The Gold Bus is dancing.
Something resembling a conga line bops across the parking lot of a rest stop that, with its anonymous Roy Rogers and Biorhythm machines, could be anywhere but happens to be in Newark, Del. Bodies pour out of the bus, already dancing. They've been dancing since Washington. The Gold Bus knows how to party. The Gold Bus is wild.
And so on this, the Ski Club of Washington D.C.'s annual Winter Carnival trip to Lake Placid, N.Y., the denizens of the Purple, Red, Green and Blue buses know by Delaware that for the next three days, Gold will be the pacesetter.
Ask any of the 250 people on the trip what all this is about -- the 12-hour bus ride to upstate New York, the trash cans filled with beer, the man wearing a pair of cardboard antlers, the whistles distributed on board and blown whenever things get too quiet, the "pajama party" upon arrival at 1:30 a.m., the costume contests, the Jacuzzi-stuffing competition -- and they will probably repeat an unofficial club motto: "Skiers like to have fun."
"You get more bruises from dancing in the aisles than skiing down the slopes," board member Jane Moore has said. And for dance-induced bruises, Winter Carnival is the premier event.
"It's a chance to be crazy away from your neighborhood, where nobody knows you and the only record will be in the club magazine," says Gerry Hartshorn, a client service specialist with Arbitron.
As the buses pulled out earlier on this Thursday afternoon, club president and Red Bus leader John Veen shouted down the aisle, "Let's have a good time without being . . . "
"OBNOXIOUS!" the bus roared back, demonstrating its knowledge of the Ski Club Obnoxious Behavior Rule. As board member John O'Neill explains, "What constitutes obnoxious behavior is not set forward." He himself once threatened to invoke the rule, which allows a group leader to kick offenders off the trip, when two men attempted to climb through the roof-hatch of a bus.
But despite the man wearing a button that reads "I refuse to grow up," a sentiment seemingly shared by others as they boogie into the Roy Rogers to the stares of innocent motorists, no one seems in danger of crossing the elastic "Obnoxious" line.
At least not yet. The Man Who Would Be King
"I have every intention of being King," Winter Carnival party coordinator Frazier Botsford declares as the pajama party gets under way. The monarchs, King and Queen, of Winter Carnival will be announced Saturday night, chosen on the basis of participation and enthusiasm. Botsford's strategy is to "participate in every event, and win several, such as this one," and so has bedecked himself in a costume he hopes will snag both the "wackiest" and "sexiest" awards.
The theme is black and red: red-rimmed sunglasses to block any possible glare off the big-screen TV in the dark Lake Placid Holiday Inn bar, black bow tie blinking with tiny red lights, red feather boa, tight black shirt cut off to reveal the midriff, tight black pants, and (a touch of whimsy here) big, furry slippers outfitted with bear claws.
A rival contender walks by in a tight black lace camisole and ski pants unzipped to the hip to resemble harem pants. "He hasn't got a prayer," says Botsford. A Solemn Moment
The Rev. Robert Lamitie has never before been asked to perform a blessing for skis.
"There's no prescribed text," he says. But he is used to this sort of sporty ministry. "You bless the luge -- they're big on that," says the priest from St. Agnes Church in Lake Placid. "If you saw them go down you'd understand why. And plenty of places in the diocese we bless the boats."
The skiers gathered around him in the cavernous cafeteria at the Whiteface Mountain Lodge on Friday morning are equally inexperienced in this ceremony, which the Ski Club used to conduct regularly and which, like other traditions, has been reinaugurated this year in honor of the club's 50th anniversary. Rocking back and forth on their ski boots, most of them seem more interested in picking up their lift tickets than spiritual sustenance. As the parka-clad Lamitie nimbly steps onto a table, the restless crowd is instructed by a group leader to "restrain your enthusiasm."
"As we see the great beauty around us, we ask you to bless these skiers," Lamitie prays. "May you bless these skiers and may you bless these skis. May you guide them and these to the fullness of their purpose. Amen."
"Amen," the crowd responds.
"Go for it!" one man cries, and it's off to the slopes. The Men of the Ski Club
Mike Ozyck. A tall, tan salesman given to wearing coneheads and oversized sunglasses. "I want to party with you!" he calls out periodically, alternating that cry with "Let's do lunch!" and "I love you -- don't go changing!" On Winter Carnival Saturday night, mistakenly assuming he has found the SCWDC Adult Indoor Olympics, he bursts into a large room at the Holiday Inn and yells "Don't go changing!" The participants in the Empire State Games banquet are baffled. Mike is unfazed.
The Spider Man. A wiry cross-country skier and hiker who on bus trips climbs onto the luggage shelf above the seat (clearance: no more than eight inches) and sleeps there.
Tom Grunlock. A toy-maker who claims responsibility for "The Planet of the Apes Playset" and whose personal toys include the cardboard antlers, a pewter beer mug equipped with a belt-hook for convenient storage, a can that spurts fluorescent green semiliquid string ("I try to have a can of Silly String with me at all times") and a full Fidel Castro costume, including plastic machine gun, beard, camouflage pants and cigar. The Other Side of the Story
"Not all trips are like this, you know," says one skier.
