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On the Rocks: Fumes

You smell that? It’s a ski shop.

My formative years were spent working in a Midwestern gear shop that serviced bikes in the summer and skis in the winter. Each season had its associative smells. Bike grease and Triflow in the summer. Ski wax and pine tar all winter.

If you’ve ever walked into the back of a ski shop, you’ve smelled their waxing machine. While I liked to refer to myself as “the waxing machine” while holding a clothing iron with the heat cranked on turbo, billowing smoke and blackened with molten wax, this was not accurate. Wax machines are a cross between medieval siege instruments and how I imagine a computer mouse would look if digital had never been created. They have two main parts: a metal pan full of wax that sits atop a heater, and a roller that dips into the melted wax and spins while you drag rental ski after rental ski over it. When you arrive at the ski shop in the morning and turn on the wax machine full of cold, hardened wax, you have to crank the heat on high to melt quickly, and then you have to turn it down or the machine begins to belch smoke into the already beef-jerky-and-yesterday-beer-smelling atmosphere. I was always the one who forgot to dial the heat back, and the smell of burning ski wax became for me what burning coffee is to so many others in the morning.

Pine tar is exactly what it sounds like. At least I think it is. I was never clear where it came from. Our ice cream bucket full of pine tar (tar that smells like pine sap) ran dry one year, and my boss instructed my coworker to, “Ask Rusty for more,” of it. I never saw it for sale in the back of any shop supply catalogs.

Pine tar is painted as lightly as one can paint tar to the bottom of a wooden ski using an old paintbrush hardened with a decade of tar. The tar is then heated with a blowtorch until it thins, bubbles, and partially soaks into the base of the wooden ski, and the excess is wiped off with a cloth. The process takes about 10 or 15 minutes per ski, but if you enjoy using a blowtorch it’s possible to drag it out. I’ve set a few skis on fire.

Our shop had an OSHA-approved respirator we could wear while working all day in ski wax fumes. No one did, though I would sometimes pull it on while hovering inches above a ski base with tar fumes floating off it. Then one of my colleagues drilled a hole in it to insert a one-hitter for an afternoon, and I didn’t find out until I began wondering why it was so much easier to breathe through our respirator.

I sometimes wonder what evaporated ski wax and pine tar does to one’s lungs after breathing it all winter for years on end. One day, I hope to join a huge class action lawsuit brought by the ski technician union and get tons of cash. Can you imagine? All of these people who spent their lives in the backs of ski shops coming into fabulous wealth. We’d all spend it in a day. It’s my retirement plan.

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