boys, brought to the ski jumps with their fathers or else left there by them. Theirs was an adolescence marked by vigorous competition, daredevil feats, and intense camaraderie. Despite launching themselves off rickety wooden scaffolds on equally sketchy wooden planks, leather boots fastened into beartrap bindings, they thought that a wool cap would keep their brains in place in the event of an untimely crash. A helmet would have been preposterous, an affront to the spirit of the ski jumping endeavor and the often Norse ancestors that had preceded them. Not that they were immune to injury; it was just that a broken bone or a ruptured spleen would not keep them away from their passion, or at least not for long.
As they grew, so too did their circle, first with girlfriends, and then wives. Jobs had them spread out geographically during the weeks, but winter weekends on the competition circuit had the feel of an intimate traveling circus. While the men tuned their skis and caught up over beers in a haze of wax fumes, the ladies, obviously adventurous sorts of their own, bonded over their own shenanigans. The line between friend and family blurred, the way it often does when folks are engaged in a shared enterprise, particularly one so hyperspecific as the ski jumping community.
In due time, the next generation arrived and the circus needed a larger big top. Station wagons and proto-SUVs pulled into town each weekend, laden with enough gear to mount a modest alpine expedition. Jumping skis, alpine skis, Nordic skis for each member of the family, these were not languid times; each moment was a burst of activity or athletic drama. The children rolled around in a pack, weaned at these locales, known to all, and therefore able to get into just enough trouble to not overly bother their parents. They competed on tiny little jumps, their dads bringing the same enthusiasm to their sons and daughters’ feats as to any of their own. In turn, their offspring regarded them as superheroes. No other kids at school had fathers who flew.
And now those kids had kids and it had been many moons since any of the men had dared to sit on that bar at the top of the inrun, to take that one last breath before hurtling down the jump into momentary oblivion. Each missed it in ways upon which they did not often let themselves dwell, but which tinged at their very essence, the core of them, the fiercest memories, the most vindicating victories, the most decimating defeats. Inextricably linked by their history, their love was apparent, even though time had cast them to their respective winds and it had been years since they had last congregated.
These men had cheated death on many occasions, on the jumps and elsewhere, but were all too acutely aware that it would eventually come for them. It was a chilling thought, one that carried a great deal of sadness, not least of all for their families. Yet through the gloom of the moment shone the realization that their brother rested peacefully, as they one day would, safe in the knowledge that at one time they had been part of something wholly unique, sacred, special, and magical.