As adults, ice is the scourge of our winters and the bane of our driving. As children however, ice is something that facilitates play. That was every bit as true in our boomer youth as it is today, except in our early years, there were far fewer man-made ice rinks accessible. Instead, we skated on ponds, lakes, frozen fields and homemade backyard rinks.
Ice skating goes back far beyond the first Baby Boomers — about 5,000 years, actually. Scandinavian people were known to tie animal leg bones to their feet with leather straps; they propelled themselves across frozen lakes and fields with wooden poles. The Dutch did away with the poles in the 1500s, making skates first out of wood, then our of iron. The first steel blade, however, is a relatively recent invention, appearing in the U.S. twenty years before the Civil War in 1848. Innovations from then on brought us to the current state of skating technology.
For Mister B, like all upper Midwest boomers, ice skating was a way of winter life. It was not a question of if you would ice skate, but rather, how soon you would start. Parents got kids on skates as soon as they felt they were ready. Mister B remembers the double blade skates he and his younger sister wore when they got their first taste of skating. On occasion his parents would take the family to a frozen pond nearby. His mom would bring a Thermos bottle of hot chocolate for warming breaks. Certainly in the late 1950s and early 1960s, skating was almost exclusively an outdoor endeavor.
When sidewalks iced over, kids in Mister B’s neighborhood would take turns sliding as far as they could, “surfing” along the bottoms of their rubber galoshes. Breaking off large icicles from house eaves was also a favorite ice pastime. Sometimes snowballs were employed as the method of ice destruction, with the goal being to snap the icicle as near the eave as possible so it dropped down knife-like. Extra points were awarded if it stuck into the snow. Other times, the boys would break off icicles and brandish them like swords. A couple of decades before light sabers became a part of every kid’s vocabulary, icicle swords were born of pirate or medieval fantasies. After a quick en garde, one simultaneous smack would satisfyingly shatter both “swords” into dozens of ice shards.
Mister Boomer liked to smash thin ice, too. There was plenty of land around where the topography assisted ice formation. Mister B recalls walking to kindergarten one day with Brother Boomer and a couple of neighborhood kids. A block away from Mister B’s home was a stand of trees the kids would walk through, summer and winter. A snowy path was worn through the trees, but Mister Boomer discovered irresistible pockets of thin ice along its sides. Falling behind the school bunch, he took the heel of his galoshes and smashed some ice. He found one inviting patch that was large enough to warrant a full-boot stomp. In one quick move, Mister B found his foot cracking through the ice, but irrevocably stuck. The more he struggled, the more his foot was entrenched, with toes jammed under the remaining ice. He called out to his brother, but he and the other boys had traveled ahead and either didn’t hear him, or ignored his cries as a tactic that would delay their walk to school. A few more tugs were to no avail. Finally, grabbing his ankle with both hands, Mister B tried to slowly extract his foot, heel first, from the hole. That did the trick, and he scurried to catch up to the group.
Ice skating in the neighborhood was either on patches of ice that had formed in the land depressions, or backyard rinks. There was one particular area of a nearby park that kids would count on to freeze each year. Oddly shaped and ringed with a couple of trees, it was nonetheless long and wide enough to allow some skating. It was this patch where Mister B first learned how to play a neighborhood version of hockey on an oddly-shaped “rink.”
One year Brother Boomer decided to make a backyard rink, and asked for Mister B’s help. First Brother Boomer directed Mister B to shovel a couple of inches of snow off the largest area of their backyard, leaving an inch or so of the snow covering the grass, and piling the shoveled snow up along the edges to form a ridge around the rink. When they were through, an area about 15 feet by 25 feet was demarcated. Brother Boomer ran to the basement of the house to retrieve the garden hose, which had been stored there before the first snowfall. The water valve for the backyard faucet was turned off for the winter, so he got that on again before returning outside and screwing the hose onto the water faucet. Mister B was cold enough by then that he retired to the house to watch his brother’s next moves. First, he sprayed water over the entire marked area. It was cold enough that the water froze very quickly. Once a layer of ice was seen forming across the ground, he rested the hose over the snow rim edge and came inside. Joining Mister B at the window, he waited until the water had filled the rink, then dressed and put his boots on to go back and turn the water off. He grabbed the hose and returned it to the basement, and shut the water valve before returning to tell Mister B that the next step was to wait. The next morning, the boys had an ice rink.
Ice that forms naturally is much different than artificially-produced ice. Most notable is the roughness. Wind, uneven freezing and debris under the ice made for a lot of patches that would either allow for more traction, or impede a smooth ride, depending on its natural factors.
By the time Mister B got his first car, neighboring cities had built community ice rinks — first the outdoor variety, then indoor. But ice had crossed the line from a plaything to an annoyance as the shu-shu-shu of a scraper across a windshield replaced the pleasure of sliding, gliding and smashing.
What memories of playing on and with ice do you have, boomers?