November 10, 1946
Won $22 on the horses last night (my first win since 1938). Good thing, too. Peg and I were down to $14. Won $3 playing cards. Not bad for an hour’s work.
—from my grandfather’s journal
M y grandparents met on skis, which in itself isn’t so strange. But I often think about the bit of luck that paired Jack Kenney with Peg Taylor for his first ski lesson on the slopes at Sugar Bowl, California, in the late fall of 1944, and then for life.
She was his instructor, and a lesson was what he needed. He was a naval officer on leave from the war in the Pacific; she’d just graduated from UC Berkeley and was the fastest member of the women’s U.S. Ski Team. When she could stay up, that is. She knew going fast had serious consequences, such as falling and crashing, and she could live with that.
He’d traveled up from Hunters Point, where his ship, the USS Belleau Wood, had put into port. Peg was a ski racer enjoying life as much as anyone could in the midst of a world war. She wasn’t looking for anything or anyone in particular; she was just taking it slow, planning on nothing but skiing, and finding what little fun she could otherwise.
Jack, on the other hand, was desperate for a ski lesson. He had to learn to ski, because after the war, should he survive, he was going back to New England to open a ski lodge. In his mind, there was no greater calling than running a ski lodge—although he’d barely ever been to one and couldn’t ski to save his life. Nonetheless, this was the course he’d charted.
It’s hard to say what put this precise vision in Jack’s mind—one too many Bing Crosby movies aboard ship, maybe. But when it was over over there, Jack Kenney would be a ski lodge innkeeper, and there was no talking him out of it.
Jack was in a hurry that day on the sunny slopes of Sugar Bowl because his shore leave would be short-lived, lasting only until his air wing was reassigned to another flattop and sent back to the Pacific to fight the Imperial Japanese Navy.
A few weeks earlier, the Belleau Wood had been on patrol with the USS Franklin in the Visayan Sea, a small body of water that loops in and around the Philippine Islands. They were doing their jobs, searching the skies for Betties and Zekes, and splashing as many as they could. The world was at war, and Jack was a warrior. If you knew him, that fact alone would underscore the seriousness of those times.
On the morning of October 30, 1944, off the coast of Cebu, three Japanese bombers broke through the cloud cover in pursuit of the Franklin. From the flight deck of his ship, Jack watched the Franklin’s antiaircraft guns pop the first bomber out of the sky; it went down off the starboard side. The second came fast out of the sun and crashed onto the deck, killing fifty-six and wounding sixty. The third plane dropped a bomb on the Franklin, caught a shell from the Belleau Wood, and then dived, suicide style, onto the flight deck of my grandfather’s ship. It exploded into a rolling fireball, sliding into rows of planes on the deck, exploding their bombs and fuel, and sending black smoke and billowing red flames high into the air; it burned through the night.
Ninety-two of Jack’s shipmates died that day: burned alive, drowned, or both. Many were never found. The survivors worked day and night in enemy waters to extinguish the fires and keep the ship afloat. Its major systems—electricity, navigation, everything—were damaged by the attack. Charred corpses lined what was left of the deck. Jack had to have been deeply affected by this, as anyone would be; his emotions always rode close to the surface, right there where you could see them. He was never good at false faces, or hiding his discontent. On the upside, he was equally incapable of masking his joy or admiration. These must have been horrible days for Jack.
The abruptness of war itself probably set him off badly—the way a calm, sunny day in the South Pacific could quickly become a ship on fire and sinking, 20 percent of the crew dead. Jack always liked a challenge, but rolling with that had to be tough.
Weeks later, when the Belleau Wood limped into San Francisco for repairs, Jack was eager for that ski lesson. He wasn’t one to ruminate, unless he was depressed. If he was feeling well, he met a problem and immediately set out to solve it. So in his berth, there in the belly of the blackened and wounded Belleau Wood, my grandfather planned the rest of his life.
