Alas, Jackson’s oldest living teenager died in October 2004. I first knew Willie Harris some fifty years ago when we were both working for Joe Dodge at the AMC headquarters up in Pinkham Notch. Actually, I heard him before I knew him. Willie had a wooden station wagon, I think it was a 1948 Mercury, and he’d installed a loudspeaker behind the grill. The microphone was inside with the driver, and he’d offer admiring sentiments when he passed a pretty girl. Later on, I learned that he was part of the biggest and most important operations in the history of warfare, the Normandy invasion in World War II. I said that it must have been pretty grim, and Willie said, “Yes, my unit suffered almost sixty percent casualties…” I interrupted him, I said, Oh God, that must have been terrible! Then he continued, “…and that was before we left England.”
Willie was in the military police and they all had Harley Davidson motorcycles. They were training in England for many months before D-day and after supper they liked to take their Harleys and go ripping through the narrow twisting lanes of the countryside. The best part of the fun was the blackout rule that prohibited the use of headlights. Willie went ashore in Normandy on D-day plus four, and in the months to come one of his regular duties was guarding German prisoners. They’d go out on work details and he knew that there was no great danger of escape because the German soldiers were far better off getting three squares a day with the Americans than they’d be with their own army or left to their own devices outside the wire. He knew he was right about this, because one day when he was on guard duty he improved the time with an afternoon nap and the German soldiers woke him up and reminded him that it was time for him to take them back to the prison camp.
Willie’s early life was spent where a big snowstorm was a few inches of short-lived cover, but winter caught his eye anyway and after the war he came to Jackson and got a job on the ski patrol at Black Mountain in Jackson. Then he moved up the road to Pinkham Notch, where he worked for Joe Dodge as his truck driver. This meant that he went to Berlin twice a week and did all the shopping for the AMC huts, then he boxed up the goods and dropped them off at the trails leading up the mountains. Soon he moved higher still and got a job on the summit of Mount Washington. Channel 8 television had their transmitter up there and a two-man crew kept things running. One of them had to sit in a dim room all day and evening staring at a monitor and waiting for something to go wrong, an unsung hero of the infant television age. Relief came one summer day when a forest fire started on one of the southern ridges of the Presidential Range, and several members of the summit crew were recruited to try to put it out. It would be a long and difficult day and everyone packed a hearty lunch to sustain him during the work ahead. When Willie opened his pack he discovered that he’d forgotten the food, all he’d put in was toothpaste. Nothing much bothered him, so that’s what he had for lunch.
It’s not easy for a tall lanky person like Willie to learn to ski when he’s already rather well advanced in years, but he beat the odds. In fact, he was the only one among the many good skiers I’ve known who did a royal christie. (The name didn’t come from any association with royalty, the move was invented by a man named Reuel.) It’s done by starting a turn and then leaning out over the inside ski and riding it through a long arc while trailing the outside ski high off the snow in back; it’s exactly the same as the surpassingly elegant maneuver that figure skaters call a spiral.
Jack Parr, the pioneering television host, owned Channel 8 for a while and he liked the personal touch. One of them was the live weather report that was spliced into the evening news by the summit crew, and everyone’s favorite was when Willie and Marty Engstrom were on duty. Indeed, their fame was so great that when people in Europe learned that I lived near Mount Washington, they’d ask if I ever saw the Willie and Marty show, and who ARE those guys? The summit crew didn’t have a camera in the early days, so a photograph of the person doing that night’s report would be shown from the home station in Poland Springs while the man at the summit was heard on the audio feed. Willie gave the studio a picture of himself doing a royal christie, something that even a very good skier would only attempt on a gentle and well-packed slope. The picture showed nothing but Willie and snow, so he told the people in the Poland Springs studio to tilt the picture. This way, it looked as if he was doing his royal christie on a fearsomely steep slope. Partway through the weather report he’d pause to remind the viewers, as a sort of afterthought, that they’re seeing a picture of him going over the Lip in Tuckerman Ravine. Many viewers knew that the Lip is so steep and so scary that many good skiers never try it in a lifetime of ravine skiing.
Those night rides on the country lanes of England had sharpened Willie’s affection for motorcycles, and he always had one during his later years in Jackson. He knew that I was similarly afflicted, so we’d often talk about life and times on two wheels while we had breakfast in Yesterdays or Glen Junction. Willie loved bright colors, and he managed to find an amazing number of things that were red and yellow, including his motorcycles. The last time I saw Willie he was already quite sick, he was VERY sick, but he didn’t say anything about that. Instead, he asked if I’d like to have his motorcycle. I told him that I didn’t think I could live up to the red and yellow color scheme, I wasn’t brave enough, so he’d better keep it. Privately, I was thinking that he’d like to know it was still out there in the driveway, that his motorcycle was ready to go
That’s my last memory of Willie, and it’s just like all the others, the kind, sweet-tempered, generous person that we all loved. What will we do without him?
Nicholas Howe is a writer from Jackson. E-mail him at [email protected].