Lange: Working The Bobsled Run

Feb 9, 2018

In the winter of 1958 I was tending bar in Keene Valley, New York, in exchange for my supper and stocking the beer coolers for breakfast, when I heard the Olympic bobsled run near Lake Placid was looking for help.

I applied, and discovered it involved a political endorsement, which wasn't available to registered Independents – which I was. But I finally got a job there, as announcer, because, the boss told me, "You don't have a local accent."

Standing in the parking lot on my first day, I heard what sounded like an avalanche above me on the mountain. It got louder, then died away, and that was my first experience with the raw power of a four-man bobsled rumbling down a solid ice track.

I've always loved working with crews of men. This was one of the best. All ages – many of them alumni of logging camps – all equally bundled against the cold. We shoveled snow, mixed it into slush with water to plaster onto the curves, cut ice off a nearby pond to line the straightaways, and smoothed the track with a machine called the planer that took six men in creepers to pull.

My job was to climb the light poles and install the loudspeakers; install and adjust a set of ancient, undependable electric eye timers; and staff the announcer's booth, where with headphones and a party line, I kept track of each descending sled and repeated roughly what each man up the line told me. Occasionally they tried to sabotage me with unrepeatable words, but they never succeeded. And sometimes my pals would back up against the cafeteria windows just opposite my booth and moon me. That stopped when I held up a camera.

On race days the electric-eye timer usually acted up, so I watched it like a hawk. When international teams arrived, I had the drivers teach me how to call their run at least partly in their native languages. And I learned how to make a slow sled sound lightning-fast just by increasing the excitement in my voice.

I also encouraged visitors to take rides down the mountain on passenger sleds, relics of the 1932 Olympics driven by crew members. But those were the days of stretch pants; and one young lady refused to get off the sled at the end of her ride - until somebody brought her a blanket.