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Nikkei Heritage

A Love Affair with Snow

Skiing has been a passion for me. It was once a sometime activity which I could indulge in as frequently as the proverbial blue moon appearing in the California sky. A series of events would forever alter my direction from street kid to mountain man.

Big jump, March 1972, Sun Valley Idaho. Photo courtesy of Rod Tatsuno.

I first saw the light of this mundane world in the middle of Sea Biscuit’s turf, the Tanforan race track near San Bruno, in 1942, courtesy of the first JA woman doctor, Dr. Kazue Togasaki. My birthplace was a temporary hospital in the infield, where the less moneyed citizens watched horses gallop by, and where my ojiichan, Shojiro Tatsuno, would later wheel me around the track in an old pram. Next, we spent three years in the south central Utah desert at Topaz detention camp.

My first taste of snow had been the blinding blizzards in the Sevier desert of Topaz, with my Uncle Roy Watanabe pulling me on a sled, a scene dad captured with his smuggled Bell & Howell movie camera in his now famous documentary of life behind barbed wire. We returned to San Francisco’s Nihonmachi neighborhood in 1945. My older brother Sheldon, to whom I looked up, and who allowed me to follow him around the neighborhood like a shadow, disappeared from my life after a tonsillectomy that proved fatal.

My parents, Dave and Alice Tatsuno, unable to stay in the old Victorian house with the painful memories of Sheldon’s loss, decided to begin a new life, opening a second Nichi Bei Bussan dry goods store in an old grocery building on Jackson Street in San Jose’s Japan Town.

When my father was a boy, Ojiichan had left him in the care of a man who drank away the money intended for my father’s living expenses. Dad was taken under the wing of the leader of the then-segregated Japanese Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA). With this family, Dad was able to thrive and enjoy a more normal life. He was active in the YMCA since. As a way of giving back, he volunteered to help drive students from San Jose State College to YMCA trips to the Sierras in his new Chevrolet station wagon. I was allowed to join them—and again saw snow. Dad rented me some old wooden ridge top skis with bear trap bindings, which were basically, metal clips holding the square toes of the boots down, along with some cables attached to the extended boot heels, with leather thong straps to help hold them in place. I would flounder out on the snow by myself and, after watching adults ski by me, attempt to copy them. Only two weekends in the early 1950s and a few trips with family or high school Hi-Y groups when I was a teen sufficed as my skiing experience.

At San Jose State University (SJSU), where I was a member of the judo team, my interest in skiing was piqued by the advertisements I saw, with beautiful ladies shushing down slopes in ski pants that they appeared to have been poured into. The crispness of the cold air and snow I had experienced as a child now lured me back. The San Jose State ski club had over 120 active members, and they chartered buses for weekend trips to Lake Tahoe areas such as Squaw Valley, Alpine Meadows and Sugar Bowl. Spring semester break week trips were taken up highway 50 to Stateline and Heavenly Valley, where we stayed on the California side for two dollars a night, four to a motel room. With our club discount of 20 percent off, a day ski pass cost $4. We could eat meals at the casinos for under a buck. And we did have beautiful lithe young ladies to share this activity with.

The more skilled skiers in our club would help the newer and less experienced ones in the mornings. This was an act of caring I wouldn’t appreciate until much later, when I became a ski instructor. I knew the best skiing happened early the morning, when the powder was fresh or the corduroy groomed snow was still smooth and untouched. Instead of free-skiing, the best skiers stayed to teach the novices.

The only ski lesson I ever took was a parallel class at Heavenly. I couldn’t understand why the others were taking it, since they all appeared competent enough, compared to me. Feeling like the dunce of the group, with my proverbial tail dragging, I slinked off afterwards, bought a Cornish pasty and a Coke and sat down in the mountain lodge, overlooking the sky blue waters of Lake Tahoe, to help restore my energy and to contemplate. Later, I found a quiet spot and began to practice what my instructor had preached, and it began to click. I could ski with my feet side by side!

