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Friday, January 30, 2009
Our camp ski instructor and charter member of the Lone Star Camp 3 musketeers, Jack Allen, decided one summer that he was going to learn to ski barefoot. This caused me to begin to doubt his sanity, although his previous history probably should have had me looking up therapists long before he decided to kick off the old water skis.
We were both married by then and I had a kid already. He asked me if I wanted to try barefoot skiing myself. He implied that my manhood was at stake somehow if I didn't take up the gauntlet he had thrown down. As I later discovered, my manhood was far more at risk than I suspected. Being a new father and already beginning to age rapidly from having to feed the baby two or three times a night, I think my mental faculties were beginning to fade. I said, "Yes!"
If you've never water skied before, you probably don't fully understand what all is involved in this so-called sport. In water skiing, you strap your feet into neoprene or plastic boots securing your foot firmly to these two bits of polished lumber. You start out with two of them which is dangerous enough. Eventually, your friends shame you into doing it "slalom" style - which means standing on only one board while in a controlled fall behind a motorboat with very sharp propellers and a not very sharp driver doing about 50 miles an hour through dark green water infested with snakes, floating debris and idiots in canoes and sailboats.
I had become pretty good at it - sadly, too good for my own good. I had water skied on pretty much anything that would float and some things that wouldn't. They'd dragged me up on canoe paddles, two by fours, oddly shaped hunks of plywood designed to decapitate you when fell off, tree limbs, inner tubes, your own unprotected belly and the sawed off tips of some old splintery skis left over from the days when French Canadian fur trappers used to pull their comrades behind 20 foot trading canoes through snake infested swamps (usually by the neck after they were caught stealing the liquor, but that's the less romantic part of the tale).
These mini-skis were called "shoe" skis, chiefly because they were about the size and length of my flip flops. Some humorist had even screwed a metal rudder underneath to add to their stability (and to their capacity for ripping off your foot at the ankle if you accidentally tripped on a wave while shoe skiing. Shoe skiing is lots of fun. You start out by sitting on a loose slalom ski and riding it out of the water like the Lone Ranger on Silver. Once you stand up from this undignified position, the slalom ski theoretically drops away and flips over and lies there invisible against the algae ridden East Texas lake water waiting for you to hang a shoe ski rudder on it during your next lap and become parted from one of your feet.
The thing they don't warn you about is that as you stand up, the slalom ski comes up with you and gives you a nice little parting shot between the thighs, producing what we in the water skiing profession call the "shoe ski squeal". The dismount from shoe skis was often rather spectacular as the boat had to be going around 60 miles an hour to support you on those tiny little things and when you dropped off, you dropped off rather abruptly. Having your kneecaps shoved up your nose was always good for opening up the old sinuses, but after those first two or three cartwheels, you needed them opened up a little anyway.
In the process of learning what my Mom meant when she told me not to make "poor choices", I had accidentally earned a "reputation" as a daring, brave and skillful skier.
"I'll watch you practice first." I told Jack.
Jack had decided after attempting to rip off his ankles a couple of times that he wouldn't use the shoe ski method he had recommended for me. Instead he chose the "step off from slalom ski" method. I watched him round the lake once and come out of the last turn for his first attempt. We'd read the books that described the technique and knew that you had to lean waaaaaay back to stay on your feet. During his first attempt he wore his regular bathing suit.
From shore we watched him through binoculars as he stepped off with one foot, steadied himself (so far so good) and then stepped off the ski with the other foot. A barefoot fall happens fast. If you blink you could miss the fun. You're doing 60 or 70 at the time. The water feels like iron when you step on it and fools you into believing this is going to be a cinch.
I watched Jack suddenly sit down hard, drag on his butt for about 20 feet and then begin flipping end over end like a stone skipping across the water. He made one last hop and plunk and sent up a gigantic plume of water. Once it cleared, we could see Jack floating out there, resting for a moment. I thought it odd that he was resting face down, but he seemed to be alright as the boat crew came round and dragged his limp body from the water. Oddly, though, he seemed to be wearing a bikini. Now, I was quite certain Jack had been wearing a baggy pair of surfer shorts when he set out to make the attempt.
