The Boy Who Invented Skiing: A Memoir

The Boy Who Invented Skiing: A Memoir

by Swain Wolfe

In his memoir, THE BOY WHO INVENTED SKIING, Swain Wolfe captures a West that no longer exists—from growing up on ranches in the high country of Colorado and Montana to working underground as a miner for Anaconda Copper in Butte.

Swain Wolfe spent his childhood in magical places, exploring the mesas and tunnels of his father's tuberculosis sanatorium near the


In his memoir, THE BOY WHO INVENTED SKIING, Swain Wolfe captures a West that no longer exists—from growing up on ranches in the high country of Colorado and Montana to working underground as a miner for Anaconda Copper in Butte.

Swain Wolfe spent his childhood in magical places, exploring the mesas and tunnels of his father's tuberculosis sanatorium near the Garden of the Gods and later his step-father's six-thousand-acre ranch on a horse named Joe. Nature was his mirror, allowing him to escape his parents' failing marriage, his father's despair, and his mother's brutal second marriage.

As a young boy, Swain risked life and limb by strapping his galoshes to homemade, cross-country skis he found in the hayloft. Aided by milk barn brooms for poles, he invented a primitive form of downhill racing.

Family violence forced a move away from the mountains and wild rivers of Colorado to Missoula, Montana. Having defined himself in the natural word, he found the people in town as alien as they found him. He spent his life attempting to understand his intelligent, dangerously complex mother, who was far ahead of her time.

He discovered he could immerse himself in work as he had in nature. He learned to work with draft horses and saw the end of the era of horse-drawn farm equipment. He worked in lumber mills, led a crew into one of Montana's worst forest fires, and cut timber until the trees started talking to him. But it was mining thousands of feet below the earth's surface that changed his life.

Swain absorbed the skills of natural storytellers—ranchers, loggers, and miners—and tells the stories of the free thinkers, hardscrabble philosophers, desperate characters, spirited women and outsider artists who embodied the boom spirit of the West after World War II.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
For those who have wondered about the stuff of fantastical tales and where it is found, Wolfe's charming memoir offers a view of the world through a storyteller's goggles. Wolfe, author of the acclaimed fable The Woman Who Lives in the Earth, grew up in the early 1940s wandering through the tunnels under his father's Colorado tuberculosis sanitarium and across the mesas above it, where he traded with the pack rats that looted small, shiny treasures from houses and hid them in the cracks in the rocks. He spent the latter half of his childhood on his stepfather's ranch, running free with his imagination and "inventing skiing," until family violence forced him to Missoula, Mont., and he discovered a trapping of city life that haunts him throughout the book: "Instead of nature, other people became my mirror." The book ends while Wolfe is in his 20s, working in a copper mine, which is forever changing the depth of his perception: "The latticework of the underground found a conscious expression... extending itself up to the surface as a way of thinking." Thirteen hundred feet below ground, Wolfe decides he will tell stories. His memoir contains no mirrors-just magic. (June) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
School Library Journal
Adult/High School-This is not the story of the fellow who invented skiing; instead, it is the account of a boy who reinvented his own life, since he might not have survived without his imagination and industry. Wolfe's mother was a wild, beautiful, and dangerous woman who, for example, gave his sister a bite of egg knowing that she would have an allergic reaction. The girl was forever damaged, and there were times when the author worried for his own physical safety. His doctor father had a heart condition that caused him to push his family away, and that led to his early death. The author overcame these beginnings by learning to take care of himself and by paying attention to his surroundings. This awareness and eye for detail are what make his storytelling so engrossing and heartfelt. He writes of ordinary people and of extraordinary ones, and is able to make both compelling. Wolfe recounts life with his beloved horse and his experiences as a miner, forest firefighter, woodcutter, and slaughterhouse worker with humor and warmth. His stories fully engage readers, and they may help teens understand that they can endure their own difficult lives and emerge stronger.-Will Marston, Berkeley Public Library, CA Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Novelist Wolfe (The Parrot Trainer, 2003, etc.) recalls a childhood growing up poor in Colorado and Montana during the 1940s and '50s, a time when he was deeply unhappy but fully occupied. The first thing he remembers is living rather high on the hog in Colorado. His father was chief physician at Woodman, a tuberculosis sanatorium; his mother was its chief administrator. Their relationship was unfulfilling, so there was always tension in the Wolfe household. The strain prompted their son to search the Woodman grounds for secrets behind the veil of everyday life, sometimes making a real discovery (the stairwell hidden by ferns that led to an underground tunnel) and sometimes an imaginary one (the "secret room" that he dreamed he found behind his bedroom wall). Penicillin put an end to the sanatorium, and the family took a financial plunge. Wolfe, his mentally challenged sister and his mother moved into a tent in the country. His father, now a morphine addict and child-beater, lived in town. With easy poise and an artisan's exactitude, Wolfe explains that he found grace and acceptance in the outdoors, escaping "the usual fighting and fucking scenario that played out in the farmhouse" back home with Mom and his new stepdad. Outside, he found further opportunities to see behind the veil, into the mystery of his own universe: on skis, plunging through a blinding dazzle of powder or voyaging atop his horse. To get away from her abusive second husband, Mom took them to Montana, even though "Missoula in the 1950s was not a great place for adult misfits." Later, Wolfe took work as a logger and a copper-miner; about each trade he spins stories both magic and real. Whatever the subject, the author'sunderlying topic is "the play of things, [the] stuff that constantly glittered and zinged around in my head."A unique vision, presented in rough-hewn prose.