The day he told me about his war experience he was sprawled in his chair. We were watching some war movie on television, and suddenly he spilled the beans. Alzheimer’s had all but taken him by then, and he told the story with such passion that I never doubted him. His journals and the stories he’s told others bear it out, as do scraps of paper noting bombing runs and times, the names of the men he served with. War was the ultimate team sport for those guys, with the added dimension of good and evil. They were on the side of good, and they would prevail. Of that they had no doubt. That sense of power and survival encouraged Jack to create for himself the life of his wildest dreams.
His decision-making process was invested almost entirely in planning, so he tended to make the decision itself early on, sometimes within minutes; then came the how-to phase, which was more involved and required lots of writing and sharing of ideas, often with people who weren’t all that interested. When the plan was prepared, written, rewritten, and discussed at length, he knew that the first thing he needed to carry it off was a ski lesson.
But not long after his first ski lesson, Jack’s air group was reassigned to the USS Monterey, where they served with Lieutenant Commander Gerry Ford, the ship’s physical fitness instructor. They were all headed back to the Pacific to fight for, among other things, the right of every phys ed teacher to grow up to be president.
Jack was a full lieutenant, serving in naval intelligence and attached to a bomber group. He briefed the pilots on their missions, told them where to bomb, how to get there, how to get back, and how much fuel they’d use, given the weather and the wind. It was complicated, especially in the day of the slide rule. Jack was a numbers man for the war effort, all said and done, and that was a little odd because math had never been his game.
When Jack graduated high school in 1933, the Great Depression was the new big thing (we got the Internet, they got mass unemployment). So life was one big suck for Jack, and like everyone on the planet (except the filthy rich), Jack had much trepidation about the future. What would he do with himself ? He was a smart kid, a talented writer with an inquisitive mind, a great athlete in tennis and golf, and good at anything he’d ever tried. But his family was broke, and college was expensive.
Along came the invisible hand that Jack would believe guided him through life. He was a spiritual person—not religious, but definitely in touch with God on a regular basis. A friend of his family’s, a woman who spent her life in a wheelchair, admired Jack’s sense of humor and his athleticism, especially his tennis, and offered to pay his way through college. This windfall was like hitting the jackpot, but Jack still had a problem.
Those were pre-SAT days, of course, and students had to have their grades certified as satisfactory in order to apply to most colleges. Jack’s math grades sucked out loud and, consequently, were uncertified. But so what? Jack could be very persuasive, and he had far more luck with teachers than I ever did. His math teacher agreed to sign off on his grades under one condition: that Jack never take another math course as long as he lived, so as not to “disgrace” his teacher. Seemed like a deal. Jack didn’t like math anyway.
I imagine the conversation like this:
jack:Sir, I need your opinion on something mathematical.
teacher:Little late for that; the grades are in.
jack:It’s a statistical question—
teacher:Statistics! You can barely say it, never mind understand it.
jack:My question is this: If I miss my opportunity to attend college, which is my only opportunity to do anything at all with my life except sell apples on the street corner, what’s the probability that I’ll call you on the phone every day for the rest of your life to remind you of the part you played in mine?
So Jack Kenney, the mathematical illiterate, went to Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, graduating four years later, second among the eighty economics students in his class. And that should tell you something about economists.
He had a quiet graduation dinner with his parents at the Hanover Inn; they were both proud of him, and impressed by his accomplishments. That’s about all we really know about them. It was tough for Jack to discuss his folks. They’d be gone within a year of his college graduation—his father from cancer, his mother suicide. It was a classical tragedy: the king died, so the queen died of grief. Jack was laid very low by the loss, sparking perhaps the first of many depressions.
Luckily, a family friend and physician from Jack’s hometown of Reading, Massachusetts, Swede Oberlander, had just accepted a new job as the campus doctor at the University of New Hampshire. Jack went with him, partly so that Dr. O could keep an eye on him, and partly because Jack had nothing else to do.
