Friday, October 20, 2017

Remembering Derek & Our Team

One Championship Season: Remembering Derek & Our Team

Derek led our high school team to the Maine Class A Cross-Country Ski Championship in 1989. Audacious as a racer, he lived for the tree-lined ski trails and the battles waged with teammates and friends. As a teenager, Derek wore large-framed aviator eyeglasses and the easiest smile on the planet Earth. No matter your tribe in school, he welcomed every-anyone into his.

 As his high school ski coach, I watched Derek devour lung-searing climbs and let loose on the squirrely down hills of our racecourse here in Rumford. Fearless, he craved speed and sought it out on every snowy corner of the trail. The son of a ski coach, Derek trained with a singular focus and on race day slipped with practiced ease into the racer’s zone. No matter the result, he remained balanced.

The last time I saw Derek, he waved and called out, “Hey, coach!” from behind a Plexiglas window in one of a dozen race officials’ cabins dotting our local cross-country trail. As a volunteer official for the Chisholm Ski Club, he monitored ski racers as they sped around the course. Just as I was about to poke my head through the cabin’s door to say hello, a pack of skiers crested the hill and flew toward Derek’s roost.

“Have a good one!” I shouted. He nodded and began checking off racers’ numbers as I trekked toward the notorious High School Hill.

I remember wax sessions the night before big ski races. Derek’s dad, Herbie, and a squad of other helpful dads came to my home to prepare skis. Waxing benches lined the basement; a cloud of blue-white smoke blanketed the rafters as the fathers painstakingly pressed cakes of speed wax onto warm irons while their kids talked about the race. Hot wax dripped in beads, then threads, along the bottom of the skis; laughter mixed with the tinny music from my beat-up boom box. It’s a ritual that ski racers like Derek savored and knew well.

During that championship season, Derek was everything a senior leader should be. But it wasn’t a cakewalk. Eric Boucher, a sophomore highflier on our team, clipped Derek’s heels throughout the season. The 10th grader landed seconds behind Derek in an early-season race, but that result only served as motivation for the senior. In the state championship meet at Fryeburg Academy, Derek’s sound technique and racehorse engine kept his young teammate and most of the competition at bay. Our senior captain took the silver medal behind future Olympian, Marcus Nash.

I have a ski room that sits between my barn and rambling Victorian; it’s part mudroom, fireside lounge, and ski museum. Framed photographs, posters, and newspaper clippings from my teams hang on the white-pine walls. There’s also a cherished shot of the Kent brothers in April of 1981 at the summit of California’s Squaw Valley. In a shadowy corner of this room, hanging above an ageless stereo, a photo of the 1989 titleholders hangs along side their state championship plaque.

The team picture was taken at Capponi’s, a local photography studio. The six boys wore white turtlenecks beneath gray team parkas stitched with “Rumford Skiing” on the left front. I’m in the back row center wearing a favorite training top. To my left, Derek wears his trademark aviator glasses and that winning smile; Scott Marchildon is on my right sporting the 1950’s look: a crew cut and the etched jawline of an athlete, the son of a Marine. In the front row, seated left to right, include Kevin Charleston, Aric Beane, Eric Boucher, and Jon Sassi. Aric and Eric hold the state plaque.

On occasion, I’ll stop to look at the team photo as I walk through the ski room to grab a bag of pellets for my stove. I smirk at the boys’ happy faces, and my own, as I think of the picture’s backstory: two of the guys were late for our sitting and I was not happy. (My former athletes know the look.) But you could never tell by our smiles.

Looking at this photo, it’s easy for me to scroll back 28 sudden years. I have a clear memory of these boys warming up for a race at Black Mountain. They’re skiing as a team, in a long line near the snow pond. Derek leads the pack. They match strides, mirroring one another in a technique known as the V-2. Their skiing exudes confidence, built on endless kilometers of technique work, years of racing, and hour upon hour of road skiing up on Beliveau Road on sizzling summer days. As my team loops through the stadium, junior skiers stare at the Rumford boys admiring their precision and strength. 

These days, Kevin is a high school science teacher. He coaches skiing and golf at a small New Hampshire school surrounded by mountains. Derek’s archrival, Eric, recently opened a martial arts studio in the midwest. He’s the quintessential competitor, so I’m sure he inspires his young athletes. After years as a college administrator, Scott moved on to become chief development officer for our state’s public broadcasting network. He’s still fit from competing in triathlons and chasing his two girls.