Product Details

St. Martin's Press
Publication date:
Edition description:
First Edition
Product dimensions:
5.78(w) x 8.55(h) x 1.04(d)

Read an Excerpt

The Boy Who Invented Skiing

A Memoir

By Wolfe, Swain

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2006

Wolfe, Swain

All right reserved.

ISBN: 0312310935

Chapter One 
Grandfather's Bricks and the Secret Room
A doe stood on the hillside, still as a stone. I couldn't tell if she was real or a statue. The ambivalence made me dizzy. Then she turned and looked at me. Others came into view--four doe and several fawns, grazing on the sparse, pale grass, working their way up the slope through the pines and evening shadows toward the sandstone house of my childhood. They were stately, fragile animals--pets to the Catholic nuns who nurtured them, fed them treats, and talked to them in quiet, nun voices.
I moved a step at a time toward the grazing deer until I reached the end of the path, where steps descended the hill to the old hospital grounds. The deer were only a few feet away. They stopped and lifted their heads. When I said hello, their bodies tensed. The soft, whispering murmur of nuns had been replaced by an unexpected male voice. They turned and walked away, down the hill and into the trees. The last time I was here, there was neither deer nor trees, only grass.
I turned to go back to the car and noticed I'd been standing on a patch of white firebricks. There were no other bricks anywhere around, only these. They'd been carefully laid faceup to display the words "Denver Fire Clay Company."Firebricks were not meant for a footpath or even a building. They were heavy, oversize bricks used to line industrial boilers and ceramic kilns, made to withstand temperatures over 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit.
It took a moment to grasp how the bricks came to be at the end of the path and what they meant. These bricks had been made by my father's father. Grandfather must have carried them home one or two at a time in his lunch pail and given them to my father, whom he'd put through medical school by working ten- and twelve-hour shifts loading and unloading the hot kilns. Whether the bricks were Grandfather's idea or my father's, they were dense, guilt-laden bricks.
I tried to recall if the bricks were there when I was a child, to imagine my father on his knees, nearly sixty years before, bending over his work, carefully adjusting each brick to fit flat against the next. I had no memory of the event, but I knew these were serious bricks.
Grandfather had fled the czarists across the Caucasus, found a Russian wife in Austria, and made steerage to the land of peace and plenty. He'd survived to work under slave labor conditions in Denver's factory gulag. At that time, Denver was 300,000 souls a mile high, infusing the air with the scent of desire and desperation that still clings to the men and women of the West.
I stood on the guilty bricks, watching the deer drift down through the long-needled pines, thinking of my father in his suit and white shirt, on his knees, struggling with his tribute to the man who had worked half his life in a Colorado brick factory to raise his six children and put his brightest son through medical school. It was no accident that Grandfather's bricks were the first thing your feet touched after you climbed the 105 steps to the top of the hill--where you could turn and look down on the magnificent little valley and see my father's hospital.
I once saw a photograph of my grandfather wearing a porkpie hat and a rumpled suit not made for the muscular, hunched-over torso of a working man. You couldn't tell from the snapshot that his hands were thick and strong--more mechanical grippers than hands. What it did show was a man who knew life was work and work was his duty.
I met him only once. My father drove our beautiful red Buick down the clay driveway and stopped behind Grandfather's Model A Ford. Grandfather was standing in front of his small house as though he'd been waiting.
Grandmother did not come out. She might have been ill, but knowing what I know now, she was probably angry and humiliated, because her son was ashamed of his family. He never introduced them to my mother, never took them to see the hospital where he saved people, and never invited them to the big stone house on the hill for Christmas dinner.