It was a good respite for Jack, and he got a master of education degree during his two years there. After that, he moved to the North Country and taught history at Berlin High School for a couple years. Berlin was a happy little mill town then. It still is happy, I suppose, but not as happy as when the mills were in business.
Jack coached tennis at Berlin High and dreamed of being a writer. All his cognizant life (which ended a decade or so before his physical life), he kept voluminous journals, which he wrote in while taking a bath every night. Life and the universe were discussed most in those pages; otherwise, he filled his journals with sketches and directions for everything from rope tows to artificial ponds to robots that could help disabled athletes practice their tennis. Jack had a busy mind.
When Pearl Harbor happened, Jack signed up, and since he had such a certifiable way with numbers, they made him an intelligence officer in charge of calculating how far and fast a bomber should fly from an aircraft carrier before it dropped its payload where and when it was supposed to. And this should tell you something about war.
Jack got Peg’s address that day at Sugar Bowl, and wrote her often for the duration of the war. She was interested, maybe infatuated with Jack’s enthusiasm, which was a force of nature. It should also be noted that Jack’s situation was more than mildly seductive for Peg, who wasn’t only a ski bum being courted by an aspiring ski lodge proprietor but also an army brat being romanced by a naval officer off in the Pacific, keeping the world safe for democracy.
Jack’s ship was the first to Tokyo Harbor, his captain the first American ashore after the surrender. It was a great day for everyone, except maybe the Japanese. He often said that his military service, his personal battle to survive, was the most affecting and solemn time in his life—but it was the most fun he ever had, too. Every day during the war, just being aboard ship instead of wrapped in a flag at the bottom of the sea was an accomplishment. And foremost in his mind by then were Peg and his ski lodge.
Peg and Jack were very different. She was less emotional, less volatile, a solid presence even when she wasn’t there. And she was tough. Very tough. If something bothered her, Peg dealt with it. And she had a reputation for brooding at times—oh yeah, that whole still-waters-run-deep deal. I’m told that back in the ski lodge days, when there was no snow, no guests, no income, and a household full of “help” to feed, Peg could be hard to be around.
They were a funny match, Jack and Peg, but perfect as these things go. They were purely a case of opposites glomming on to each other, filling in the gaps in each other’s lives. Jack livened up every room he entered, a funny guy with a kind word for everyone, probably wearing a bad hat. Peg played her cards so close that she couldn’t read them. She was conservative in that way, and bottled her energy for when she needed it, which was often.
She was a ski racer for most of the 1940s, won some national races, and missed the Olympic team by two places in 1948. She was reckless, especially for a young woman then. She drove like a bank robber, drank whiskey from the bottle, loved to gamble, and was a kick-ass competitor. No wonder Jack loved her so much.
When my mother and uncles were kids, the family took a lot of road trips. All her life Peg thought nothing of climbing into a car and speeding all the way across America for some warm days on the slopes. Once, in a particularly gnarly pass through the Rockies, Jack grew increasingly uncomfortable behind the wheel and, as the landscape grew larger and more distant, he began hyperventilating.
He herky-jerked the Vista Cruiser to the shoulder of the road and, after braking, sat frozen to the wheel. He couldn’t go on; it was too high, too unprotected, too narrow. Peg pried him away and slid into the driver’s seat. To the delight of everyone in the backseat, she did a Dukes of Hazzard through the rest of the pass. Kids didn’t have video games back then; they actually needed to drive fast in a car to experience it. That was Peg’s attitude: How are you going to know unless you try? This is not to say that Jack shied away from work and adventure, just that Peg had an extra gene for a challenge. In fact, it was Jack himself who was the biggest challenge of Peg’s life. And she was up to it.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Bode: Go Fast, Be Good, Have Fun by Bode Miller with Jack McEnany. Copyright © 2005 by Bode Miller. Excerpted by permission of Villard, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.