Moonlighting

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Three weekend warriors attest that skiing is not just an adventure, it's a job.

You know those name-tagged people you see tooling around in too-bright uniforms, cutting lift lines every weekend? Ever wonder what their story is? Well, most of them are moonlighting. On Saturday, they collect minimum wage or a little more from Really Big Ski Company, but come the crack of dawn Monday morning, they've got another job, another life, that has nothing to do with wedge turns or toboggans.

Why do they do it, these coaches, patrollers, and instructors? It's certainly not for the snazzy jacket. Anyone who tells you free skiing doesn't enter into the equation is lying, but as these three weekend warriors show, it is only a small part of the payoff.

>> THE SPORTSWRITER
It's a few hours before Super Bowl XXXV. Bill Pennington, the Giants beat writer for The New York Times,has a press-box phone jammed into his ear, and he's scribbling frantically into his skinny notebook. A late injury report? Last-minute instructions from his editor? No, he's getting an update from another major sporting event a thousand miles away: His Mountain Creek Ski Team kids are taking on their cross-town rivals from Hidden Valley.

"The club did very well, much better than the Giants," he recalls over lunch near the Meadowlands.

Pennington has what many people consider a dream job. Not only does he go to every Giants game -- seats are very rare because season tickets are routinely willed from generation to generation -- but he gets the best seat in the house. After the game, he gets to grill Kerry Collins about that fourth-quarter interception. And, of course, he gets paid for it all.

His other job isn't quite so glamorous. He's a volunteer kids' race coach at Mountain Creek, New Jersey, the kind of resort where a Giants jacket and jeans pass as skiwear. But every winter weekend when the Giants aren't playing, and a lot of weekends when they are, Pennington is ripping up the mountain with a rat pack of nine-year-old boys, urging them to angulate instead of inclinate.

"They're going to do this all their lives," says Pennington. "And I think that's cooler and more rewarding than teaching them to throw a curve ball that's going to wreck their arm."

Pennington's job is part coach and part babysitter. Keeping the peace in lift lines and on chair rides is as important as any skiing tips he passes on. But he's got an advantage over most babysitters: His kids really want to be there. They're more concerned with how Coach Bill can help them clean up their carve than the fact that he's seen Jason Sehorn in his underwear.

Sometimes, though, good intentions aren't enough. Last year, Pennington remembers one of his racers trying really hard -- just to keep his hands in a position that looked like performance art. And while he's trying to bridge the gap between what he said and what this nine-year-old heard, Pennington feels some empathy with the guys on the sidelines in his other job. "I felt like some football coaches must feel: 'What did we do this week that led to this 40-0 blowout?'" he says. "You learn more about the drill from the kid who can't do it."

But there's nothing like the feeling of the Big Click. Pennington proudly recalls a race a few years ago when his daughter Anne D, 10, led after the first run but was worried her time wouldn't hold up. The second run? "We had talked about what to do in each series of gates, and just as I'm starting to shout an instruction, she would do it. That's the best day I ever had in athletics," says Pennington. "I think it's more exhilarating than doing it yourself."

The quest for the Click can lead a man to do strange things. In February, Pennington told his editors that he had to pass up a trip to Hawaii for the Pro Bowl to attend a USSA coach's clinic at Camelback, Pennsylvania. It didn't surprise his colleagues at the Times; they'd heard it all before.

"Let mget this straight," some incredulous editor would ask Pennington. "You stood on the side of a mountain getting pounded in the rain? For five hours? You chose to do this?"

"Yeah, but it was a great race," Pennington would reply. "Dougie cut a second and a half off his time from his first run to his second. And he beat that little asshole who is always acting like he's the best...."

>> THE SURVEYOR
You know that moment when a lift grinds to a halt and you wonder, What if this thing is really broken?Well, the southwesterly wind that's pushing the Blizzard of 2001 toward Bromley, Vermont, is swinging the upper-mountain quad around pretty good, and it stops. Since I'm riding with veteran ski patroller Deb Daniels, I ask the "what-if" question.

