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Then, amid the miscellany, a shout rises. "We have a new jumper here!" Everybody stops for a moment and looks down the short slope to the parking lot. The new jumper is Joe Malbasio.
Everybody gives a small cheer. "All right!" somebody yells, and there's a muffled clapping of mittened hands. Parents and children watch him as he makes his way to the clubhouse to get gear. It turns out Malbasio's grandpa was a ski jumper. So was his grandma. Will he be the one who carries the torch of the Ishpeming Ski Club into a bright new future? Hard to say, because after all, he's never jumped in his life - he's only 7 years old.
Kevin, the club coordinator, rummages through the gear collection to get Malbasio outfitted. A complete set of gear - helmet, jumpsuit, boots and skis - costs about $2,500, so the club buys it and provides it free to jumpers. For tonight, Malbasio just gets skis and a helmet, and the coordinator leads him toward the smallest jump. Suicide Bowl's two big jumps are built as one might picture them, with scaffolding. But the smaller jumps just run down the hill to a takeoff ramp, not unlike what kids build on ski hills.
Malbasio's not ready for even the smallest jump yet, though, so Kevin points him down the hill beside the jump and gives him a little push. After maybe 20 feet he tips over. It's a humble beginning, but an early beginning, and that's the important thing. The locally accepted fact is you have to begin jumping before you're afraid of anything; about age 5 or 6 is best. Otherwise you might never be okay with going from 0 to 55 mph in four seconds, then rocketing off the end of a ramp and soaring 300 to 400 feet through the air on skis.
Adding poignancy to Malbasio's first attempts and all the other activity this evening is the towering ski jump ramp that rises at the top of the ridge. Called the 90-meter, it's the sky-high icon that gave Suicide Bowl its name and gave the local world champions and Olympians their own beginnings.
A light snow falls as darkness settles, and somebody turns on the white Christmas lights hung on the clubhouse eaves. The older jumpers, who range from 10 to 16, are ready for their practice. Long, wide skis propped over their shoulders, a half dozen kids walk in ones and twos across the parking lot and over to the jump. They wear helmets and foam jumpsuits in pastel hues of orange, pink and blue.
The suits are like one-piece wetsuits, but lighter, baggier and spongier. No chairlift or rope tow awaits to haul the kids to the top of the hill, so when they reach the slope, they head to a stairway - short cuts of railroad ties set into the hill - and march up. The four dads are now raking the landing area, the scrape and twang of aluminum tines dominates the sound-scape. The only illumination comes from a series of single-bulb lamps that runs down the ramp, one light about every 50 feet.
Dale Fredette, the loquacious 60-something coach and lifelong local, mans his position at the launch ramp. He's dressed in classic Yooper fashion: calf-high leather boots, red and black checkered hunting pants, nylon jacket and knit hat. He smokes one cigarette after another. From his vantage point, the kids that sit in a row on a board at the top of the jump are featureless dark shapes.
Soon, a boy slides over to the starting spot, sits for a moment and then yells: "Clear?" The four men, now stationed at even intervals down the jump, take turns responding: "Clear!" The boy shifts off the board and immediately hunkers into that ski-jump monkey squat you see on TV. He stays loose and low as his speed builds to the launch. At the precise moment his ski tips cross into nothingness, Fredette yells, "Forward!"