Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Bobsled Driver, 1980

I'd never actually seen anyone eat an entire bowl of salsa before. I don't mean chip by chip – I mean the whole bowl, sucking it down in one big slurp. Not that it was a huge bowl. But the size wasn't important. It was the eating of it that was important.

I was sitting at the bar of the Benchmark, on Saranac Avenue. I preferred Jimmy's, on Main Street, but it was Tuesday night and Jimmy's was closed on Tuesdays. I had played basketball in a pickup game at Lake Placid High School earlier in the evening, showered, and then driven to the Benchmark for something to eat and to watch baseball on television. It was early in April, the Yankees were in Texas, and my recollection is that this was the first game of the season, although on that point I'm not sure.

After a while two guys walked in and sat near me. One guy was large and boisterous, with a nest of unruly dark hair and a Z.Z. Top beard but no mustache. The other was smaller and clean-shaven. It took a while before I recognized him from the zig-zag bend in his nose – as if it had been broken sideways rather than flattened.

“Schlitz,” he said to the bartender.

“No Schlitz.”

“Vodka tonic,” he said.

He drank the vodka tonic, then another, and it was then that he picked up the bowl of salsa, stood as if needing to get in better position, lifted the bowl to his mouth and slurped the salsa down. I don't remember if it was medium or hot. When the bowl was empty, he sat down and watched the ballgame.

He had a reputation as being a wild man and an ornery cuss. He had had a chestnut beard and long hair that made him look as if he had just staggered out of the deep woods. His nickname was Stunt, and I assumed that was because he wasn't exactly risk-averse in his avocation, which was driving a bobsled. He was the best in North America and one of the best in the world. The local reporters whom I hung around with before and during the Olympics told me he never talked to the press. On a couple of occasions during the trials before the Games I saw him at the track, in or near the shed before a run or waiting in the cold for the truck that would drive his sled back to the top. I could have spoken to him then, but the warnings of the reporters had intimidated me. I was reluctant to ask a dumb question. How do you feel? You think you have a good chance? Will this finally be the year when the U.S. wins a medal again? That would have given him an excuse to be ornery, and nothing had happened during his trial runs to prompt a better question.

In the Olympics he finished sixth in the two-man. At a press conference afterwards he gave simple short answers to reporters' questions, with no hostility but with no particular expansiveness either. I asked him what had happened during his third heat to cause him to drop from fifth place, with an outside shot at a medal, to sixth. He said he had made a mistake on one of the curves high on the track, came in with a slow time, and simply did not think he had a realistic hope of making it up in the final heat. His voice was low and mumbly. As he finished, he looked at me for a second or two.

In the bar, I recognized the bent nose first and then the low, mumbly voice.

As quiet as he was, his friend was noisy, talking with the bartender and with the two or three other people who sat at the bar, drinking beer after beer. He called him “Stuntboy” and “Lamont” and “Mr. Olympic,” as if he were a kid cousin whom he felt at liberty to mock good-naturedly but whom he was ultimately responsible for.

He pretty much ignored this loud friend. He seemed to realize that in the small world of Lake Placid-Saranac Lake, people recognized him, and he carried on purposely, not to make himself larger than life but almost as if he wanted to be smaller than life. He seemed torn between wanting attention and not wanting it, so that when he received it he acted coarsely, to repel those who watched him. He and I watched the game and talked baseball. He knew the players on both teams. He said Lou Piniella was overrated because all he could do was hit. Late in the game he thought Reggie Jackson, whom he referred to as “Weggie,” should sacrifice bunt. He told me he hated the Yankees. He bought me a beer. He said he had eaten psilocybin mushrooms earlier in the evening. He was very drunk. In the middle of an exchange about the merits of one of the ballplayers, he turned toward me and said, “Didn't you ask me a question at a press conference?”

“I did. I wanted to see if I could get you to talk to the press.”

“I don't even remember what it was I said.”

The game ended in the bottom of the eleventh inning when Goose Gossage threw a wild pitch to Richie Zisk with the bases loaded.

We drank more beer. He sat with his elbows on the bar and told me he'd be there again in 1984. He said that even if some good young drivers come up, they wouldn't be able to beat him. He told me he was 28, had been driving for eight years, and was getting better.

“Before I quit I'll be in the top three. I'm in the top ten now, and that's pretty good.”
“Not that good,” I said.

“Better than being in the top twenty.”

Then he said that in the Olympics he had made a mistake near the start of the third heat and wasn't able to make up the time either in the lower half of the run or in the next heat. So he settled for sixth.

“This is what I tried to explain at the press conference,” he said.

He drank another beer.

I asked him if he thought he’d be able to beat the world champion, a great driver from Switzerland.

“He cheats,” he said.

I looked at him. I had heard a story about how bobsledders applied a substance to their sleds' runners to go faster, something that disappeared by the time the sleds reached the bottom, so the race officials couldn't detect it, if they even cared. An A.P. reporter had told me.

“I cheat too,” he said.

“How do you cheat?” I asked.

He sat quietly for a few seconds.

He said, “It's a secret among the drivers.”

He looked straight ahead. Outside it had begun to snow lightly. I pulled my hooded sweatshirt over my head, put on my jacket and got up to leave. He called the bartender over and ordered another beer.


Anonymous said...

Are you the Tom Andersen that went to Oneonta in the 1970s?

Anonymous said...

Stuntman not stuntboy.