Fifty years. It sure seems like such a long time ago. Unless you’ve lived it, and then it feels so much shorter.
In late 1972, Richard Nixon won his second term, partially fueled by his promise to achieve “peace with honor” in his quest to finally end the war in Vietnam. But by mid-December, Operation Linebacker II cost the United States the loss of fifteen of its highly regarded B-52 Stratofortress long-range bombers in a mere eleven days. It seemed that peace, with or without honor, came at a very high price.
Gasoline was $.36 a gallon. “The Godfather” became an instant classic in a year that saw very few truly worthwhile movies made. A new Corvette Stingray convertible had a base price of $4,037. Top songs of the year included Don McLean’s “American Pie” – all 8 minutes and 42 seconds of it!
By 1972, our long-time group of friends had all completed their undergraduate work at university. Most of us had stuck around long enough to earn the diploma that we proudly framed and hung somewhere on our walls during the first ten years of post-graduate life. Some of us were gainfully employed in our chosen field, while a couple of others were doing their military service – willingly, or not – since the draft was very much alive and well when we had exhausted our college deferments. Those among us who hadn’t yet made a choice of career paths were taking a year or two, or maybe even three to “find” themselves.
“Finding yourself” was the accepted terminology for being practically unemployable when you discovered that the four-year degree in Ceramic Arts or Native American Traditions that your folks had sprung for wasn’t worth very much when it came to getting a job that didn’t involve flipping burgers or working a cash register at Caldors. The great myth that a college education would be your ticket to a fulfilling and lucrative career had been grossly oversold to the Baby Boomer generation. Imagine the surprise and disappointment when recent university grads discovered that a useful skill set was more valuable than an embossed piece of paper from “Anystate University” with your name on it when it came to earning anything greater than the minimum wage.
I was fortunate. My degree was in marketing and business administration. I had been offered a couple of entry level corporate jobs upon graduation but instead opted to work in the family business where the pay was considerably better, and I was handed the keys to a company car. My work schedule was flexible, so long as I put in enough total time each week, I could manage to take a three-day weekend at least twice a month.
Fall of 1972
Our little band of brothers was born at Joel Barlow in the early 1960’s and had expanded slightly during our university years. We were fortunate enough that one of our newer members had a grandfather who owned a cottage he seldom used on the water at Fairfield Beach where we could converge after work and on weekends during the summer. We strung a net on the beach in front of the cottage and hung a few lights so that we could play volleyball well into the night. We were very popular among the under-thirty crowd; not so much with those over forty who preferred a quieter life on Long Island Sound. We got to meet some of Fairfield’s finest police officers whenever it became too noisy or there were too many cars parked out front. Evidently, every one of them had been young once, and we were never issued anything stronger than a polite request to keep it down or move a couple of cars.
Since we were all avid skiers, when the cold weather arrived, it seemed like a natural to rent a house in Vermont for the season. 1972 was the second year we had pooled our money and sprung for a communal ski house. The first season had been near Killington, but in ‘72, we opted for the Sugarbush Valley to the north where we could choose between Sugarbush, Glen Ellen, and Mad River Glen. In the end, the lure of a full season ski pass at Sugarbush for just under $200 was too tempting to ignore.
After two weekends of viewing possible houses, we opted for an A-frame out on Plunkton Road in Warren, a ten-minute drive from the Sugarbush resort. The price for the entire season was a little over $2,000, setting each of us back about $400. Add in the cost of the ski pass and we were only $600 poorer with an entire winter of fabulous skiing ahead of us. Or so we thought.
Our house had a sign that hung out front – “The Gotcha,” Maybe the owner knew something that we didn’t, but the place had five bedrooms, one for each of us who was paying the rent. It only had one bathroom, but since we would seldom have more than twelve to fifteen people staying there on any given weekend, why would that be an issue?
The kitchen was something straight out of the 1920’s. The GE monitor refrigerator (motor on the top) could only hold about two quarts of milk, a dozen eggs, a pound of bacon, and a six-pack of suds. It was painted a drab green – perhaps it was WWI Army surplus. Of course, we needed more space than that, but that was what the back deck was for. Open the door and there was always two feet of snow in which to bury anything you needed to keep cold. So long as the neighborhood racoons didn’t get wind of what was out there, we were fine. The stove was the gas variety, but with no pilot light. Want to light either the oven or one of the burners and you needed to have a nice, sturdy wooden match handy – something not everyone in that house would always remember.
