Moment of Decision

by

This story is from a British comic called Boy’sWorld…

Moment of Decision
by Harry Harrison (1963)

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The skiing figure was just a black mark against the white snow of the hill above. It appeared suddenly at the summit before falling straight down into the valley. Peter’s breath caught in his throat as he watched the lightning descent, the skier growing larger as he dropped, doing sixty… seventy miles an hour down the icy slope. It seemed impossible that he could stay balanced on the flimsy-looking skis at that speed, and such recklessness could end only in disaster. Yet the man on skis seemed ignorant of any danger as he twisted suddenly to avoid a tree, then bounded over a ridge. The freezing air cut like broken glass in Peter’s throat as he forced himself to breathe. He was sure that his father would never reach the bottom of the slope alive.

The short minutes that it took for Captain Lewis Burnett to drop the length of the slope stretched out to centuries for his son. But, at last, he was at the base of the slope, and skidding to a stop in a great spray of snow.

“See how easy it is, Peter?” Lewis Burnett asked, and laughed out loud with the joy of his accomplishment. He enjoyed danger. His happiest memories were of service in the Commandos during the war. For a man like Captain Burnett, service in the peacetime army was dull and he had livened it by volunteering for the most remote outposts and danger spots; by mountain climbing in the Himalayas and skin-diving in the shark-filled Coral Sea.

The companionship of his father, when chance and duty had returned him to England, were the high spots of Peter’s life.

“Do you think that you could tackle this slope, Peter?” his father asked, and waved a ski-pole at the almost vertical wall of snow. Peter looked up at it and fought to control the little shiver of fear that ran through him.

“It’s rather steep, Dad, but…”

“Of course it is,” his father laughed, “but I didn’t mean right now. You’ll want to take some lessons first since this is the first time you have been on skis. I have two weeks more before my leave is up, and we’re going to use every minute of it. Time enough to tackle that slope before we go. Here comes Hans, now.”

Peter watched as his father sped off down the slope to join the Swiss instructor. It had been a perfect holiday so far and he did not want anything to spoil it. He was being silly, worrying about that slope. From the moment he had met his father at Liverpool Street Station this had been the holiday he had dreamed about. They had gone to restaurants, cinemas and the theatre. And whatever they had done had been perfect, because they were doing it together. Then came the excitement of Peter’s first plane trip, and the thrill of the first stamp in his passport.

The sound of his father’s voice jerked him out of his thoughts.

“This is Hans, the best instructor in the Alps,” his father said. Peter shook hands with a stocky little man, not much taller than Peter himself. But he moved as if he had been born on skis.

“You’ll learn quickly,” Hans said with a smile.

“And before we leave, you’ll even be trying that slope I just came down,” his father said, and once more Peter felt a sudden chill.

“Now do just as I do,” Hans said. “Go across the snow like this and try to put all your weight on your downhill ski.”

Peter tried hard. When he fell, he got up and tried over again, urged on by the patient instructor. An hour passed unnoticed before his father returned and stopped to watch.

“You’re doing fine,” his father said. “That’s a professional looking stem turn you’re doing. What do you say, Hans?”

“Your son has good balance, Captain, and he is willing to work hard. He is going to be a good skier if he keeps on this way.”

Peter felt a warm surge of happiness at this, but before he could say anything there was a crash from the hill behind them and a pained shout. He turned to see a skier who had crashed into a tree slump limply into the snow. Hans and his father were halfway to the man before Peter could turn and follow.

“Easy now, his arm is broken,” Peter beard his father say.

The man’s face was a white mask of pain and Peter had a quick glimpse of his strangely twisted arm. Then Hans and his father were helping the injured man back to the hotel.

Later that evening, after dinner, the injured skier appeared, proudly showing off his cast, which everyone laughingly signed.

The next day on the hill, Peter was doing a stem turn, throwing all his weight on to his ski when he stepped out with it, then trying to close the other ski up as fast as possible. In the middle of the turn he glanced up and noticed that he was on the edge of a steep drop. There was no chance of going near the drop if he completed the turn, something he had already learned to do with ease. Yet in the instant he glanced down the snowy decline, at the rough trunks of the pine trees and thick branches, he remembered the accident of the previous day, the pained face and the broken arm. He recoiled from the memory, lost balance and fell.

