There are places and moments that sweep us away from the mundane and the ordinary. They are exhilarating and frightening, and so they become indelible. They are not always on your mind but never out of your mind. For instance:
Going, going gondola
Once I was in the Italian Alps region, a passenger in a ski gondola, crossing from one mountain top to another with nothing but a deep-snow world thousands of feet below us. The ski village looked smaller than doll houses.
Quite a close-to-heaven vision I thought, until it wasn’t, like when we wondered if the gondola would snap its cables and go down for the count.
Here’s what happened. The gondola had suddenly stopped. Cold turkey. We, the handful of passengers, were left swaying, but panic hadn’t set in yet. There must be a good reason for the unexpected yet thrilling stop, giving us more time to take in the breathtaking view. You know, like the Duck Boats stop and the tour guide says “that’s where the Freedom Trail begins” or “and this is Fenway Park!”
But the gondola conductor said nothing, nor did he speak English. A few minutes passed, the gondola blowin’ in the Alpine wind. Now we were getting kinda nervous, you know. Then an elderly woman spoke - I think it was in French - to the conductor. And the woman started crying! Now we were in panic mode. What had she been told?
This wasn’t a pit stop. We knew that. There wasn’t much you can do when your ski gondola stops moving. Nobody had brought a deck of cards or a video game. The gondola had lost power. There was a nice hum to it when it was in transit. Now it was quiet. Deathly quiet.
I guess we’ve always thought how we might die. We get sick, we die. Get hit by a train. Die. Drown, die. Choke on a burrito, die. But it never entered my mind that I’d die because a ski gondola snapped from its wired tentacles. My mind just isn’t that creative to come up with that obit lead.
I was afraid to look down, sensing perhaps we’d all be down there soon, in a heap. Snap!
Then there was a buzz, almost a hissing sound, like when a bus or a train starts up again. It was the gondola coming to life. The power was back on. We were moving toward the other mountain top. Needless to say, when we got there a stampede occurred in a rush to be the first one out.
I fell to my knees and kissed the snowy ground. When I looked up, a stunning, dark-haired woman, I’m sure she was Italian, in a skintight blue and gold outfit, swished past me heading down the ski trail. She had a million dollar smile. Sure, but I bet she was never on a gondola that ran out of juice up in the sky.
Requiem for a bull
Many years ago a friend and I had plans to traverse Mexico. An earthquake put the squash on that voyage. But since we were already in El Paso, Texas, we decided to at least cross the border. In Ciudad Juarez we looked around for something to do that we couldn’t do around Natick, our hometown.
Then we saw the sign. BULLFIGHT. Never saw one in Natick. We bought tickets.
We knew nothing about bullfighting except it was a killing sport, with high odds on the matador slaying the bull. The bull ring was a strange, eerie really, environment for us, totally antithetical from the walk into Fenway Park for the first time rite of passage familiar to every New Englander.
We took our seats. The pageant began. Singing, flag-waving, drinking.
Then the main event, what they’d all come for. Enter the combatants, man versus beast. They stalked each other. The man had a sword; the beat had horns. A cat-and-mouse contest really, only a deadly one.
The spectators cheered what we guessed was a clever or athletic move by the silky fancy-dressed matador. My friend and I were pulling for the bull. When it made an escape from the matador’s ploy, we stood and yelled our heads off. Ten thousand spectators, 9,998 of them backing the bullfighter, two gringos with Boston accents all in an Ole! for the bull.
Alas, the bull never got out of the joint alive. I hated it, and haven’t eaten Mexican food since; I don’t "shoot the bull," I discuss; and I waited nine years before I saw "Bull Durham."
Hey, you Americans!
Just before the Iron Curtain collapsed, when Communism still had a grip on Czechoslovakia, I traveled to Eastern Europe with a hockey team made up of 18- to 20-year-old players. My purpose was to take notes and write a diary-type piece for the paper when we returned.
It didn’t take long for us to be reminded where we were. Basically, out of bounds, internationally. At the airport in Prague we came under immediate suspicious inspection from rifle-carrying guards. The players were wearing knock-your-eye-out silk red, white and blue jackets that screamed TEAM USA on their backs. There was no welcome mat.
It took a long time to get through customs, especially with all the players’ bulky hockey equipment that had to be transported to waiting buses.
Me, they wanted to know more about. I had a signification with my passport that identified me as a journalist. That is, an American journalist, which might have been the least popular occupation I could have had at that time in that place.
While the players and coaches were making their way through customs, I was escorted to a solemn, bare room for questioning. What would I be writing? How often? Before we’d left on the trip, I was cautioned by a priest familiar with Czechoslovakia not to try to send anything back to the newspaper. The authorities might intercept it. So I didn’t bring a computer, just pens and notebooks, and told the authorities I only planned to write about the team’s hockey games.
That got me off the hook. It also made a lasting impression. So this was what the absence of freedom looked and felt like.
I will tell you about two people, a Czech hockey coach and a young woman in a department store.
The games were played in an arena in Kladno, just outside Prague. I interviewed one of the Czech coaches who had hoped to flee to America, as his father had. He could not. Besides being a reputable coach he was a geologist. So, a scientist and a hockey coach; two things the Communists considered valuable.
I was told the working class in Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic) was a sad lot, mostly because few could aspire to a better job and life. This was the Communist way. Keep ‘em down on the farm.
On my last day, I walked into a Prague department store to buy a few souvenirs. It was a big store and mostly empty. I could see only one sales person. She was young and pretty and expressionless. I had to approach her for assistance, not the other way around like in the U.S. She had a smidge of a smile; we struggled through the language barrier. I bought a few things, handed her whatever korunas I could fish out of my pocket and left.
I like to think, when freedom came, the hockey coach caught up with his father, and the young woman didn’t have to force a smile anymore.
Reach Lenny Megliola at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @lennymegs.