Skating, Living, Dying on Thin Ice

One of the curiosities of life in the freelance scrivener's trade is that you find yourself in the oddest places, writing about the oddest things . Over some twenty-five years or so, I've taken assignments writing television shows about everything from grizzly bears to defense policy, from Native American history to the bossa nova music of Brazil.

I've scripted remarks for a president of the United States. On the other hand, I'm the guy who wrote a video called "Haircuts at Home." Along the way, I also, accidentally, became a de facto, semi-expert on Olympic figure skating, despite ankles with the tensile strength of overcooked macaroni and a tendency toward the sniffles.

That's because a decade ago, out of the blue, I was hired to write a TV movie for CBS, based on a bestseller called "My Sergei," a memoir by the skater Ekaterina Gordeeva about her life and career with her skating partner and husband Sergei Grinkov. They won two Olympic gold medals. Sergei died at 28, collapsing on the ice at Lake Placid, felled by an undetected heart defect.

Subsequently, I co-produced a two-hour special on the American women skaters who have won Olympic gold medals and now I'm working on a treatment for a film about the horrendous 1961 Brussels jetliner crash that wiped out the American figure skating team as it headed for that year's world championships.

Eighteen young, champion skaters were killed, along with sixteen skating officials, coaches and family members, 27 other passengers and eleven crew.

As I've interviewed people who knew the victims, two ideas have come up time and again. One, that no one will ever know how potentially great the dead athletes would have become in their sport, how many medals and accolades they would have received. It's purely speculation. The loss can never truly be measured.

The other is that the unknown and unexpected ramifications of their deaths sank in and spread slowly and more widely with every passing day, like the outstretching ripples from a stone tossed into a pond. The disaster affects the sport to this day.

I thought of the kids who died on that plane when news recently came that five teenage girls, not even a week past their high school graduation, had been killed in upstate New York. Their SUV collided head-on with a tractor-trailer. The accident occurred just a couple of miles up the highway from the small town in which I grew up.

The best friends were traveling to the lakeside summer cottage of one of the girls' families, anticipating a few days of sun and relaxation before they seriously started preparing for the adult lives before them. The young woman who was driving the SUV mistakenly swerved into the oncoming lane, overcorrecting, police think, after passing another car.

Hannah Congdon, Bailey Goodman, Meredith McClure, Sara Monnat, Katie Shirley, all from around Fairport, NY -- bright, vivacious, loaded with potential and, as a British friend of mine would say, "pretty as paint." Local journalist Stephanie Bergeron wrote, "They were all-American girls. The kid who scoops your ice cream at a hangout, the hostess who seats you at the restaurant. They were the cheerleaders, the college-bound, the girls who had everything going for them. But you won't see their smiles anymore."

Nor will we ever know what they could have become. We realize how precarious it all is, how we each walk on metaphorical thin ice, our futures dependent on deftness and chance, nature and gravity.

I thought back to a summer exactly forty years ago, when my father was in a near-fatal collision, also with a tractor-trailer. He'd gone to close his drugstore for the night and on his way home was broadsided as he crossed an intersection with a flashing yellow light. Brain-damaged, minus a lung and some ribs, he lay in a coma for weeks until miraculously, one day, he awoke. He lived for another four, difficult years.

I remember how the community came together back then, just as it has rallied around the families of the five teenagers who died in that violent, flaming crash just up the road. In the early hours of the morning, friends and fellow businessmen showed up at the emergency room to offer my father blood. My mother didn't know how to drive, so when Dad was moved to a medical facility in Rochester, NY, thirty miles away, women from the church formed a carpool to ferry her back and forth to the hospital every day that our father, her husband, lay unconscious.

I've thought, too, of another small town. It's called Amerli and lies in northern Iraq, about a hundred miles from Baghdad. On Sunday, a truck bomb exploded in the village center, killing at least 155 and wounding 265. It's believed to be the deadliest single bombing since the war began.

"In the middle of the sprawl of rubble... a 12-foot crater gaped," the New York Times reported. "Villagers said 50 houses and 55 shops had been destroyed and scores more badly damaged, with debris piled alongside shattered buildings -- a testament to where rescuers, their efforts now ended, had tried to dig out survivors."

Five deaths devastate an upstate New York town, more than 150 an Iraqi village, yet, of course, it is the fewer deaths closer to home that got more attention, the CNN continuous coverage, the reporters from People Magazine. The women were young and attractive. And white and American.

No matter where, though, it is in the small towns that tragedy and death are magnified and mourned most keenly; each passing cuts a wider swath and eliminates a greater fraction of the whole.

Poets say it better than I can. "I will teach you my townspeople how to perform a funeral," that great, smalltown American bard and physician William Carlos Williams declared, "for you have it over a troop of artists... you have the ground sense necessary." The burgs and hamlets hunker closer to the damp and loamy earth into which we return; in many ways, a single death diminishes more deeply and personally than in the place where I live now, that notorious naked city of a million stories told.

The loss is all the crueler when the dead are young. "The big words fail to fit," as yet another poet, the Englishman D.J. Enright wrote, "like giant boxes round small bodies. Taking up improper room, where so much withering is, and so much bloom."

Michael Winship, Writers Guild of America Award winner and former writer with Bill Moyers, writes this weekly column for the Messenger Post Newspapers in upstate New York.

(c) Copyright 2007 Messenger Post Newspapers

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