We had a furnace in the basement, but with a wood burning pot-bellied stove in the living room and a couple of cords of wood the owner had left outside, we preferred to save the propane for making spaghetti and baking chocolate chip cookies, our two main courses whenever at least one of our girlfriends wasn’t there to help us with the cooking. Like most boomer males of that era, we were ill prepared to live on our own without some serious female supervision and guidance.
The parking was limited. The driveway held two cars; we had a minimum of five; sometimes as many as eight or nine on the weekends. Vermont snowplow drivers do not appreciate cars being left along shoulder of the road. Not that it slows them down – they will fly by and bury anything within ten feet of the roadway under five feet of snow. Lucky for us, there were three boys in the neighborhood who loved to shovel our cars out every morning – for a price of course. I’m pretty sure their father was the town snowplow driver who provided them their employment opportunity.
All five of our girlfriends that winter were gainfully employed, so they were mostly just weekend residents. Unlike four out of the five of us, they had already “found themselves.” Three of my housemates had saved up enough money before quitting jobs they hated and were planning on being full-time ski-bums that winter. A fourth housemate pretended to run a business in Connecticut that his parents had set him up with, so he spent at least part of most weeks in Westport. Like I mentioned earlier, I had a real job, but with flexible hours and two-weeks of vacation time that I managed to take during that winter in one-week intervals. Add in those long weekends and a couple of holidays and out of the 151 days Sugarbush was open, I would manage to be in Vermont for 61 of them.
In 1972, no one had ever heard of helmets to protect our heads. Our skis were between 180 and 210 cm in length – extremely long by today’s standards! Leather straps attached to our boots secured our skis to keep them from running down the mountain when we wiped out and goose down was the only option when it came to buying warm skiwear. Unless it was snowing, aviator sunglasses with straps attached to the collar were the only eye protection most of us wore. And sunscreen? The darker we looked, the better we liked it. Looking back, it’s a wonder that any of us still have our eyesight and that we all haven’t died from melanoma.
The first few weeks at the Gotcha went well. On Saturday morning, December 16th, the phone rang around 8:30 AM. It was my friend Tom who was working winter break over at Sugarbush as a gondola attendant at the summit of the mountain.
“You look outside yet this morning?” he asked.
“Yeah, over a foot of new powder. I’m just getting ready to leave now…”
“No, I mean across the valley.”
“I think you can see the flames from New Hampshire. The gondola terminal at the top of the mountain is fully engulfed. The cable snapped about ten minutes ago and the counterweight crashed to the ground so hard it felt like an earthquake. The drive motor is up top, and half the cars were stored inside the terminal at the summit. Our gondola is toast. It looks like your season pass isn’t going to provide you with access to almost a third of the mountain…”
“The best third,” I moaned.
We skied at Glen Ellen that weekend and afterwards, drowned our sorrows at our favorite watering hole, the Blue Tooth on the Sugarbush access road. Some members of the local fire brigade were there as well. They must have been exhausted from standing out in the cold while they watched the gondola terminal flames burn themselves out since there was no way to get up there to fight the fire.
I left Connecticut at lunchtime the following Friday. In 1972 the use of radar in meteorological forecasting was in its infancy. I always pictured meteorologists opening the window, gauging the wind direction, and then telephoning a compadre in the same profession who worked about a hundred miles upwind to inquire about the current weather conditions there. Factor in the wind speed and he could then “predict” what the weather might be like a few hours out. In any event, prognosticating the weather wasn’t the science it is today, and accurate forecasts were rare.
That afternoon, it was about 50 degrees and raining in Fairfield County. With outside temperature gauges still about 20 years in the future for automobile dashboards, it was a pure guessing game as to what the temperature was as you drove further north. There was little doubt that it was below freezing by the time I turned off I-91 and onto I-89 at White River Junction since the highway was then covered with 2 inches of new snow. By the time I reached the Gotcha around 5:30 it was 7 inches deep and piling up quickly.
