“Style is the mind skating circles around itself as it moves forward” Robert Frost
I have an antique engraving of late 19th century Spanish skaters fastening their blades as they prepare to glide across a great sheet of frozen opaque lake. The etching is small and the figures are muted and impressionistic – the way one might dream about a past life – as if you are looking through a great frosted telescope through to some simpler time.
I recall as a child watching ice-skating in the Olympics – rooting for the hopelessly outclassed Americans as East Germans, Russians and Scandinavian pixies gracefully floated, skimmed and sailed across the blurred rink accumulating near perfect scores.
When our US skaters were not getting smoked in some far-off rink in Boogerglob, Yugoslavia, our hockey teams were getting worked over like Poland during the Blitz. My father had told me of the “ miracle “ in 1960 when the unheralded Americans won the Gold beating Canada, the Russians and the Czechs at Squaw Valley California. However, I grew up during the cold war and a period of total Soviet domination. The US was no match for these bladed automatons jacked up on steroids and vodka. The eastern bloc teams had lots of time on their hands to practice. After all, home was a sterile one bedroom apartment shared with five people, two government run TV channels and bread lines.
In California, winter happened to other people in other places and ice rinks were as uncommon as wool sweaters and US gold medalist winter Olympians. My first glimpse of an indoor ice rink was the Great Western Forum in Inglewood where the Los Angeles Kings played hockey. I liked hockey instantly. Hockey was exotic. It was played on an ice rink that rested under the glossed wooden floors of the Lakers basketball court. Hockey players were as fast and big as football players. They were missing teeth, had scars all over their faces and were angry all the time. They were like pirates or life without parole prison inmates.
It looked dangerous and exciting to try to score. Once you got around six potential felons, you had to try to slap the puck past a faceless demon called the goalie. Perhaps, he was so ugly that he was not allowed to show his face. Maybe goalies wore masks so fans would not recognize and assault them in the parking lot for allowing a goal. I was mesmerized. I forced my Dad to drive us great distances through very dangerous neighborhoods in South Central LA to watch the Kings slashing center Marcel Dionne, speedy forward Butch Goring and the courageous goalie – Rogie Vachon.
Alas, like most expansion teams, the Kings were hardly royalty. They stank. And it seemed whenever the Canadiens, Flyers, Bruins or Black Hawks came into town, my team got crushed. To add insult to injury, the victors would usually leave one of their past-their-prime players behind with the Kings in some horrendous trade that would prolong our long painful climb our of expansion adolescence.
What I really liked best – was the fighting. They called the players who fought “ goons” which I thought was hysterical. The only goon I had ever seen was Alice, The Goon on Popeye. With names like Dave “ Tiger” Williams and Dave “ Cement-head” Semenko, these insane asylum candidates wracked up more penalty minutes than maximum-security prisoners. They had nicknames like “ The Grim Reaper”, “The Hammer” and “Bloody O’Reilly”. They high- sticked, slashed, cross checked, punched, gouged and broke more orbital bones than a medical examiner. The goon’s job was simple: retaliate and protect their star player from the other team’s goons.
When a fight would break out, the gloves would fly off and the adults (refs) would not even try to break up the brawl. For a kid who sought to be freed from the yoke of parental oversight and the suffocating civility of rules based games, hockey was sanctioned violence. The referees just stared at the scrum of wild punches and ripped jerseys while everyone in the stands went absolutely berserk. Eventually the refs jumped in once the players had punched themselves silly.
I decided I wanted to learn to play hockey and skate. My father had grown up in a time of hockey leagues and early morning ice rinks and did not want to spend his weekends indoors in what smelled like a three week-old duffel bag. He was a Californian now. There was football, tennis, baseball, paddle and soccer – all to be played outdoors.