The day I met him, Grandfather had just come home from the brick factory. It was the middle of summer, 1943. He was wearing three pairs of pants, a heavy wool shirt, and several sweaters. The third day after the burners were shut down on the huge beehive kilns, and the bricks had cooled to around 300 degrees Fahrenheit, the company required the men to remove the bricks. All those layers of clothes were insulation from the searing heat. To keep his face from blistering, Grandfather wore a wet gunnysack over his head.
My father owed his grand position, his beautiful wife, and his fine life to his parents, but he was embarrassed by their ignorance and their backward, Old Country habits. No amount of education and status could wash that off. My father regretted anything associated with his parents, including hard labor, poverty, and, obviously, himself. Much of his life was devoted to the inventions and rationalizations necessary to conceal his shame.
I looked up at the house of my first memories. It was two stories high and stood on a hill overlooking the small valley. When I was little, the valley seemed vast, stretching off toward the rim of the known world, marked by monumental sandstone pillars eroded by wind and water into alluring shapes with bands of soft yellows, oranges, and reds. Their tops were mushroom caps of harder sediment. On the valley floor were several buildings made of stone, including father's hospital. To the east of the hospital were a hundred tiny, white, six-sided cottages where individual patients lived. The place was called Woodman. It was a tuberculosis sanatorium.
From the window of my room on the second floor, I could see the grass stretch down across the valley and up the other side through the sandstone pillars with their mushroom caps. Our house was made of the same sandstone. The other houses were white with porches.
My room had windows on three sides. When the sun came in, the room would glow. I would sit in the bright room and think about how the world worked. I understood nearly nothing and was often unsure of what little I'd learned. Every day there were new things, so many things. Sometimes, on warm days, I'd fall asleep on the blue rug and dream and wake up and wonder if what I'd dreamed was real. Everything was a mystery. It was my job to explore, to understand the mysteries.
Late in the afternoon on a summer day when the sun slanted in, I woke from a nap and noticed something new near the chest of drawers on the wall without windows. It was a door I'd never seen. The door was white like the walls and about four feet high. A small glass knob left a faint blur of rainbow daggers scattered through its long shadow. I lay on the blue rug, wondering what was on the other side of the door.
I got up and walked over to the wall and felt along the edge of the door. I pulled the knob, which was just right for my small hand, and the door opened. The room was nearly black except for a bright doorway on the far side. I thought I saw a boy standing in the doorway. How could someone be living in there without my knowing? I waited. Nothing happened. Then Mother called from downstairs. It was dinnertime. I walked down the steps wondering about the boy in the secret room.
By the next morning the door had disappeared. I made several passes along the wall, running my hand over the plaster between the bureau and the windows. I stood for a long time with both hands and an ear pressed to the wall, listening. Mother and the maid were making noise downstairs, so it was hard to tell where the sounds came from, but it seemed like something was on the other side. It occurred to me that the door appeared only when the sun struck the wall, and I'd have to wait until later in the afternoon. For several days, when I woke in the morning, and later, when the sun stretched across the wall, I searched for the door, but I never found it again.
Copyright 2006 by Swain Wolfe


Excerpted from The Boy Who Invented Skiing
by Wolfe, Swain
Copyright © 2006 by Wolfe, Swain.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

A former documentary filmmaker, Swain Wolfe is the author of THE WOMAN WHO LIVES IN THE EARTH, LAKE DREAMS, and THE PARROT TRAINER, which won two Southwest Book of the Year Awards. He lives in Montana.

Brief Biography

Date of Birth:
Place of Birth:
Denver, Colorado

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