“Anybody think to call the girls and tell them to stay in Connecticut tonight?” I asked as soon as I was inside.
“If it’s snowing like this, they’d be idiots to leave now,” one of my brilliant housemates declared.
“It was 50 degrees there when I left five hours ago…”
“So, it wasn’t snowing there…”
“No, Einstein, it wasn’t.”
Remember, it was 1972. Communications were limited to land line telephones, snail mail, telegrams, and carrier pigeons. Everything we take for granted today was either in a Jules Verne novel or non-existent. Given the way the snow was coming down, if the girls had left Connecticut right after work, they would probably arrive by New Year’s Eve.
Since it was “Einstein’s” girlfriend Queenie who was scheduled to drive that night, I suggested he call her parents’ house to see if they had left yet. They had, so we were left with nothing to do but wait and hope they managed to make it.
It was nearly 2 AM when we saw the lights of the plow truck coming up the road to bury the three cars we had parked out there. But instead of speeding up and covering our chariots, the truck slowed down and stopped. We could see two silhouettes pass in front of the lights and then noticed a third person being helped from atop the sand pile in the dump body. It was the three young women we had been waiting for! They had abandoned Queenie’s new Celica about three miles from the Gotcha and the plow guys took pity on them and gave them a lift. C.W. had been the odd one out and opted to ride atop the sand in the back of the truck while Queenie and Frenchie rode in the cab with the town plow crew.
C.W. looked a bit like the Yeti, but she was a good sport who was just happy that the pot belly stove was still glowing and there was a decent bottle of cabernet sauvignon in the house.
C.W. went by her initials since we had two Cynthia’s in the house, the other girl was known as C.H. Frenchie was Vietnamese and her given name a bit difficult to pronounce and absolutely impossible to spell. She taught French at Weston’s middle school, so she was dubbed Frenchie. Queenie’s real name was Sharon…or Carol…or maybe Louise, but everyone called her Queenie, so that’s the only moniker I can recall fifty years later.
Ringing in the New Year
New Year’s Eve was fast approaching and the resident idiots of the Gotcha decided to host a party. Now, remember, we had a two cubic foot refrigerator and an antique propane stove that required a match to light the flame. In addition, the living room was the only room large enough to entertain in. Almost. It was about 10 feet by 15 feet, not exactly the ballroom at the Ritz. There would be 14 of us staying there for New Year’s which would seem like more than enough to have a decent party. But, Nooooooo, we decided to invite about ten more – who then invited another dozen or so on their own. And so on, and so on.
How many bodies we ended up with on that New Year’s Eve is anybody’s guess, but it far exceeded the indoor space available. At least one couple got engaged while sitting on the bed in my bedroom and from what I hear they are still married!
We had a small bonfire outside to keep people from freezing to death. Nick, our resident pyromaniac, had the trunk of his Porsche filled with illegal fireworks that he began setting off around midnight. Macy’s 4th of July celebration had nothing on Nick when it came to pyro-technical wizardry. If the tiny town of Warren, Vermont had had a police force, someone would have likely gone to jail, but they didn’t, so no one needed to be bonded out that night.
The entire evening went pretty well except for one tiny mishap. Remember that stove in the kitchen? Well, Queenie decided to light the oven to heat some pizza or whatever it was that needed heating. She turned on the gas and reached for a match. No match. They were ten feet away in the living room. She went there, retrieved one and walked back into the kitchen to light the stove. But she had neglected to turn off the gas prior to searching for that match. As soon as she struck the match…KABOOM!
The entire house shook, and Queenie flew backwards a few feet. The stove lit and there was no real damage. Except for Queenie’s missing eyebrows and the surprised expression on her face.
So, we rang in the new year with a big boom and some awesome fireworks. It was a memorable ski season filled with a lot of laughs, a house that flooded on Saint Patrick’s Day after it had rained nearly 6 inches in just 24 hours, a small fire on the second level when Nick left a burning candle unattended for several hours, and two cars that were clobbered by our fearless snowplow driver during a fierce blizzard in February. All in all, a typical winter in Vermont.
Happy New Year to all from every one of us at the Historical Society of Easton and the Courier!