As they brought him back to shore, I could see him standing in the back of the boat pulling at something behind him. Once he got closer we could see he was attempting to pull his surfer shorts out of a place where surfer shorts were not meant to be worn. When they hit shore, Jack jumped gingerly, but frantically out of the boat and stumbled awkwardly up the hill toward the camp kitchen holding his knees tightly together and making pathetic little hops like a wounded rabbit.
The barefoot fall soon became known amongst us Lone Star Camp water-skiing professionals as "the instant enema" in honor of Jack. We also called it the "high speed high calonic", the "great green goose" and some other epitaphs that were more colorful, if less repeatable. It hurts just to think about it now some 33 years later!
"That's okay," I smiled and waved off the boat driver. "I'll just take the old shoe skis for today. I want to work on, uh, my technique. Yeah, that's it. You can take someone else before me, okay?"
This went on for a couple more days. Jack was nothing if not determined. Every day after lunch, he would go out for a fresh attempt to barefoot. Every day he would fall a couple of times and then the boat crew would tow him to shore and he'd hop/skip up the hill to the kitchen. By the third day of this, the kitchen crew had officially banned him from using the kitchen restroom ever again, mainly because of the terrible sounds that came out of there. The girls said it sounded like a moose in mating season singing a duet with a bagpipe beside a waterfall - only worse!
The third day, Jack showed up with a wet-suit. "For protection," he explained in a voice that had gone from a nice baritone to a suspiciously high tenor in just the past few days. I think he hoped the sturdy wet suit would prevent the lake water high calonics. In this he was to be disappointed.
He did manage about three falls a day before having to dash up the hill. Unfortunately, with the kitchen off limits to him, he had to head for the men's bathhouse clear across the cabin area. He didn't make it. He got as far as the camp store and was forced to detour to the nearest place of refuge which happened to be our cabin. That summer my wife and I lived in a small air-conditioned room attached to the camp store which she managed. Sheila was inside putting the baby down for a nap, when she heard a panic stricken pounding on the door.
She opened it and Jack poured in, "I, uh, can," Jack stammered waving at the bathroom door. "Thanks, I, uh, aaaaaaaah...." he dived behind the curtains and Sheila suddenly heard the mournful sound of bagpipes tuning up.
"I think he had a moose in there with him," she told me later. The bathroom walls in our little one room cabin went only about 3/4 of the way up to the ceiling and only had a curtain for the door. So, there wasn't a lot of sound deadening. Jack didn't seem to mind.
"I was afraid he was going to wake up the baby," Sheila explained. Matt, however, proved to be a sound sleeper and after 3 days of repeat performances, Jacks frantic visits got to be a regular thing. He used to discuss philosophy and trade gossip over the wall with her, all the while blithely pretending there wasn't a dying bovine in there with him. Once done, he'd wash his hands, bid mother and child goodbye and head back down to ski class.
Every day he'd have to sew up the crotch of his wetsuit for the next day, but after about a week of practice he managed to learn to barefoot ski and had the cleanest colon in the state of Texas, except maybe for the little bits of algae and the odd minnow that was left behind.
After Jack had mastered skittering along on his bare feet and falling hard on his butt, he finally goaded me into attempting to barefoot. "We'll do a two man barefooting exhibition." he told me, his eyes glazing over.
Ever the ham, I fell for it. As I rounded the lake on my one ski (I'd seen what happened with the shoe skis), I looked down nervously at the water as it flashed beneath me at unholy speeds. Coming out of the last turn I felt the boat pour on the gas.
"Well, here I go," I took a deep breath and gingerly stepped off the ski with one foot and leaned waaay back to put some weight on it. I figure my face it the water at about 70 miles an hour. My feet were doing at least that when my heels struck me in the back of the head and I began rolling end over end, not rolled up in a proper ball like a normal person, but with my face and other parts on the outside of the human hula hoop I had become. I had hoped to keep most of those exposed parts until I was somewhat older and they began to drop off naturally. I found the missing ski we'd been using for shoe ski starts too.
I actually bruised my heels on the back of my head. The chiropracter says he'd never seen a spine quite that particular shape before.
I never learned to barefoot. I decided to leave that for guys with sturdier sphincters.
That awful power, the public opinion of a nation, is created in America by a horde of ignorant, self-complacent simpletons who failed at ditching and shoe-making and fetched up in journalism on their way to the poorhouse. -Mark Twain