The New England ski season is ending, but some friendships forged on the slopes are more enduring.
Dick Perkins, 78, and Tony Carleton, 80, have been friends since the 1950s, when they met as undergrads on the Dartmouth College ski team. They went on to build successful careers around Boston, where they raised families, welcomed grandchildren — and kept skiing.
About two decades ago, Tony was hit with a permanent neurological disorder that destroyed his upper body strength and made walking difficult. But he could still ski.
Then, a few years ago, macular degeneration left Dick legally blind, and he had to hang up his skis.
Until Tony had an idea: He proposed serving as a ski guide, so his visually impaired friend could return to the mountain.
With hearty laughs, they joke that they represent a classic image: the halt leading the blind. They shared their story with WBUR.
Dick Perkins: Skiing is what I loved to do. Therefore it’s such a gift to have Tony volunteer to take this guy out and see whether he could get down the hill.
Tony Carleton: And it’s become so successful that one of the great times we had was skiing with his daughter, Meg, and finding how startled she was when her visually handicapped father was disappearing skillfully into the distance. What a wonderful rush that is for a daughter who’d been sort of agonizing over her father’s impairment.
DP: Skiing has certainly been my favorite sport all my life. It’s the sense of the freedom of the hill, carving a good turn … and then I guess just being in the out of doors in the middle of the winter is joyful as well.
TC: The feeling I have is transcendental. Almost religious. Because in everything I do — getting out of a chair, getting out of bed — I do it awkwardly. Stiffly. I walk very stiffly. When I ski, and I do this really well, we do this arcing where the skis go way out to the side and our bodies stay centrally flowing down the hill. And my sensation is that I’m in the hands of an angel, who’s moving my body in wonderful smooth graceful patterns that I can’t experience in anything else I do in life.
DP: Tony starts off. I blend in right behind him and we ski within a turn or two so that I’m watching his uniform at all times. His uniform is so bright that I can see it in pretty much any light, and I can also see the terrain by watching his legs.
TC: My costume is the pants that have three 2-inch-wide red fluorescent duct tape horizontal circles. So when I turn and my legs bend in that direction, that’s a strong signal of direction. Then I have a type of yellow jacket and a bright orange painted helmet. Oh, and then we have large bibs. He has a large bib with letters that are 4 inches high that say “Visually Impaired” on his chest and his back. I have a large bib and the letters are even bigger — 6 inches high — and they say “Guide” on my chest and my back.
DP: We have become more and more confident in each other and our ability to do it so we are skiing fast and enjoying that. The thrill of the wind in your face and the carving of the edge — it’s a great experience. We ski faster than most of the people on the hill. We’re probably among the top dozen on the mountain at any time. Fast enough to know you’re really moving!
TC: People are really shocked. When they’re modest skiers and we go flying by them at twice their speed and the second guy has a big sign that says “Visually Handicapped” — and they say, “What’s up? How can that be?”
DP: One of our friends was watching Tony and I walk out of the lodge and he came up to us and he said, “Tony, you sure ski a lot better than you walk!”
TC: I said an expletive. I said “no blank I can ski better than I can walk.” I can ski better than I can do anything! Skiing, I look totally powerful. It’s skeletal, done with centrifugal force, and balance. And I’ve got a deep knowledge of how these skis perform. I have so little strength for everything else in life and I can ski with terrific strength.
DP: That lifelong identity as a skier is something that’s really sustaining as we age. It’s a great feeling to be able to say, “By gosh, I can still do that and I can do it pretty darn well.” For Tony also … it’s what gets us up in the morning.
TC: What I do for Dick is not only a big help to him but it is a blessing for it to have arrived in my life. It gives me a purpose as I get weaker and older. I don’t have a choice — I’ve got to get up on Saturday morning at 4:30 because Dick’s waiting. And that’s not easy!
DP: We’ve had a lot of intense time together. And Tony keeps saying he’s running out of conversation, but he never does. So I never get any peace! He’s always talking! (Laugh)
TC: I’m not sure this would have continued if I didn’t find that Dick had reemerged as such a genial partner. I’ll tell him a story and I can say, “I’ve only got five stories to tell, but your memory is so bad I can tell ‘em over and over!” But this is a big part of my social life, because I’m a hermit. A self-styled troglodyte hermit. I live alone in a silent house. So that’s a lot of interaction … for a hermit.
DP: It has to do with joy in life. Pursuing new things and learning new things … building a long-term friendship. All the stuff that’s good in life. Period.
TC: What’s so magical about this is two crippled old men can do something that looks dynamic on skis, and really well.
DP: (Laugh) Lots of people talk about, “I’ll do that until they take me out in a box.” I think that as long as we can physically do it … I think we’ll probably do it!
– Here’s a video of Tony and Dick skiing, courtesy of Wachusett Mountain Ski Area: