Monday, February 15, 2010

An ice time



I went ice skating yesterday for the first time in years. There's a new rink next to Wrigley Field that I'd been meaning to try out, and it was a real blast from the past.

I started skating when I was 8 years old. It was in Virginia, and our house backed up to a lake surrounded by a big park. Really it was a just a smelly little creek for most of its run, but there was a small dam a couple of miles downstream of our house, so the creek widened out to a decent-sized, though shallow, lake right about where we were.

And that's where I first learned to skate. On cheap black figure skates from Sears. All of us had them -- black for the boys, white for the girls. I found it pretty easy from the start, and we would spend hours and hours at the lake on winter days. Those were particularly cold years, and we took it for granted that the lake would freeze over reliably every year, which it always seemed to do.

I guess it wasn't exactly legally sanctioned. I remember being chased off by the cops a few times. And I remember distinctly being at home, warming my feet maybe, and my sister flying into the house in tears. She'd run from the cops, all the way through the woods from the lake to our home -- probably a quarter to half a mile -- in her skates. And no, not with the wooden guards on the blades, either.

In any case, it was several years before I ever set foot in an an actual rink, and I was numbed stiff by the endless circling, round and round and round and round. On the lake you could skate 20 minutes in a single direction without ever turning. Just skate and skate and skate until you had to stop and catch your breath.

One winter was so cold that the lake froze thick all the way to the dam, which it didn't usually do. The water was pretty deep and kind of swift there. I skated out and out, gradually getting closer to the dam, which loomed, I don't know, 20 (25? 15?) feet above the catch basin on the other side. Keeping a wary eye on the giant air pockets in the ice beneath my feet and not hearing any telltale creaking or cracking, I got to within about 15 feet of the edge when the authorities shouted out on a bullhorn for me to "get the hell out of there." I was advised afterward by a neighborhood mother what a stupid thing that was. (I'm not sure I ever told my mom.)

One year we got a thaw then a hard freeze again, which caused the ice to buckle and crack and erupt in these fantastic formations. It was like a modern skate-board park. The ice sloped sharply upwards to the shoreline like a bowl. And all over there were hills and dips and ramps of varying heights and depths and risk profiles.

It was fun to be back on the ice. I'd like to say it all came back to me, but I was pretty awkward, actually. All of my skating in the past 15 years has been on rollerblades. Compared to wheels on asphalt, blades on ice feel like flying. In both a good and bad way -- fast and smooth but harder to control.

I don't get too nostalgic about my childhood. It was okay. Mostly I couldn't wait to grow up, and the first place I really, truly felt solidly and enthusiastically at home was in college. But we had some pretty good times at old Lake Accotink.

These days they would call it "unstructured play." For us it was skating and fishing and climbing and canoeing, rock fights, fort building and minor acts of pyromania. All the basic kid stuff.

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