THE BOYS OF WINTER THE OF LIFE AND DEATH IN THE U.S. SKI TROOPS DURING THE SECOND WORLD WAR
By Charles J. Sanders
University Press of Colorado Copyright © 2005 Charles J. Sanders
All right reserved. ISBN: 978-0-87081-823-3
Chapter One The Hero of the Thunderbolt (Rudy Konieczny)
The storms rolled across western Massachusetts in February 1936 as they always had, leaving a blanket of white on the hills around Adams that turned luminous under the full moon. Down the road in the southern Berkshires, Norman Rockwell was capturing on canvas the idealized images of small-town life in Depression-era America. On this night, he would have done well to travel a few miles north for his inspiration.
On the wooded slopes behind the old Konieczny farm in Adams, several young men shivered in the moonlight, shouldering their seven-foot hickory skis toward the modest summit. In front of the pack, as always, was a slightly built teen of medium height, with short blond hair and baby-faced, angular features. Over and over, he would lead his gang up, and then beat them to the bottom. His name was Rudolph Konieczny (Kon-EZ-nee), but to everyone in town he was just plain "Rudy." And Rudy liked to win.
In the near distance of this idyllic scene loomed the behemoth, "the highest wave of the great landstorm of all this billowing region," as nativeson Oliver Wendell Holmes described it. Dark and foreboding even in bright moonlight, Mount Greylock rose far above them, teasing the boys into dreams of racing glory. Herman Melville had drawn his inspiration for the hulking Moby Dick from the snowcapped peak. It was the "great white hump" the author could see through the window above his writing desk. Now the mountain was pulling on Rudy in a way reminiscent of the beast's inexorable tug at Ahab.
When the church bells tolled nine, Rudy led his tired, happy group back to the farm. Skiing was their passion, and little satisfied more than a rare and exhausting moonlight practice. As they skated toward the house and the main road, their conversation yielded a consensus that this night had been particularly exhilarating. The snow had been good for a change, not the usual mixture of New England slush and ice. The weather was clear and cold. They had done well. All was right with the world.
Moving along at Rudy's demanding pace, his younger brother Adolph-Rudy's shadow-struggled to keep up. Though the gangly Adolph was several years Rudy's junior, he was already taller, which irked the smaller Konieczny. His little brother's sudden growth spurt toward an eventual 6'4" was particularly difficult for Rudy to accept, since for years he himself had been tagging after his older brother Charlie, a local star athlete who towered over both his younger brothers and their five sisters.
The growing frustration over the "averageness" of his height, according to Adolph, led the seventeen-year-old Rudy increasingly to place his highest priority on excelling at activities that proved his physical prowess and daring. Prior to finding his true love of skiing, Rudy had even talked his older brother into managing his fledgling boxing career.
Rudy, in fact, won his first amateur bout at sixteen. His initial pugilistic success came as a surprise to everyone, including Charlie, who was quite amused when the young boxer announced that getting into the ring seemed about the easiest way in the world to earn three dollars. Rudy's second match against a more seasoned Holyoke boxer with the ominous pseudonym "Kid Shamrock," however, was his last. It was a reluctant career choice with which everyone in attendance at the bout-especially Charlie-concurred. Rudy returned to the slopes after his brief fling with the sweet science having demonstrated that, if nothing else, he wasn't the type to back down from a scrap.
"As a kid, I think that Rudy might actually have liked fighting," remembered Adolph. Rudy, however, was no bully. "Quite to the contrary, he never picked on anyone. He just wouldn't brook nonsense from anybody. He could not back down. It was not in his nature."
Gliding along between the two brothers that night was Rudy's gang of neighborhood ski cronies. First behind the leader was Maurice "Greeny" Guertin, a fine skier possessed of an even wilder streak of teenage insanity than Rudy. Guertin once scaled the outside of the huge Adams church steeple for the simple, extraordinarily dangerous pleasure of waving to his friends below. Behind Greeny came Roy Deyle, a good athlete, but definitely the more cautious "follower" of the group. And finally, there was Gerard "Stumpy" Gardner, who at five feet tall had something even greater to prove than Rudy did. Gerard understood what drove Rudy, and vice versa. He was the only one permitted to call Rudy by his rhyming nickname "Tooty," a reference to Rudy's occasional tooting of his own horn, without risking reprisal. They were both in the process of molding themselves into first-class downhill racers, and each respected that in the other.