A year after our championship, following several months in a coma, Jon died on a sweltering July day as the result of a car accident. Over a 10-year period following his death, we raised thousands of dollars by hosting Jon’s Tournament, a fun-filled community soccer festival. The proceeds still help River Valley graduates with college expenses. In 2006, soft-spoken Aric died in a plane crash on the edge of Denali National Park in his adopted state of Alaska. Father to Kaylea Rhae, who loves to fish like her dad, and husband to Crystal, his adventurous partner, Aric had been doing what he loved, hunting in the Alaskan wild with friends.

Now, when I look at this photo, I still see fresh-faced teenagers, teammates, and champions. I'm also reminded of Chris Larsen, our 7th man on the team. Chris didn't compete in the championship, but he raced all season long and played a critical role in the championship helping with equipment, waxes, and endless support. He should have been in the photo–a regret I still carry.   

This spring, months after searching for Derek with his family and friends, I went up to Black Mountain to hike the cross-country trail and the alpine slopes. It’s a yearly ritual I’ve established. When I got to the course control building where I last saw Derek, I felt compelled to stop. I nudged open the door. On the wooden counter, a scratch of paper lay next to a pencil stub. Part of me hoped to find something more. From there, I jogged the sweeping right-hand turn to the bottom of High School Hill and an image of Derek, midrace, that has survived the past 28 ski seasons.

He glides through the transition of the hill. His mouth forms an O as he draws one steady breath and steps into the climb. Within 20 meters, the steepness of the trail is in his face and he’s established a rhythm. Shoulders square, eyes focusing up the trail. Great climbers stay within themselves on a cross-country trail; they reach for speed, maintain their composure, and stay balanced. That’s Derek. 

Halfway up High School Hill on the right-hand side, lines of bell-clanging spectators cheer him, this coach’s son who has spent his young life skiing these trails. Three-quarters of the way up, where the trail drifts gently to the left, a half dozen junior ski racers stand with their young coach. They’ve come to watch the “big kids” take on this legendary climb. It’s what I used to do with Derek and his teammates when our ski club hosted college races. I imagine this young coach’s words as Derek flies by: “Watch his hands. See how he steps up and seeks speed!”

Cowbells clang.

Spectators chant: Hiya-Hiya, UpUpUp.

This hillside chorus provides rhythm for Derek’s strides as he crests the hilltop and turns toward the finish.

He’s out of sight now, heading home, but the memory of this graceful champion will stay with those young racers, and all of us. I have no doubt that those kids wanted to be Derek, or any member of the 1989 team. And why not. They could do no better as skiers or as people.

Godspeed, Derek.

1989 Maine State XC Champions

'89 kids on the bus

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Maine Writing Project 20th Anniversary

For ten years, I directed the Maine Writing Project, a site of the National Writing Project. Once I left as the longest serving director, I was awarded director emeritus status. I thought the title would be cool to use in bio's on books and thereby might bring some small notoriety to MWP.  This past June we held our 20th anniversary celebration.

My job for the anniversary was to arrange a slide show. The other directors gave 10-minute Ted Talks, but my anxiety level over such performances made the slideshow a perfect alternative to presenting. I just didn't know it'd take 30+ hours to put together the show. Holy flying cows that was a tedious assignment.

The bets time was seeing my friends Tanya Baker and Mary Moreau. Tanya worked with me at UMaine for a few years until she headed off to the main office of the National Writing Project where she now serves a national director of programs. Mary was one of my writing group members during our first summer institute in 1997.

Unknown to me, MWP published a journal in celebration of the 20th and dedicated it to me. That was very kind and the kind of quiet celebration of my work as director that I appreciate.

Friends Maureen and Anne

Janet and Tanya


Mary and Rich

Jeff and Tanya 

MWP journal 



Arranging a Life

The past few weeks the house has been busy with former exchange students and their families. We ate a lot, traveled here and there, climbed this mountain and that one, took time on the beach at Weld, spoke about times past and what's to come... just like families do. Funny how a life unfolds.

Alex Saurer from Germany spent his last week in America with Bailey and me. He and his host family had an issue, and--well--he ended up with me. At the same time, Jose's brother Miguel and his two fabulous kids spent a week at camp. They had the best time. Alex and Miguel enjoyed a kayak trip together while read to the kids in Barbara's Garden.
Rich reading to Miguel's children (click to enlarge) 

Next came the Szeps' brothers. Singer Alex (Sweden 2008-09) and twin brother, Dr. Jonathan, hiked and trained and ate and visited and trained some more. They ended their journey with Denny and Jen and Morgan in the Boston area. I think they had the best time.


Jonathan & Alex

Day is done at Weld

Alex and Jonathan 

Last but far from least, the Wagners visited with William (Denmark 2015-16) and his twin brother Freddy. These folks are the most laid back and fun people. Each morning, Kenneth and I would hold court in the kitchen over coffee. Then, the adventures of travel and hiking and beach time and dinners took over. I can't wait to visit them in Denmark just outside of Copenhagen (where they also have a small apartment that I have been invited to use).