"I love lift evacs," she says, recalling the bluebird afternoon a few years back when she and her fellow patrollers climbed the towers of another chair, hoisted the rope slings, and rescued 100 paying customers in 45 minutes. This time, though, the chair restarts and deposits us at the top without drama. But as we slide off, Daniels, a surveyor by trade, continues to eye the ominous clouds, and basks in the irony. She knows that the dump that will make this ski season one for the scrapbook will also make her other job between difficult and impossible until after the thaw.

During the week, Daniels takes the measure of Vermont's Green Mountains. In this country, a surveyor has to be part detective and part amateur archeologist, searching for the piles of stones, the iron pipe that demarcates the invisible boundary between Farmer Brown and Farmer Smith. But these mysteries unravel slowly -- more slowly beneath three feet of fresh snow.

That's not the case on the patrol at Bromley. "Every single time you get a call, your stomach does flip-flops," Daniels says, "wondering if you're going to get the one that's not just a twisted knee."

A routine toboggan clinic can morph instantly into a Rescue 911episode. Literally. Five years ago, a snowboarder went headfirst into a hardwood. When Daniels and the rest of the Bromley patrol got to the scene, the victim's limbs were tingling and he was lapsing in and out of consciousness. "You can read a lot about head injuries," she recalls. "But then you see one. It's a pretty scary thing." A careful extrication, a touch-and-go toboggan ride, and a little bit of luck equaled five minutes of fame. Daniels and the other patrollers got to play themselves on the television show and -- a happy ending -- the snowboarder recovered enough to play himself, too.

Even on her routine runs, the ones that don't become reality TV, Daniels deals with skiers at their most vulnerable -- when a moment's indiscretion has left them facing months of physical therapy. At these times, a smile, a reassuring word, not to mention a smooth ride down, mean surprisingly much. "Sometimes a year later someone will come up to the shack with a tin of fresh-baked cookies, just to say thanks," she says.

Still, some of a patroller's best moments are selfish ones, when the calls are over, the last of the public is in the lodge, and thoughts of skiers -- injured, out-of-control, or otherwise -- give way to skiing, pure and simple. "Your job is done. You have the last sweep run of the day. It's mid March, the grass is getting green in the valley, and the sun's still up," Daniels says, describing a patroller's version of paradise. "It's beautiful. It's quiet. And you feel like you've got the whole place to yourself."

>> THE DEALER
"So you want to learn how to play craps?" asks Mount Snow ski instructor Blaine Cromie of one of his students, making small talk before the lesson starts. "Give me $10." The mock transfer of funds is completed as another student shuffles into the group. "Gimme $10." Another mock transfer. Then Cromie breaks into a punch-line grin that seems to ask, Any questions?

Cromie is a man of two uniforms. Monday through Friday evenings, he can be found wearing a tuxedo shirt at FoxwoodsCasino near Mystic, Connecticut, dealing blackjack and craps. Weekends he's in his Mount Snow ski school jacket, sometimes having driven straight from the end of his 4 a.m. casino shift to a 10 a.m. ski school lineup, sleeping in his car, and shaving in the locker room.

But for Cromie, it's no sacrifice. "I like going out with a group of people, jazzing them up, and having them be excited about skiing," he says on the chairlift. And he's a brilliant teacher. By the second run, he's turned this small group of strangers into a team, getting the couple from New Jersey acquainted with their edges, and encouraging the Yale grad student to stop thinking for a moment and start skiing.

Each of Cromie's jobs has a common customer-service thread but also carries unique rewards and challenges. He still remembers the day that young female law student, who was in his group a few days before, chased him down in the lift line just to pay him a compliment. "She said, 'I just want to tell you that my boyfriend was so jealous that the best time I had all week was the time I spent with you.' Things like that stick in my mind," he says. "On the other hand, at the casino, there was the guy talking about chaining me to the bumper of his car and lighting me on fire and dragging me around."

Cromie doesn't sweat the small stuff anymore. His third title: cancer survivor. In the fall of 1993, a case of swollen glands turned out to be non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. After his first round of chemotherapy only made the cancer more aggressive, Cromie became very sick -- Lance Armstrong sick. "In February of 1994, my family was coming home from everywhere because they expected me to die."

But until he landed in Boston's Dana Farber Hospital, awaiting a bone marrow transplant, Cromie drove up to Mount Snow, went to lineup, and taught lessons -- a cancer patient consoling a bummed-out newbie whose boots were too tight. And when he was done teaching, he skied. He recalls taking a routine fall that winter and cutting his head. "My platelet count was so low that this small cut just kept bleeding and bleeding and bleeding," he says now, laughing.