More than anything else this night, the five boys exuded pride. Every one wore the badge "Adams Man" with the same sense of self that the young fishermen from across the state in Gloucester wore theirs, the name of the town itself a synonym for the utter tenacity of its sons. Fearlessness in the mountains was identical to courage on the sea, as far as the Berkshire boys were concerned, and that belief caused them to move with a purpose, their heads high. To a man, they were out to conquer Greylock, where they agreed to meet again to practice at first light.
* * *
By 1936, Adams, Massachusetts, had already earned a reputation as one of the skiing capitals of the eastern United States. The first American ski boom of the early 1930s coincided with, and was in part fueled by, the activities of the New Deal's Civilian Conservation Corps. Looking for projects to keep its workers busy in the midst of a seemingly endless Depression, President Roosevelt's CCC had decided in 1934 to cut a "Class A" ski trail in the hill country of western Mass in the hopes of stimulating local business and tourism. The site chosen was the highest peak in the Berkshires, Mount Greylock, smack in Adams's backyard. They called the trail the Thunderbolt, and even without the installation of one of the popular, new rope tows recently invented to pull skiers uphill, it instantly became one of America's legendary ski runs.
The Thunderbolt was tough to climb, and even tougher to ski. In the words of 1934 U.S. National Downhill Ski Champion Joseph Duncan Jr. of Colorado (a future Tenth Mountain Division officer), those who made the nearly two-mile, forty-five-minute hike to the summit were faced with "undoubtedly the most thrilling wooded run yet built in the country-it beats anything in the Rocky Mountains." Dartmouth Ski Team member and another future Tenth Mountaineer, Bob Meservey, had a less exuberant view. "It just scared the hell out of you. Steep, icy, and full of nasty surprises. It was the toughest run we had to ski."
From all over New England, the best skiers in the eastern United States flocked to the Berkshires to take their crack at the mighty 'Bolt. These pilgrimages of the elite exposed the local Berkshire youth to championship-caliber racing, and Rudy Konieczny and his friends were among the many who contracted skiing fever as a result. The first Massachusetts Downhill Championship was held on the Thunderbolt in 1935 and won by the superb Dartmouth racer Dick Durrance. Fellow Olympian Jarvis Schauffler of Amherst College followed Durrance by setting a new speed record on the run several months later.
Before long, Rudy and the others were flocking to the hills of Adams on primitive, homemade equipment that often included bicycle inner tubes fashioned into bindings and nailed to their skis. Inspired by the thrills they had witnessed and willing to take enormous risks in pursuit of the speeds they had seen Durrance and Schauffler achieve on their mountain, the young Berkshire skiers painfully learned their sport by imitation, and then quickly organized themselves into ski racing clubs. These included the Mount Greylock and Pittsfield organizations and Rudy's first affiliation, the Thunderbolt team.
As their skill and confidence progressed, Rudy's gang soon set out to procure skis with real metal edges and leather bindings. The working-class kids of Adams received a tremendous stroke of fortune in that pursuit when local furniture store owner Art Simmons himself caught the ski bug and took on the role of Santa Claus for the fledgling racers. At the height of the Depression, Art's store, A. C. Simmons, sold twenty-dollar pairs of Groswold skis to Rudy and his cohorts-some of whom were lucky enough to be making $10.40 a week at the Berkshire Mills-for one dollar down and interest-free terms. For those Saroyan-esque acts of kindness, Simmons is recalled with fondness nearly seventy years later by the surviving club members, who continue to patronize the family-owned A. C. Simmons Department Store on Main Street in Adams in the twenty-first century.
Now more properly outfitted, Rudy, Greeny, and their friends began training in earnest on the Thunderbolt. They would frequently scale Greylock three times in a single afternoon to practice racing down. "We'd strip down to our undershirts on the way up," Adolph remembered, "to keep the perspiration to a minimum. The wetter your clothes got on the way up, the colder you were going to be once you stopped moving. We were cold most of the time, I guess, but we just ignored it."
On those rare occasions when the light and conditions were just right, they'd ski all day on the mountain and come back to the Konieczny farm to continue their workouts at twilight. From the start, however, it was apparent that Rudy-frequently adorned in his trademark, floppy-brimmed ski hat (a knitted gift from an older sister that he believed created a look that was unique if not outright jaunty)-was head and shoulders above the rest.
"Rudy skied like water flowing over a waterfall," was friend Lester Horton's assessment. According to Bill Linscott, the Thunderbolt champion of 1942, "[a]nyone who saw Rudy ski would try to imitate him because he had such great style. He was such a natural. When you saw Rudy coming down, you watched, because you knew it was going to be beautiful."