At the end of the day at Heavenly Valley, crowds of skiers would assemble to ride the tram or chairlift down to the parking lot. My friends would gather in a select group and adjust our imaginary World War I flying goggles on our sheepskin caps, flinging the white silk scarves over our shoulders as the pilots of the Lafayette Escadrille had done. We would cast a disdainful look at the losers lined up like sheep and dropped off into Gun Barrel or The Face and struggle down through humongous moguls for what seemed an eternity.

After graduating from SJSU, I received my draft notice, and along with other recruits of the Vietnam War period—40,000 a month—I became a shaved-head, Spirit of- the-Bayonet-is-to-Kill G.I. in This Man’s Army. I managed to survive the physical demands of basic training at Fort Hood, Texas, thanks to Yosh Uchida’s really intensive judo training and, following Advanced Individual Training in Infantry tactics at Fort Ord, near Monterey, California, I finally received orders to Officer’s Candidate School at Fort Knox, Kentucky, where again the rigors of the judo team carried me through the program. I was sent to West Germany and became a tank commander/ platoon leader in the Third Armored Cavalry Regiment.

During weekends and off periods, I drove like a banshee south on the autobahn to Garmisch-Partenkirchen to ski. When the squadron commander learned that I was a skier, he actually commanded me to lead a special services group of soldiers there for R& R! Weekend drives to the Black Forest and into Austria fortified my penchant for this pristine gravity sport.

When I was nearing the end of my service obligation, my ski club buddy, Jim Hindmarch, called me and said that he and some friends were quitting their jobs with IBM and Sylvania to ski-bum for a winter in Aspen, and he asked if I would like to join them. We were unable to find housing there and Jim suggested we might try Sun Valley. There we found a rental house through an ad in a ski magazine and journeyed across the barrens of Nevada to The Promised Land, and became ski bums that first winter.

Rod's son Chris (left) with skier Picabo Street. She wore Ojiichan's (Shojiro Tatsuno) gold ring when she won a gold medal at the Nagano Olympics in 1998. Photo courtesy of Rod Tatsuno.

During early December of 1970, a friend corralled me into working for the production company that was filming the best TV special of 1971, the Peggy Fleming & Jean Claude Killy show, on the outdoor ice rink at Sun Valley and on Dollar and Baldy mountains. On ice, I would help fill holes and move props around. On snow, I would carry battery pack bandolleros for Joe Jay Jalbert, who did the skiing for Robert Redford and the on-course filming in the movie “Downhill Racer.” Jean Claude, whom I had met when I helped him into his room during my brief stint as a bell hop, had me ski with his then-girlfriend Danielle Gaubert, who later became his wife, while he was busy shooting. In the following years, I would provide “atmosphere,” skiing in the background of ski movies and ice skating shows. I appeared as a Chinese miner in Clint Eastwood’s Western “Pale Rider” and with Scotty Hamilton in a Disney on Ice Special in Sun Valley.

I was a torch bearer for the Flip Wilson Winter Olympiad on ice, and later reprised that role for real in 2002 when I ran with the Torch in Twin Falls, Idaho with my fellow runner and Sun Valley resident, Dick Fosbury, who revolutionized high jumping with his gold medal win in the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. We were the Mutt and Jeff of Torch Bearers! I ran for all Americans of Japanese ancestry and, significantly, I was helping carry the Olympic flame to Utah, the state I had spent my first three years of life behind barbed wire.

I had contemplated becoming a ski instructor, but how on earth would you approach the famous and gruff-seeming Austrian Sigi Engl, director of the Sun Valley ski school?

I had even sat next to him in the Duchin Room bar and couldn’t turn to ask him about the possibility. I mean, there were world famous skiers on the school, and I was, frankly, coming from absolutely nowhere. Rather than belabor my mind over it, I chose to distance myself from the idea. If it was meant to be, it would be. One day, a special short ski sequence in which Jean Claude would tandem ski with two women on Dollar mountain was planned. I went there, but it had clouded over, and only an old Tucker Sno-Cat was grooming the Half Dollar run. As I began to turn away, someone walked up next to me. It was Sigi! I gathered my courage and asked him how one wold join the ski school. He looked at me and said, “Be here on Tuesday morning at 9 o’clock sharp. Don’t be late!” He was there to pick up his grandson, who had been riding in the Sno-Cat.