I dreamed of snow and ice-skating but did not understand that for ice to form, a person must endure consecutive days of bitter cold. On New England lakes and ponds, there was no Zamboni machine to smooth the natural irregularities of a frozen body of water. The ice accumulated and moved indiscriminately like a crack across a windshield. But I had to try. Ice-skating and hockey looked so easy and I wanted to meet my Peggy Fleming on a frozen pond where we might waltz or tango and then spin around waiting until one of you fell to the ground and looked at the other and said, ” kiss me, you fool.” I lacked the imagination to speculate what would happen much beyond this point. I was ten.
My father bobbed and weaved with me like an outmatched prizefighter. Growing up in suburban Chicago and then discovering Eden at the University of California at Berkeley, my father vowed he would never return to the raw, sideways sleet and arctic winds that knifed across Lake Michigan. He had learned to skate, sled and survive in the snow but traded his Currier & Ives childhood for an aquamarine Christmas morning of 60 degrees and the rhythmic sway of palm trees.
I kept chipping away at his paternal guilt and finally convinced him that my inability to skate would one day keep me from getting into a good college. He was about to say “ no” for the thirtieth time, when he got a wry smile across his face and said, “ Sure”. I will never forget his mischievous smile. He confessed that his aversion to snow had perhaps unfairly denied his sons the ability to attempt a triple axle. In what we thought was a rare fit of nostalgia, he drove us to a suburban ice rink on Christmas Eve to “learn” to ice skate
The excitement was palpable as I laced my razor–edged rockets and ran my finger along the dull but intimidating blade that ran from the toe to heel. I was mentally already on the ice – a goon in search of mayhem and perhaps a six –year-old that I could check into the boards. I got up to try to walk in the skates and my ankles buckled. I fell to one knee and hit the ground hard. My eyes watered but I did not cry.
We walked on to the ice and I fell backwards, hitting my large head like a pumpkin dropping on the kitchen floor. I had no helmet and saw stars as my head cracked on the hard ice. A strange ensemble of people gingerly moved with arms under weak fluorescent lights flailing and awkwardly lunging like drunken sailors. Suddenly, a pink flash shot past me. A magnificent teenaged girl came to a knife edged stop and spun in place. She was like a music box ballerina suspended by celestial gossamer strings. I was in love. I tried to get up and my leg shot out from under me as if it had been fired from a rocket.
My father lifted and guided me to the railing where I moved myself along a great rectangular rink for one hour. Each time the rose colored girl skated by, I let go and fell injuring some hidden body part with a flash of white-hot pain. It was on my eleventh consecutive fall that I conceded that I did not have the patience or pain threshold to learn to skate or keep up with the pink projectile. It was my secret shame – being so hooked on hockey and knowing that I could not even stand on skates.
The following morning, I awoke to sensations not dissimilar to the black plague. Severe aching limbs consistent with internal bleeding, bruising and feverish. My father looked on with amusement as I struggled downstairs and declared that I must have the flu. My skating career officially died anno domini one thousand nine hundred seventy two.
Years later, I look on at skating with a twinge of envy and great respect. I never returned to the ice. I often slow my car to watch as a small group gathers by the edge of black frozen ponds. Skaters ease on to the ice and breeze across dark, crosshatched arteries of rock hard water. I now understand why the best skaters have quadriceps larger than many Christmas turkeys. It is magic to stand in a cold biting wind, teetering on the razor thin edges of a single blade, pushing out with one leg while bracing the other leg to move ahead. Slash-glide-slash-glide. You move like winter wind across the ebony water trapped below.
It is part of the cinnamon scented of the holidays – these simple pleasures. It is a new pair of skates under a tree. It is a pond iced over to its proper depth. It is frozen twilight and a single, solitary person floating like a downy feather across a frosted sheet of glass. It’s Christmas Eve and the skaters cannot wait for the next day. I watch from a raised embankment along a serpentine road. I am thinking once again of that elegant ancient etching of “Los Patinadores En Invierno”– wispy shadows cast from another time. The skaters disappear, an evergreen pine suddenly obscuring my view.
The pond, it seems, goes on forever.