Alex, Jonathan, William, and Fredrik
Kenneth christening the new porch
Bailey and Rich on Blueberry Mountain

 What a good time we all had. The day after everyone left, Simon (Denmark 2011-12) wrote and asked if he could visit in October during his university break. I'm guess he saw the pictures of Bailey and the other visitors and wanted a piece of the action. 

Monday, July 10, 2017

Life with a 111-year-old house

It never ends. Life with a 111-year-old house. Dry rot. But then you get a guy like Billy Porter who knows how to work and two-and-a-half hours later, we're on our way to a new porch.

Billy Porter--the man, the legend
Getting there... 

The 4th... Firecrackers... Smell of smoke

Bailey's been freaked by the fireworks of the 4th and recently by the smoke that permeates our home from people's backyard fires. Last night, he sat next to my bed panting until 3:30 a.m. I pet him, took him out, and massaged him. Finally, I gave in and let him get up on my bed. He fell asleep. I spoke with brother Fred this morning, and he said fear of fireworks and the smell of smoke cam trigger anxiety. Who knew? I felt bad for the pup; I also felt bad for me this morning trying to get rolling at 6 a.m.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

And it's a wrap...

Finally, the writing center book is finished and the cover has been finalized. This book, like no other, has been a battle. I learned a lot of lessons from writing this piece, from organization to fighting the tedious back and forth with informants. While writing, I was reminded of the late Donald Murray's words at the beginning of his chapter in my book Teaching the Neglected R. Murray wrote, "One of the many gifts of the writing craft is that our apprenticeship never ends." True that.

Click on photos to enlarge

Friday, June 16, 2017

Bailey's Alex

Bailey and his Alex
click to enlarge photo
We have the good fortune to welcome Alex from Germany who's visiting us for a week... yet another brother for Bailey to torment and to beg for belly rubs. Alex attended Mountain Valley High School this year; he played soccer, raced on the ski team, and battled it out on the tennis team. He also enjoyed a cooking class at the high school. Last night, we had a small dinner party here for our dear friend Brenda Sassi (below) who's moving to North Carolina next week to be close to her daughter Katie and her children. At the dinner Alex joined right in with conversations, and that was special since all of us were over 60 years old. It's fun to see a teenager handle a unique situation like that with such ease. Today, he walked down the street to watch the Trek Across Maine--a charity event with around 2000 bikers. They're riding from the mountains of Maine to the ocean during a three-day ride. One thing Alex may not love about Bailey: this morning, our rambunctious pup  slammed into Alex's bedroom at about 8 a.m. with a howl! Just what a teenager needs on his first few days of summer holiday. But really, it's just Bailey's way to say, "Welcome, Alex."

Brenda and Sonke (Germany) and William (Denmark)
October 2015


Friday, May 26, 2017

Red Hill & Black/White Trail

We spent a sunny spring afternoon hiking the trails up Red Hill over to Black/White trail. After hiking the back side of of Black Mountain, we went to the large tower on the summit ad then down the ski trails. 

Click on photos to enlarge. This is Mount Washington from Red Hill.

Contemplating life

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Bailey turns 7 years old...

Over the years I've read books and websites about Bernese Mountain Dogs. Most address the sad reality of a Berner's longevity... cancer and bad hips take them early and often. Their average life span in the USA? About seven years.  Pretty sobering.

On Sunday, Bailey's 7th birthday, I treated him to a one-inch piece of bacon and a few extra dog treats. We took a long walk in the pouring rain and stopped at our local garage where the attendant handed him several treats. In truth, Bailey's life is one big smorgashborg.  

During the day, I also thought a lot about this milestone year. Seven. We dog parents sure do get connected to our pets. When they die, do we mourn them or the part of our own lives that has been lost? Both, I suppose. Since Bailey is with me most of the time–and I do mean "with" me–after his death I know I'll feel the emptiness.

As I write this quick blog, Bailey is asleep on the floor in my home office. His left paw is about 3 inches away from my right foot. He's always nearby. That's the nature of Bernese Mountain Dogs–they need to be with their people. And I suppose the same holds true for us: we have to be with our Berners.

Bailey Tuckerman at about 8 weeks old. 

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Two days after "ice out."

I saw on Weld's Facebook site, "You Know You're from Weld, Maine if..." that the wind came up on Friday, April 28, and out went the ice. One Spring I arrived the day of ice out--I figure I missed the event by a few minutes, but on the beach in front of the Burt Camp, a pile of ice about six feet high and 30 - 40 feet long lined the beach.

The last of the snow on Little Jackson. 

The winter winds and snow slapped the wood pile around.