“You should not be afraid of the hill,” Hans said, as Peter climbed to his feet, brushing off the snow. “You were doing a good turn until you looked at the hill and thought of falling. That is why you fell.”

Peter knew this, too. He fought hard to keep down the panic he felt when he thought of a bad fall. As long as the slope was gentle, he was in full control of his skis, confident of what he could do. He fell only when fear of a serious fall on a fast slope or going into the trees swept over him. He learned to stay away from these danger spots – but he knew they were still there.

“You’ll be a champion yet,” his father said that evening. “Ready to come down the slope with me tomorrow?”

“Not just yet,” Peter answered, hoping that the frightened thudding of his heart would not be heard, “I want some more practice first.”

“Well, the day after, then. After all, we only have a week left.”

Each day Peter managed to postpone the trial until there was just a single day left. As he rode up the mountain side by side with his father on the T-bar lift, Peter shivered.

“Cold?” his father asked.

“A little.” He didn’t dare admit the truth.

Then the terrifying drop of the slope was before them, and could no longer be avoided. Peter’s father swooped away with a rasp of skis, and fighting down his fear he reluctantly followed. First one turn then another went by successfully while the icy ski run grew steeper and he fought against his growing fear. On the next turn he swung wide, into the deep snow, and fell into a tangle of small trees. His right ski was wedged under a branch. With sudden decision he pulled up on the ski with both hands. Deliberately he pulled so that the tip broke off.

“Bad luck,” his father said, when he came back to see what had happened to Peter. Then he smiled. “Good thing it happened the last day, or you would have missed a lot of skiing.”

That was all Captain Burnett had said. Lying in bed that night. Peter realized for the first time that it did not really matter to his father whether or not Peter ran that slope this year!

With sudden clarity he knew that all his father wanted was for him to learn to ski and to have a good time. He had not failed his father on the slope – he had failed himself! It did not really matter at all whether he ran the slope or not. It was the broken ski that mattered now: his face grew hot with shame as he remembered it. Outside the sky was growing light. He had lain awake for most of the night.

At that moment he realized what he had to do. He dressed quickly, lacing his ski-boots tight, and let himself out, unseen, from the side entrance of the hotel. It was sharp and clear and almost dawn. Stuck into the snow along the hotel wall were rows of skis, left there by the guests. Peter quickly found a pair that fitted and strapped them on.

Walking up the hill warmed him, and when he stood at the top of the slope it shone with the golden light of dawn. Without stopping to think or worry, he pushed with his poles and started down the slope. There was no one to watch him or interfere while he made careful turns and braked on the steepest parts. Before he realized it, the last terrifying drop was in front of him. For one moment he paused – then gritted his teeth till they hurt, blanking out all the frightening possibilities of what might happen. Then he was off… going faster and faster until the landscape blurred. Somehow he did not panic, even when he realized he was hurtling close to the dangerous edge of the cliff… he could clearly see beyond the dizzy drop. Deliberately, he looked into space, down at the trees, chalets and jagged rocks, toylike in their tinyness a thousand feet below.

His pulse raced – not with fear, but with a strange excitement. For he had challenged fear – and won! Then, almost before he knew it he was skimming past the spot where the man had broken his arm. Then he was slowing as the slope dropped more gently… and his momentum was carrying him almost to the hotel door. The skis went back into the same holes he had taken them from and, after he had brushed the snow from his boots, there was no evidence that he had ever been out. The dining-room doors were just being opened and he went in. He had just sat down at a table when his father joined him.

“Look there,” his father said, pointing out of the window at the slope. Peter’s ski tracks were clearly visible in the light snow that had fallen during the night. “Some enthusiast has been out there early to run the slope.”

“I’ll be doing it, too, next year,” Peter said. “Just you wait and see.”

“I know you will, you would have done it this year if it hadn’t been for bad luck.” Captain Burnett smiled at his son, very proud of him.

Outside the rising sun threw long shadows across the bright whiteness of the snow. It was a beautiful day.

THE END

First published in Boy’s World, 2nd March 1963.

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