Sometimes when I have difficulty coming up with a column idea, I poke around the Internet to see what happened on this day in history.

Jan. 28 turned up an occurrence that caught my eye.

In 1934 on this day, the first ski rope tow in the country started operating in Woodstock, Vermont.

Ah, the rope tow.

It was the contraption most feared and anticipated by kids at Eaton Mountain in Skowhegan when I was growing up in the 1960s.

It was a constantly moving rope that towed skiers up the mountain. You had to approach it, grab it and hang on to it just the right way or you would tumble, fall and make a fool of yourself, burn a hole through your mittens or worse, cause a multiple skier pileup.

That was before the chairlift came to Eaton. The lift was a godsend for those of us who liked to get to the top of the mountain and ski down the faster, steeper, more dangerous slopes that had moguls and ice and other hazards that made it more exhilarating.

The rope tow, which we also called the tow rope, was tricky. You had to ski up to it just so, let the rope slide through your left hand as you swung your right hand behind you to catch it, dragging your ski poles behind you, and then grip the rope with both hands and let it pull you forward.

If you were slow on the uptake, you’d fall. If you were too quick, you might tumble backward and land in a pile in front of the person waiting behind you.

And then, once you got to the place where you wanted to stop on the mountain, you had to be proficient in your exit strategy or you’d land in a heap and, chances are, the person behind you would collapse on top of you.

With practice, you could become a pro and thus show off to all the younger and less experienced kids.

Later, Eaton got a T-bar, which also could be precarious if you didn’t pay attention. You had to lean on it and balance yourself just so or suffer the humiliation of becoming a spectacle to the audience of kids waiting to get on.

In those days we rode the school bus from the Skowhegan Municipal Building parking lot to the mountain lot as part of a town recreation program. We went on weeknights, as well as on Saturdays. We clomped up the bus steps in our heavy ski boots and piled our skis and poles across the back seats, finding a place to plant ourselves wherever we could for the several-mile trip to the mountain.

Once there, we wrangled our skis out of the bus, slid the leather handle loops on the end of our skis to create a carrying bar and slogged our way from the parking lot to the lodge. We wore our ski passes, which were enclosed in clear plastic and prominently displayed the Eaton logo, fastened to our snow parkas.

Night skiing was particularly exciting, as the trails were lit up and we got to sail down the mountain under the stars.

The frigid air was invigorating. When our hands and feet got so cold we were practically immobilized, we’d take a reprieve in the warm lodge, perched on a stool at the food counter, consuming hot cocoa and a cardboard tray of french fries drowned in salt and vinegar.

Those were the days.

As we got older, we infrequently drove to Sugarloaf, where the trails were more sophisticated and there were more of them, the lodge was bigger and the skiers came from everywhere, and in droves. Everyone aspired to ski at Sugarloaf, which cost more and was farther away, though much more modern and worldly.

But there was nothing quite like those cold nights on Eaton Mountain, cramming beforehand into that bus downtown and enjoying the camaraderie of friends as we drove east by moonlight.

We skied until we were frozen and bedraggled and then boarded the bus and rode, silent and sleepy, back to town.

After piling out of the bus in the dark, we’d transfer our gear to waiting cars and head home.

There, we climbed the stairs, shed our layers and fell, happy and exhausted, into bed.

Amy Calder has been a Morning Sentinel reporter 31 years. Her column appears here Mondays. She may be reached at [email protected]. For previous Reporting Aside columns, go to centralmaine.com.

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