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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, March 2, 2006

Revisiting a year at the jumping-off point

Time and place are human constructs. They can intersect in powerful, defining ways.

This past weekend, I journeyed to Lake Placid. It was a place where I spent just over a year, but a pivotal year in my life. After college and before graduate school, I worked at the weekly newspaper my parents had purchased during my college years — the Lake Placid News.

I hadn’t spent much time in the village before or since then but returned this weekend with my daughter, Saranac, to cover the Empire State Winter Games.

Saranac is now at the jumping-off place in life where I was those thirty years ago. She has just graduated from university and doesn’t yet know where she’ll land. Ski-jumping has recently intrigued her although she’s never tried it.

As we pulled into my parents’ driveway in Keene late Friday night, we were greeted by a sign tacked to the front door. In my father’s hand, it said: Welcome scribes! Littera Scripta Manet.

My daughter, who studied Latin, was able to translate: The written word remains.

The next morning, after my father had left for his job as a ski instructor at Whiteface and my mother had prepared for us one of her ever-wholesome breakfasts in her ever-cheerful fashion, Saranac and I headed for Lake Placed to gather the news of local athletes that would become our littera scripta.

As we drove into the village on Route 73, I found myself providing Saranac with an unexpected narrative of my life there.

The giant ski jumps loomed on our left. I remembered when they weren’t there, covering the visit of the then-lieutenant governor, Mary Ann Krupsak, to the site as the state geared up for the 1980 Olympics. Some people thought the jumps would be an eyesore in the pristine wilderness; others said they would be a monument to Olympic winter sports, a fitting gateway for Lake Placid.

Further along, we drove by what was the Newman Opera House, where my husband, Gary, and I had danced the night before our wedding.

"She’s a good-hearted woman in love with a good-timin’ man," sang the country band. I think, then, I lived more in the present. Although I was about to promise to take my husband "till death do us part," and was eager to do so, I had never pictured the middle age where we are now and still can’t fully fathom the old age to come.

We swung around the corner by Lamb Lumber and I recalled how Vern Lamb, a member of the Lake Placid committee that helped bring the Olympics back to the small village, had told Gary he ate with a golden spoon when he visited the Japanese emperor.

We still eat leftovers from the Corningware the Lambs gave us as a wedding gift; we’ve dubbed them "Vern Lamb pans."

Next, the Lake Placid News building came into view. My parents, in the 1970’s, had purchased the name and subscription list of the 1905 weekly and set about reviving it. Bunny Sheffield, a member of the Speedskating Hall of Fame, had led them to the dilapidated old building on Mill Hill, which they bought for a song and revitalized into a humming news office.

Gary and I had cut our reporting teeth there, chewing over the news from either side of a shared double desk.

Heading up the steep hill in rapidly-accumulating snow Saturday morning, I remembered hearing cars struggle there as they stopped at the red light, sounding like dying flies. Saranac and I made an easy left turn onto Main Street. We passed the town hall on our right, where I had covered meetings and where Gary and I had applied for our marriage license, dispensed by Clerk Matt Clark, a bobsledder with a missing leg.

Saranac and I, having secured our press credentials, headed for the local library to check rosters and schedules for the Empire State Games on the computers there.

I was relieved to see the small shingled white library still stood on Main Street, not crowded out by commercial ventures. And across the street was the grand old Palace Theater; I recalled with a rush its magnificent pipe organ.

Inside the library, where I hadn’t stood for three decades, I felt at home. The reading room looking out on Mirror Lake was still there, my favorite place in the village.

Saranac and I headed downstairs to the new computer room. There, I saw a framed portrait of Helene Urfirer, a patron of the library. She looked exactly as I remembered her — a raven-haired woman of grace.

I was startled, then, to realize the portrait was a memorial to her. She had died, and I hadn’t known it. I am now the age she was when I knew her, and she had stayed that way in my mind all these years.

When you move away from a place and don’t stay in touch with the people there, they can become like snapshots in a scrapbook, more constructed memory than reality.

I rushed from the cozy library into the bitter-cold reality outdoors.

Schedules in hand, my daughter and I drove to Whiteface through the blinding snow, where Saranac was to cover alpine events. I remembered how my father, the editor of the Lake Placid News, had assigned me to write about a hot young slalom racer, visiting from France, because I had studied the language in college. I struggled through the interview, and, looking back, think the racer must have been amused with me. I hoped Saranac would do better.

I dropped her off and headed for the Olympic arena, in the center of Lake Placid, where I would cover a local ice-hockey player. As I walked towards the door that led to the rink built for the 1932 Olympics, I was greeted with a huge picture of a young Jack Shea. A Lake Placid native, Shea had won two gold medals for speedskating and the arena had been named after him.

The picture startled me for a different reason than the one of Helene Urfirer. I had known of Shea’s death; in 1992, he had been hit by a drunk driver in a crash that was widely covered. He was 91, the oldest living Olympian. His grandson, Jim Shea, a skeleton racer, was about to compete in the Salt Lake City Olympics. Jim Shea stroked his grandfather’s gold medal before stepping on the podium to accept his own.

What startled me Saturday was seeing Jack Shea, life-sized, as a young man, portrayed on the arena door. I had known him as a middle-aged man, when he was supervisor of the town of North Elba, which I covered. I looked at this vital young athlete, in a speedskater’s crouch, and tried to see the man I knew.

That afternoon, I shared a lunch table in the crowded arena cafeteria with two elderly women I had never met before. I was fascinated by their life’s stories and enjoyed teasing out the varied strands, seeing how their memories wove a whole cloth of the distinct events, the times and places, that had shaped them.

The pair, each well into their seventies, perform on skates and love it. One grew up in England, shaped by her mother’s showgirl career. The other was a Lake Placid native, who had lived elsewhere for decades, but relished returning home for her final years.

Her parents and grandparents had lived in Lake Placid, too. She looked out the window of the arena complex and gestured to the school she had attended, beginning in kindergarten. She graduated from high school on its steps.

Her memories of the place were as layered as the snow falling beyond the window — separate flakes, melding into a whole. My memories of Lake Placid, I realized, were more distinct, frozen in one time, one year at the jumping-off point.

Trying to sort it out — the shifting jumble of who we are and how we remember or are remembered — I wrote this.


Littera Scripta Manet.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer, editor

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