Where have all the crazies gone?

You know, the Moonies and the Hare Krishnas and all the other happy cultists who used to assault us normals on the street with promises of peace and joy and unimpeachable karma.

Where are they now?They're on the slopes, dressed up in funny red jackets and tight pants, spewing the positive power of skiing, the downhill ride to ecstasy.

"Hi, I'm Rick!" he fairly shouted through perfect white teeth arrayed in a giant grin. "I'm your instructor!"

This was Pats Peak, a modest-size hillock in central New Hampshire, one of the few New England ski spots that had some snow over the Christmas-New York's break. Man-made snow, of course, which on a few trails interrupted the dull brown of barren winter on the mountain.

Pats Peak had hoped for better things, and in preparation for a busy holiday season had assembled a veritable phalanx of ski teachers to minister to the expected throngs.

The throngs turned out to be me, my wife, my daughter and her friend, plus a few drifters that happened by the instructors' staging area that Saturday morning.

There were at least 50 giddy teachers gathered, and when the whistle blew they made mad dashes to corner a pupil.

"You've never been skiing before?" gushed Rick. "Great! I love to start with a clean slate!"

There ensued one of the triumphant hours of my life, an hour in which I was happy to agree with Rick that I could do no wrong. If I waddled up the tiny grade without betraying sheer panic Rick's face lit with a deep, paternal glow. When I schussed down the humble hill and crashed into his arms he thumped my back approvingly. His cheerful voice followed me as I took my first perilous ride up the J-bar.

"That's it," he crooned. "Let the bar do the work.You're just along for the ride. You've got it!"

Well, by the hour's end Rick had me convinced that I was a natural athlete, whose high-school junior varsity basketball experience had prepared me completely for the delirious world of skiing. I saw that familiar grin again on the last run down the beginner's slope. "My God," said Rick, "I can't believe it. He's banking his turns."

I will confess that certain warning signs slipped by. Over lunch I was surprised to learn from my daughter that her instructor had found her a natural athlete with a particular penchant for parallel skiing. And her friend was just great, too. And my wife, whom I had watched tumbling down the beginner's slope like a berserk bowling ball, had learned that she, too, was blessed with innate skill and impeccable balance.

Two lessons a day were included in the weekend package. I was surprised when Rick didn't come thundering over to grab me for the afternoon session, but he wasn't quick enough. When the mass of instructors broke ranks and descended on the little clutch of instructees the first one to arrive was Leo, who it turned out was a ski racer when he wasn't instructing.

"Hi," grinned Leo, thrusting out his black-mittened paw. "I'm Leo! I'm your instructor!"

Lee was Rick without the mustache -- the same eager cheer, the same litany of superlatives, the same syrupy supportiveness. Could these guys have been baked on the same cookie sheet? Leo glossed over the basics and showered the praise. He promoted me from beginner to a novice with a flip of his poles and led the way to the Valley Slope one notch up from the beginners'.

Was this guy seeing straight?

The first trip down I found my skis heading inexorably for the part of the mountain where the man-made snow wasn't. It was cross-country skiing by accident, and as I crashed in a heap of brush and stones I saw Leo galumphing over with a giant smile.

"Great," he crowed. You never panicked."

Make no mistake. The power of positive thinking has an insidious way of sneaking up and disarming the dread, old-fashioned virtues of common sense and discretion. So when Leo had me thoroughly beguiled and bewitched he popped the proposal. "You're ready," he said. "Ready for the top."

And I knew he spoke the truth.

It may have ended up as Leo's longest lesson, and I hope he learned his lesson from it. On my 12th and most vicious crash, when I thumped in a heap on top of my wallet and lay groaning for a full minute, he appeared to get the message.

A snowmobile was heading up the mountain, bearing some supplies for the lifthouse at the peak. Leo, crestfallen, looked down on my crumpled form. "I can get him to stop on the way back," he said, "and take you the rest of the way."

I had doubts about ever skiing again, but the next morning the kids were anxious and the package was already paid for. We stretched breakfast as long as possible but still got to Pats in time for the morning lesson. I stood behind a tree, hoping no one would notice my lesson tag. The thundering instructor hordes swept by, menacing the newcomers with smiles and gladhands.

When the rush was over there stood Thane, tall and older and peaceful-looking. "Would you like a lesson?" he asked. I liked his style. "Sure," I said. "I need help."

So he took me to the beginners' slope and in a gentle, quite way with no hoopla, taught me how to snowplow.