What happens in the past influences who we are today. History lives on in the people she has grappled with, sidled beside, or challenged. She is to be respected as someone who determines the future based on the past. History tells a legacy. It is a silent figure rising from the mist to tell the tale.
In the 1950’s a man stands on one leg at 9,700 ft elevation. One ski is back behind him. The other is bent ready to kick off. Two poles hang from his wrists, loose but tight enough to follow back through after they pass behind him when planted in the snow. His shirt, tucked into wool pants, improves the flow of heat from his core to his extremities. He teaches captains, lieutenants, and majors how to survive in the winter during war. They in turn will teach their soldiers the same skills. Mr. Bassette was one of a few specialized men at Camp Hale to teach, skiing, climbing, and winter survival. He spent winter months skiing up and down mountains, clutching at rock cliffs, or digging burrows for the night.
Years later he had four sons who grew up in much the same way. Skiing the slopes, challenging nature’s elements, and living life on the edge. Some of them tried to tube down the impassable Quechee Gorge and others attempted ski jumping off the roof for lack of snow. Summers passed building dams large enough to cause a drought downstream, and daily breakfasts consisted of all things edible: first the cheerios, then the eggs, next the pancakes, the fruit loops, followed by oatmeal, toast and jam, only to be washed down by a gallon of milk and orange juice….EACH.
The oldest son at 19 years old stood on top of the world. Mountains clustered in front and behind him, but he stood his ground from the topmost peak. A pair of skis was slung over his shoulder and he made the monotonous trudge up the narrow yet infinite steps exposed to the elements. They led to the landing platform. It was early yet and a perfect winter day in 1978.
Days, hours, and months passed in this way. He rose up stepping cautiously and flew down fearlessly with nothing but two skis strapped to his feet and sometimes even, not attached when once he forgot to buckle the skis down. To keep in shape during the summer months, he ran the stadium steps at Dartmouth College. Once he made one step too many and caved into the last step. A piece of bone flaked off the shin and immediately the blood flowed freely. While that ended his workout his brother threw him over his shoulder and sprinted to the hospital. That was every day life. Getting into scrapes, and carrying through.
When something becomes passion, it becomes part of you. It usually begins with a talent a love and then an addiction. You can’t get enough of it. Over the many months of competing, training and traveling he knew all the local hills, jumps, and routes. The secrets of each ski jump, the timing for that extra lift and the moment to spring from earth into heaven for those few moments of flight.
Today he traveled to another mountain. The legacy of that mountain included his father, who had jumped on its slopes. He too had sailed into space only to return to earth without his landing..well half a landing. A ski pierced the bows of a tall pine on the side of the trail. The other clung to his foot. Nearing earth he braced and landed the jump with one leg.
At the top, the white mountains of New Hampshire rose up higher, even though he stood on a wooden platform high enough to send him sailing 100 meters. Clamping in, he sat on the seat, breathed deep and pushed off. Coaches critiqued his angles, his tuck, his arms, his knees, and finally his take off over the 38 degree slope. They shook their heads.
His coach walked over to the athlete swaggering towards him. “What are you doing?” His coach asked.
The young man casually shook his shaggy hair. “I’m jumping.”
“Well if you keep jumping like that pretty soon you’ll be face planting. Johnny I’ve told you before change the angle. You’re just not in it today. Start focusing and stop wasting your time…as well as mine.”
Practice ended in Berlin New Hampshire as he geared up for the National Championship in Leavenworth, Washington.
The following week he found himself back on top of the mountain, back in the snow, back on his skis under a grey sky. Warm-ups proceeded competitors eyeing each other.
All it took was one big jump. One change of an angle, a little lean, and he would win–all those months of training to put together right here, right now. Pushing off his arms brushed his thighs as they moved behind him. Legs low in a stable squat, he prepared for the timing of take off. It happened, and it happened perfectly. The moment of take off told the truth. That was the jump he needed. All he had to do was stick the landing. Like a bird in flight over water, his shadow became clear and dark as he neared earth. Looking down he grinned and landed the furthest jump that day. That last jump and it was over. The cheers said it all. He had won the national championship.
In the pictures he is smiling holding his tall trophy and shaking a man’s hand. He had the strength and talent to go on. Once he missed the Olympics. A second attempt could he have made it? I asked him “why didn’t you keep trying? You could have gone to the Olympics.” I fingered his trophies and medals in awe rubbing the little head of the ski jumper on top of the wooden plaque. I polished it as best I could with my finger.
“When I won the national championship, your Grandma wasn’t there, my Dad wasn’t there. It was just me and my trophy. And soon after that I met your mother. Sometimes, when you think you are writing the best legacy, something more important comes in like your education, like your mother, and like your eight siblings. The best decision I ever made was accepting the One who not only writes your legacy and mine but who can change your story anytime, anyway, anywhere. The next best decisions I made were to stop jumping, to marry your mother and to have nine children.”
That man is my father. Yes he is a ski jumper. Yes he beat men like Tim Caldwell on Nordic skis, he won the national ski jumping championship, started three real estate businesses, had nine kids and went to every single one of their sports championships to watch them do their best. He didn’t go to tell them to be the best, to win, or to compete for themselves. He went to tell them to do their best, and to catch them when doing their best meant passing out before a finish line. He showed them how to compete with honor because that is what is remembered in a legacy, not what you did, but how you made people feel on the track, on the ski hill, and on AND off through the difficulties of life.
My Dad will not be remembered for beating the Olympic skier Tim Caldwell (though I pride myself that he did), for winning a national ski jumping championship, or for his “treasure box” of awards which we go through on a rainy afternoon: the newspaper clippings, the medals, the numbers, bibs, and signed cards, the ribbons, trophies, and even the skis hung on the wall. Those things collect dust. It’s his rooted character and his personality that people know him for. He values people. He is known for his success at whatever plow he puts his hand to, and for his grace when certain people try to take the fruit of his labor from him.
The best legacy’s aren’t written by the individual but by those around him. Because when one stops thinking about himself and lives for others those touched by the sincerity of the giver’s heart turn around and protect his honor.
One month ago, I stood in Berlin, NH, on the same ski jump, seeing the same white mountains, climbing the same steps, and breathing the same air that my Dad did–that my Grandpa breathed years ago. My siblings climbed the decaying monument. We flung ourselves off the lower bars of the structure attempting the “bird in flight” position of a ski jumper. He helped us out by lifting us up over his head while we spread our arms and legs. The rotted wood, the still stable structure, and the ramp all told a story under an evening sky. As the stars came out (and the bugs too), I knew one thing. This was my Grandpa’s story, my Dad’s story, and my story. It is the Bassette story.