Thus began what would be my career for more than 35 years. Although I felt unprepared, my varied jobs as a Y camp counselor, swimming instructor and pool director, and even tank gunnery and machine gun instructor seemed to point me in that direction. I began by teaching beginning adult and child skiers on the “little” mountain, Dollar, and eventually graduated to the Grande Dame of mountains, Baldy. Not bad for a guy who had flunked speech class the first time in his college freshman year.

Driving to Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, Oregon, Washington and California to ski before and after the teaching season became a way of life: Living out of my VW vans, acquiring free comp lift passes at various ski areas and meeting many friends along the way. In 1993 I took up snowboarding, and now people are surprised when they eventually learn that I do also teach skiing.

Being an AJA (American of Japanese Ancestry) in what had been a Nordic blond and blue-eyed endeavor wasn’t easy at times. There were days when a lesson would go to someone else who more closely fit that description. But usually, as the only minority on the “International” ski school, many people overlooked my appearance, and my engaging personality would win them over—a skill I’d inherited from Dad, who could charm Satan if he had ever met him. There have been a few families of which I have even taught three generations, both on skis and snowboards.

Sometimes I would feel eyes upon me as I walked through a ski lodge; kids peering at me and talking behind their hands. A brave one might walk over and ask, “Are you Jackie?” (as in Chan). Or an adult would stop me in Park City and ask, “Are you Hank?” as in Kashiwa, a former member of the United States Ski Team at the Sapporo Olympics. And during the 1970s, “Are you Wayne?” as in Wayne Wong, the Canadian freestyler, all of whom I met at some time. We would laugh over the comparisons, though inside our heads and hearts, we were thinking of that perennial declaration: “They all look alike.”

In 1980 I met the mother of my son, Gaie Shoman, who had been a national and international competitor in ice dancing, and who once represented the Southern California Dairy Producers’ Association as a Rose Princess at Pasadena in the 1950s. Our son Chris was born in 1983 and learned to ski at age two. Following a childhood career as a junior ski racer, and later racing two years for the University of Colorado at Boulder before graduating last December with a degree in Business and Marketing, he is engaging his passion for flinging himself off cliffs in Big Mountain Free Skiing contests, which are often called Extreme ski events. When people ask if that worries me, and considering that I had survived tumbling off a cliff in an avalanche at Mt. Baker, Washington in 1971 and also a drop into Corbet’s Couleur at Jackson Hole, plus almost drowning in a few surfing incidents, I can only answer them with, “How can I? He could be serving in Iraq.”

Chris has advanced up through the ranks and was noticed by the judges and fellow competitors at events held at Snowbird, Jackson Hole, Aspen, Crested Butte and Telluride, where he garnered the Sick Bird Award for the most outrageous, hang-it-out overall skiing of the competition, flinging a forward flip off a sixty foot cliff, as well as other steep drops and pitches, while skiing extremely fast.

Though he hasn’t yet won an event, he did finish first in a qualifier at Kirkwood, near South Lake Tahoe. His overall point totals pre-qualified him for next winter’s competitions, meaning that he will automatically start in the first 25 competitors of the 150 at each event. This summer Chris worked as a river raft guide in Snowmass, Colorado. He’ll continue his Extreme ski competitions this winter. He plans to eventually find a niche in some outdoor recreational line of endeavor, following a path that began a generation ago in desert snow.

* This article was originally published in Nikkei Heritage Vol. XVIII, Number 2 (Winter 2006), a journal of the National Japanese American Historical Society.

© 2006 National Japanese American Historical Society

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This series republishes selected articles from Nikkei Heritage, the quarterly journal of the National Japanese American Historical Society in San Francisco, CA. The issues provide timely analysis and insight into the many facets of the Japanese American experience. NJAHS has been a Discover Nikkei Participating Organization since December 2004.

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