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A Yankee Notebook


For week of February 28, 2006


I've been laid up the last couple of weeks, so have gotten a lot of sedentary stuff done -- reading stuff that's piled up, shrinking the mass in the e-mail in box, and watching the Olympics.

I was watching the four-man bobsled finals the other day. I spent a few winters on the Mt. Van Hoevenberg bobsled run near Lake Placid over 40 years ago, and am kind of an aficionado of the sport. I can sense who's doing well and who isn't, and spot the little skids that eat up time. It doesn't take talent. How many sleds did I watch come down that mountain? Thousands, probably.

As I watched, NBC took a break from the race, switched to a previously produced feature. Suddenly I was looking at a familiar figure from long ago -- smiling, flushed, and crowned with an unkempt mop of red hair; a short, powerful body that pushed forward, aggressively, like a hockey player's; the slight gimp of an athlete with a game leg. I hollered down the hall to my wife, "Hey! Turn on Channel 31. It's Eugenio!"

Eugenio Monti. Rosso Volante, the Italians called him -- the Flying Redhead. He blazed briefly through the first year of our married life like a skyrocket, brightened an otherwise humdrum seven-day-work-week winter, and -- unlike many other famous characters -- left only fond memories behind.

He was born in Dobbiaco, Italy, just a few miles north of Cortina d'Ampezzo, the site of the 1956 Winter Olympics. A rising downhill and slalom star, he was 28 in 1956 and probably would have skied for Italy; but he tore the ligaments of a knee in a training session, ending that career. He apparently went on to drive Formula III cars in Italian road races. (An Italian journalist told us bumpkins at Mt. Van Hoevenberg that Monti had even driven for Osca. We nodded our heads sagely, though not one of us knew an Osca from a snowshoe rabbit.) Then he'd gone on to race bobsleds, and by February of 1960, when we met him, was world champion in 2- and 4-man sleds.

As the announcer at the foot of the run, I was connected by headphones to the observers all the way down the course, and by the tone of their voices as they reported could tell how each sled was doing. There were far more accidents those days than now, but I was expected to tone down that aspect of the sport, instead advertising it, sideshow barker-like, as "the fastest run in the world and the only bobsled run in the Western hemisphere." The latter distinction had been preserved by Squaw Valley's refusal to build a bob run for the 1960 Olympics. So Mt. Van Hoevenberg hosted the "North American Championships," and invited the two top Italian drivers to compete.

Eugenio was a naturally sunny and attractive guy; I liked him the moment I set eyes on him. Unlike many stars, he spoke to us peons as equals. He discovered I was in charge of keeping the electric eye timers running right, and knew that without them, he couldn't register a track record, which was his goal everywhere he went. So he offered to help me sight them in, which saved me a lot of running back and forth across the icy track.

He was a natural driver, consistently faster by far than the local champions, who, like Bode Miller, trained most evenings at the Dewdrop Inn. That winter, with lots of foreign competitors on the mountain, I was trying to learn to "bring them down" in their native languages. He happened to stop by my sound booth one Saturday morning when my wife was there. She was six months pregnant with our first child, and a spectacular woman. So Eugenio brightened up even more as he taught me the idioms for curves, straightaways, and finish. As he was leaving, she -- ever impulsive and a feeder, to boot -- asked, "Would you like me to bring you something for lunch tomorrow?"

"Oh, si!" he said. "Lasagna! I looka forward!" and headed for the sled shed. She had never eaten lasagna, and had, in fact, no idea what it was. Luckily, our village grocer knew, and sold us two cans -- Chef Boyardee. Next morning we headed for work with the two cans and an old aluminum sauce pan. She'd cook the stuff on the potbelly stove in my sound booth.

Just before race time, Eugenio passed the booth. My wife rapped on the glass, and he stuck his upper body through the door. She handed him the pot. Gulping happily, he cried, "Is good! Buta no lasagna. Lika lasagna." He ate it all -- including our lunches -- ran off, and won the race.

This story ends with a confession. The Italian bobsled federation apparently couldn't ship, the state-of-the-art Italian bobsleds to the States, so Eugenio had bought the Spanish sleds left unmanned by the death of their owner, the Spanish playboy Marquis Alfonso de Portago. The marquis had lost control of his Ferrari in Guidizzolo, Italy, during the 1957 Mille Miglia road race and plowed into the crowd, killing about ten spectators. You may remember him as the erstwhile boyfriend of actress Linda Christian, whom he kissed good bye at the start of his fatal run.

Well, as I walked past Eugenio's sled one day, just before it was to be shipped out, I glanced at the driver's seat, and there lay a leather cushion with "PORTAGO" written on it in ball-point pen. It was an accessory I really needed for the driver's seat of my old Jaguar roadster.

Eugenio left that day, and went on to many championships. We never saw him again. A few years ago he began to suffer from Parkinson's disease, and in November 2003 took his own life. So I can never settle up with him for that cushion. We'll have to do it in another world.

Cliffs of Moher