Winter Carnival is billed by outgoing club president John Veen as "coming at the end of the ski season, basically a culmination. This is planned as a combination ski and party trip, which other ones usually evolve into but not to the extent Winter Carnival does." What it comes down to, Veen says, is that "people go to Winter Carnival who don't ski."
With, by one member's estimate, skiers making up only 40 percent of the membership, the more than 6,000 club members know that a mastery of moguls is no prerequisite for membership. In transient Washington, one-third of the members each year are new, and most people say they joined to meet people. Activities run all year; the Ski Club Action Line, as the information recording is called, usually takes more than two minutes to complete the list of the week's events. Depending on individual interests, the 50-year-old organization can be a volleyball club, a tennis club, a wine-and-cheese- party-coordinator.
Although everyone is quick to point out that many of the members are couples and describe the organization as "an activities club," the SCWDC newsletter records the club-born friendships that bloom into marriage, and many bus trips seem a cross between a frat party and a rolling singles bar. The Singles Question
"You probably want to know about this being a singles club," says Kathy Hayes, SCWDC historian, a member experienced enough to bring up the inevitable question herself. "We don't like to see ourselves primarily as a singles' club because there's something frivolous about it, and it tends to hide the fact we have done a lot of skiing."
But, she rushes to add, "There's nothing wrong with singles clubs."
Like many others, Hayes joined the club after a divorce.
"It's a non-intimidating thing for women my age," she says. "I'm 45, and I don't like to go to things unescorted. But I feel I can be here without a date. I feel comfortable. It's my club and I have a right to be here."
As at all ski club parties, Lake Placid gatherings have those practitioners of the someone-better-may-be- just-around-the-corner glance, a skill that involves keeping the eyes roaming at all times, even during conversation. One member asks a newcomer if she's heard what SCWDC stands for -- "Sex Club of Washington DC" -- and throughout the trip the air is heavy with sexual allusions, both verbal and visual.
A couple snuggling at a hot-buttered-rum party is asked the age of this particular romance.
Snuggling man: "We go back at least 85, 90 minutes."
Snuggling woman: "We're debating how empty my room is right now."
Twenty minutes later, the snuggling man is snuggling with someone else.
"Sure, there'll be some teepee hopping here," says one skier with a grin while pondering the meaning of it all one morning. "Two or three guys and gals will get lucky."
But with more than 200 guys and gals on the trip, the percentage is not high. While the acronym SCWDC may stand for two things, illicit activity, this skier says, will be present, but "not in its rawest form."
Innuendo, after all, can be almost as much fun as action.
Hence the Adult Indoor Olympics. Events include what trip organizers call "the ever-popular Cucumber Pass" (no hands allowed) and a balloon-breaking contest that involves destroying the balloon while embracing a member of the opposite sex.
Ski trip double entendres are barely double. But Do They Ski?
You bet. The buses from hotel to mountain are full. The muscles are stiff at the end of the day.
These people do it all. They even ski without costumes. Usually. Downhill Racer
The man in the gorilla suit scares a few kids on the lift line, and the man who wrapped himself in toilet paper finds his costume unable to withstand the headwind on Whiteface, but this is all part of the Sloppy Slalom experience.
And the Gorilla is off!
"GO! GO! GO!"
The crowd at the starting line has been left far behind.
The bench planted in the snow has been successfully straddled.
SWISH -- SWOOP -- SWISH!
The narrow twisting path has been navigated.
The ribbon held several feet above the snow has been ducked under.
"EAT THIS! NOW WHISTLE!"
The cracker coated with nearly frozen peanut butter has been downed and the sticky whistle performed.
The cup of beer has been downed.
"THAT WAS THE WORST MEAL I'VE EVER HAD!"
The race is over. SCWDC Lore
What would a club be without club traditions?
There are the traditional stories, like the frequently repeated one about the Fugawis, a rival ski club known for its nearly religious devotion to rowdiness. (Unfortunately, the derivation of the name Fugawi cannot be explored in the pages of a family newspaper.)
"Ten years ago, they were kicked out of Austria," says a man who belongs to both clubs. "They speak about it with pride: 'The time we were finally thrown out of Europe.' "
And there are the traditional activities. Jacuzzi-stuffing. The ceremonial steaming of several hundred clams over a hotel room plate late at night. On some buses, pouring liqueur into a woman's navel, then lapping it out.
This year, in celebration of the anniversary, revived traditions are everywhere, largely thanks to the club historian. Kathy Hayes describes herself as a "motherly, nurturing, fill-the-void kind of person" and has become the self-appointed keeper of the SCWDC flame. It is Hayes who is the bearer of a stuffed hobbyhorse intended for presentation to the Carnival King and Queen. For years, there had been no King, no Queen. History had killed them.
"In the '70s, with Women's Lib, no one wanted to do it anymore," she says.