Rudy was not only better than the rest, he was also more committed. During the winter, he refused to work at the mill (where he had started at age fifteen after quitting school), saving his factory earnings the rest of the year to get him through the months in which he did nothing but train and race. Rudy would pay room and board to his parents, but he spent most of his time on Greylock. According to his younger brother, he'd hike up alone, stay at the Bascomb Lodge on top with caretaker Charlie Parker if the weather came in, and ski down himself. Skiing alone has always been a dangerous pursuit. "Some good skiers got killed in those mountains," recalled Adolph, "but one thing Rudy wasn't short on was confidence."
Rudy and Greeny Guertin, who gradually became best friends based upon their obsession with achieving speed on skis, also became familiar figures on the slopes around Hancock, Massachusetts, that today comprise the Berkshires' largest ski area, Jiminy Peak. Actually, the two pushed each other both on and off the slopes. "A lot of people thought they were nuts," said Adolph. "But they were just challenging themselves. Not showing off, just marching to their own drums."
It wasn't only ski racing that gave the boys their requisite charge of adrenaline. While Greeny amused himself scaling church steeples and doing front flips and other acrobatics on skis, Rudy reveled in riding a bicycle without brakes around the hills of Adams, figuring out ways to stop only as the absolute necessity arose. He also liked to dive off a high ledge at the local reservoir into four feet of water, just for the excitement of it. "When the other kids told him he'd break his neck, he'd just tell them he knew what he was doing," continued Adolph. "Pretty soon, they were all doing it, too."
Rudy, Adolph concluded, was from a very early age what might today be called a "thrill junkie." "A lot of people, when they think of Rudy, automatically recall first and foremost that he could be very funny, a real smart aleck. That's not what I think of, and that really, to me, wasn't the core of his personality. It was that perpetual search for the next big thrill that really defined my brother. School and pretty much everything else was secondary to adventure. That's really what made him tick. As a kid, he hadn't figured out yet how skiing could be his ticket to bigger things, but he wasn't going to make that mill his life. If there was anything in this world that scared him, it was that. That he'd have to live a life limited by that mill."
* * *
Rudy came into the world on April 7, 1918, the fourth of eight children born to Sophie and Charles Konieczny. His parents had emigrated to Massachusetts in the early part of the century from the central European cities of Warsaw and Prague, respectively, and retained certain "Old World" notions of proper behavior for good Catholic youth. As a result, they were frequently driven to distraction by Rudy's antics. "My father had a very low tolerance for nonsense, and he was pretty strict with all of us," recalled Adolph. "Rudy would never rebel against my folks in obvious ways, but he'd do little sly, humorous things that gave him a feeling he was getting away with something."
As youngsters, Rudy and Adolph were frequently enlisted by their father to assist him in doing chores on the farm. "Rudy really made a game out of that," his brother remembered. "My father would ask us to help him move hay across the farm on a large wagon, for instance, and he'd be red in the face pushing from the rear. I'd push as hard as I could from one front side, and Rudy would pretend to be pushing with every ounce of strength from the other. Of course, I knew he was really coasting, and every once in a while he would shoot me a wink. Lucky for him, my old man never caught on, and I was no snitch. But that was Rudy."
Rudy didn't get away with everything, though, such as the time he lent his bicycle to his father, conveniently failing to mention its lack of brakes. That incident did not end happily for Rudy, who didn't feel like sitting on his bike again, or on anything else, for a week. "Sure, my father would whack him every once in a while when a point really needed to be made," Adolph continued. "That's the way it was done back then. Rudy could take that. What he really hated was when my mother would try to drag him to church. He was good natured about it because he knew better than to challenge her, but he'd generally end up sneaking out the side door when the priest wasn't looking, and would head straight for Greylock with Greeny, Roy, and Gardner. He wasn't much for religion, or for sitting still, and I think eventually my parents understood through their exasperation that it just wasn't in him to change."
Understanding that his growing and relentless search for adventure required the constant indulgence of others, Rudy soon cultivated a notoriously charming and effective power of persuasion. It was a skill, his brother recalled, that Rudy did not always use to unselfish ends. "When I first learned to drive, he talked me into splitting the cost of an old jalopy with him," remembered Adolph. "I knew it would be me who kept it gassed up all the time.... One night Rudy had a big date, and didn't bother to check the fuel gauge. He ran out of gas in the middle of a downpour, and his evening went downhill from there. The girl was really upset, and he ended up doing a lot of walking in the rain. [Apparently, even Rudy's superior abilities to persuade had a limit.] When he finally got home, he just heaved his sopping wet jacket on the bed to wake me up, and that started quite a riot. But damned if he didn't almost convince me that his running out of gas was somehow my fault."
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