John Gannon is a slight man, thin and a little bowlegged. The front and sides of his thick dark hair are streaked with grey, but the Korean's relatively creaseless face and quick smile make him appear much younger than his claimed 64 years.
"Claimed," because Gannon—whose journey from war-torn Korea to the United States is a classic rags-to-riches tale—isn't sure of his exact age.
In 1950, at the outset of the Korean War, a policewoman near Seoul discovered a crying baby boy still wrapped to his dead mother's back. She, along with Gannon's father and all seven of his brothers and sisters, were among the dead lying in the street. The policewoman delivered Gannon to an orphanage where he spent eight painful years.
When Gannon was still a small boy in a Korean orphanage he had to learn how to take care of himself. He rarely had shoes; in winter he remembers tearing up old shirts to wrap around his feet as protection from the snow. He and his buddies—many of whom were missing limbs from the war—would play to keep warm during the day, and at night they slept head-to-foot to preserve body heat. The boys were never served any meat (there wasn't any) and often gathered grasshoppers, snakes and frogs to avoid starvation. During the wet months when the fields flooded, Gannon and the boys would dive underwater for the farmers' cantaloupes and watermelons. That was a treat.
When he was nine, Gannon was adopted by Army Capt. John Gannon (he took his new father's name and became John Gannon Jr.), a kind man with a nightmarish wife. She often beat young John without provocation. If he got carsick, she'd punch him repeatedly and then make him clean up the mess. She once held a butcher knife to his throat because he was too sick to sing for her dinner guests. Gannon's father, as kind as he was, never once told his wife to stand down.
With his cruel, adoptive mother and his inability to speak English, America proved to be a combination of struggles and novelties. Gannon, who was accustomed to brushing his teeth with ashes, thought Western toothpaste was "candy in a tube." Light switches and automobiles were equally entertaining to the young Korean-turned-U.S. citizen. When Capt. Gannon was relocated to Fort Richardson near Anchorage, Alaska, the woods became young John's playground and skiing served as a refuge from his abusive mother.
It was as a teenager that Gannon was finally able to take control of his life. At 16, and with two jobs, Gannon fled his house. He remembers returning home a few days later to creep through an open window and retrieve his few belongings. Despite the lack of support from his family, Gannon then graduated from West Anchorage High School and went on to study at Central Washington University, where he earned a Bachelor of Arts in geography and social sciences.
From there, he became a successful software engineer and, eventually, a dedicated skier.
Now, some six decades after being rescued from the bombed-out streets halfway around the globe, he is retired in Bend and, with 90 days under his belt, is impressively ranked No. 2 on Mt. Bachelor's list for total number of runs taken (2,193). He's also earned the No. 3 spot for total vertical feet skied this season. When you add up all his runs, Gannon has skied 3,367,481 vertical feet—that's akin to skiing one continuous downhill run from Bend to Salt Lake City!
To celebrate this feat—incredible no matter his age—Gannon is throwing a party Saturday at Riverside Market. And, he wants you to come. In fact, he wants everyone to come, not for self-glorification, but for the very opposite reason: He hopes the party will serve as a meeting place for Bend residents from all walks of life.
"There's such a disparity between the haves and have-nots in Bend," Gannon says. "Hopefully the people mingle and one or two of them get a job [from meeting a potential employer]. I'm hoping they'll hang in there and see the hardship I went through. And see if I made it then they can, too."
His heart-breaking past aside, what makes Gannon's skiing achievement even more remarkable is that up until he began skiing regularly two winters ago, a quarter-century had passed since he last stepped into a pair of ski boots. But last season, Gannon started skiing again on a pair of 215-centimeter relics. Ever the penny-pincher, he soon "upgraded" to the Volkl Karma (177 cm), off Craigslist.
"I can't see spending $500 to $700 for skis," Gannon notes. "So I pay $150 to $200 for used skis and they work just fine."
He loves skiing and says it's "invigorating." Always outfitted in his trademark red ski pants and yellow Columbia jacket, he likes going fast while maintaining his form, which is old-school, knees-together-type skiing. Gannon's buddies on the hill ironically call him Mr. Wiggle, because of his tight stance. Others call him Mr. Vert., a reference to his impressive ranking during his 90 days at the resort.
"He's got a lot of energy," says John Flynn, Gannon's ski buddy who's ranked No. 1 on Mt. Bachelor's list of total days skied this season (Flynn was working on day 147 when we chatted). "He makes a lot of turns and he goes straight down the mountain. He goes after it."
Gannon's friends at Riverside Market, one of his favorite hangouts, have another nickname for him: Fisherman John. When it's too warm for skiing, Gannon goes fishing—in the mountains, the desert and on the coast. He enjoys the contemplative pastime and he freezes, smokes or cans most everything he catches. It makes the fish easier to give away, he says.
His upcoming party at Riverside will be held in that same spirit, Gannon said.
"Life in Bend has been very good for me."
Come by, hoist a pint and share in that sentiment this weekend.
Fisherman John Ski Party
4 pm, Saturday, April 27
The Riverside Market & Pub, 285 NW Riverside Ave.
Free, all are welcome.