"There were times in the middle of the whole process when I questioned whether or not I wanted to keep going," he pauses, his trademark grin gone momentarily. "But I'm pretty thankful now." Thankful for one more rain-soaked lineup, one more group lesson, one more person ready to get excited about skiing. "It's a freaking blast," he says, beaming with the conviction of a man who has his priorities straight.

Speaking of priorities, Cromie, like Daniels and Pennington, does get to ski for free. But for these three and thousands like them, the real reason they're spending more than their fair share of time standing around in ski boots is not just to save dough. It's the love of sliding down a mountain, come rain, snow, or bulletproof Eastern ice. And loving it so much that just doing it isn't enough. If skiing can be a religion, then they're its prophets, spreading the good word, helping others to see the light. After all, when you can't depend on powder days for your sanctification, a search for subtler epiphanies must suffice. A 10-year-old channeling Hermann Maier for one magical moment. A guy who had six months to live seven years ago exhorting a newbie to live in the future -- or at least get out of the backseat. A snowboarder brought back from the dead, and popping into the patrol shed just to say hi.gh Friday evenings, he can be found wearing a tuxedo shirt at FoxwoodsCasino near Mystic, Connecticut, dealing blackjack and craps. Weekends he's in his Mount Snow ski school jacket, sometimes having driven straight from the end of his 4 a.m. casino shift to a 10 a.m. ski school lineup, sleeping in his car, and shaving in the locker room.

But for Cromie, it's no sacrifice. "I like going out with a group of people, jazzing them up, and having them be excited about skiing," he says on the chairlift. And he's a brilliant teacher. By the second run, he's turned this small group of strangers into a team, getting the couple from New Jersey acquainted with their edges, and encouraging the Yale grad student to stop thinking for a moment and start skiing.

Each of Cromie's jobs has a common customer-service thread but also carries unique rewards and challenges. He still remembers the day that young female law student, who was in his group a few days before, chased him down in the lift line just to pay him a compliment. "She said, 'I just want to tell you that my boyfriend was so jealous that the best time I had all week was the time I spent with you.' Things like that stick in my mind," he says. "On the other hand, at the casino, there was the guy talking about chaining me to the bumper of his car and lighting me on fire and dragging me around."

Cromie doesn't sweat the small stuff anymore. His third title: cancer survivor. In the fall of 1993, a case of swollen glands turned out to be non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. After his first round of chemotherapy only made the cancer more aggressive, Cromie became very sick -- Lance Armstrong sick. "In February of 1994, my family was coming home from everywhere because they expected me to die."

But until he landed in Boston's Dana Farber Hospital, awaiting a bone marrow transplant, Cromie drove up to Mount Snow, went to lineup, and taught lessons -- a cancer patient consoling a bummed-out newbie whose boots were too tight. And when he was done teaching, he skied. He recalls taking a routine fall that winter and cutting his head. "My platelet count was so low that this small cut just kept bleeding and bleeding and bleeding," he says now, laughing.

"There were times in the middle of the whole process when I questioned whether or not I wanted to keep going," he pauses, his trademark grin gone momentarily. "But I'm pretty thankful now." Thankful for one more rain-soaked lineup, one more group lesson, one more person ready to get excited about skiing. "It's a freaking blast," he says, beaming with the conviction of a man who has his priorities straight.

Speaking of priorities, Cromie, like Daniels and Pennington, does get to ski for free. But for these three and thousands like them, the real reason they're spending more than their fair share of time standing around in ski boots is not just to save dough. It's the love of sliding down a mountain, come rain, snow, or bulletproof Eastern ice. And loving it so much that just doing it isn't enough. If skiing can be a religion, then they're its prophets, spreading the good word, helping others to see the light. After all, when you can't depend on powder days for your sanctification, a search for subtler epiphanies must suffice. A 10-year-old channeling Hermann Maier for one magical moment. A guy who had six months to live seven years ago exhorting a newbie to live in the future -- or at least get out of the backseat. A snowboarder brought back from the dead, and popping into the patrol shed just to say hi.

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