* Henry Steece, husband of the Carnival Queen of 1966, remembers the loss of royalty with a bit more passion.
"The women wanted to be men and the men wanted to be women," he says bitterly. "Then came our 'new society.' It wrecked the whole concept."
* The concept had been much like Prom Night, with a queen, princesses and accompanying Court.
"That's when we wore semiformals and the men couldn't get in unless they had a tie," says former queen Diane Steece with a smile. "The queen couldn't be married. She could not be divorced. Now anybody can do it."
*The Steeces met in the club in the early '60s. "Before we were married," says Diane Steece, "we did something with the club every night. There were only 3,000 members then. We would drive up to Blue Knob every single weekend in the '60s and see the same people each time. It was like a large family."
The Steeces also brought their children on the trips, and 15-year-old John is in Lake Placid. "It's always been known as a gentleman's club -- nice people," Diane Steece says. "We have the obnoxious behavior rule -- we don't put up with bad people." The Outsiders
The lot of the cross-country skier is a difficult one. Mocked by downhill skiers, besieged by stereotypes, many of them feel like second-class SCWDC citizens.
"The downhillers are supposed to be real partyers, rowdy," says Lucia Pollock, a cross-country woman. "The cross-country people are supposed to be real quiet. On the bus they go to sleep early.
"I have not," Pollock says somewhat defensively, "found that to be true. We use profanity as well as the downhillers. They think we're wimps."
But the impulse to categorize is a strong one, even within the cross-country circles.
"They're like sailors and power-boaters," offers one who has clearly considered the metaphoric possibilities of the subject. "Cross-country people are like sailors. Solitary, independent -- these are some of the Reaganites of the world. The downhillers are the power-boaters."
"They're sort of closer-to-nature people," says Herb Rose of his fellow cross-country devotees, falling into the popular equation of cross-country skiing with physical and mental purity. "They don't need J-bars, T-bars, rope tows."
"They're hippies," says a woman.
"You've heard about the Vietcong able to survive for a week on two bowls of rice?" asks Rose. "Cross-country skiers are able to live for a week on a case of beer. The down-hillers, they guzzle."
Even Pollock cannot resist. Pointing to Tom Grunlock in full Castro-regalia, she says, "Now this is a perfect example of a downhill person!" The Town, the Fun
The management of the Lake Placid Holiday Inn wears a stunned expression on its collective face the entire weekend.
"They said, 'You want to have a WHAT in the bar?' " says Kathy Hayes, remembering how the hotel staff responded when told about plans for a pajama party.
And that was only the first night.
Except for the faintly flickering fire in the lobby, the Holiday Inn has little resemblance to a mountain lodge. But how many mountain lodges have MTV in the bar? The Washington guests make do.
Outside, the town waits. A combination of Adirondack-rustic and Disney World-tacky, Lake Placid is filled with stores with names like "The Alpine Mall" and "The Bear Haus." Ski club members, voracious doers that they are, manage to ski and ski and ski and party and party and party and then to buy up the place, swoop down the toboggan run, inspect the luge facilities, test the snowmobiles and dog-sled rides. The temperature doesn't bother to rise much above zero, the windchill numbers are so low as to be ludicrous, and those who are not too embarrassed to do it hire taxicabs to drive them the two blocks to yet another party being held at the other end of town. The Nostalgia
"Ten years ago you evaluated the trip by how the bus trip going up was," says John O'Neill, who will probably win the election for club president this year since no one else is running. "The club was smaller. More people knew each other. They came ready to party. Now, they spend the trip getting to know each other."
And even when they've learned each others' names, shared a few jokes, a few beers, the members aren't what they used to be.
"I think they're more conservative," says O'Neill. "The amount of drinking has gone down considerably. General rowdiness -- if we did the things now we did in the middle '70s, they'd probably revoke our memberships."
O'Neill recently ran a trip on which he witnessed busmates having "our first discussion of when we'd go to sleep!" The expression on his face would lead one to believe the discussion was about when they would commence breathing underwater.
Things have changed.
There are now vehicles so quiet they have earned the SCWDC title of "library buses." On one recent trip, most of the riders were asleep before midnight.
"This bus is dead!" yelled a disappointed party animal.
The bus was so dead, no one even responded. The End
The Gold Bus is broken.
This is the Ski Club of Washington D.C.'s definition of irony: Sunday afternoon, and the Gold Bus is stuck at the bottom of a hill, its bowels steaming, its driver grim. Only last night, when Frazier Botsford achieved his dream to rule, the Gold Bus was named Supreme Bus in the interbus competition. Two of the three women who split the queen's crown (including Kathy Hayes) were from the Gold Bus, as was Botsford. Now, all those enthusiasts, all those winners, all those people with crazy hats, have to wait for a replacement bus to arrive, and in the end they will leave Lake Placid three hours behind the rest of the ramada. ETA for Gold Bus: 7:30 Monday morning.
The Red, Purple, Blue and Green Buses are laughing.