How Boomers Played Between the Holidays

Christmas has passed and the year is rapidly progressing to its inevitable end. Throughout the country, girls and boys are home for the holidays, on leave from school until after the first of the New Year. How are kids filling this time between the holidays these days? According to multiple sources, the bulk of their time is spent on screen. Phones, tablets, computers and video gaming on TVs have captured our youth, in many cases, to the exclusion of most other things, including outdoor play.

Things could not have been more different for boomers. In Mister Boomer’s neighborhood, the days between Christmas and New Year’s were all about outdoor play. Sleds, ice skates and hockey sticks, as well as gloves, hats, boots and scarves, were common Christmas gifts. The week between was a good proving ground for the equipment.

A typical day for Mister B and his siblings could start as early as 7:00 am, roughly the same time the Boomer kids got up for school. After feeding themselves cereal and milk (and possibly a slice of fruitcake or a Christmas cookie or two in Mr. Boomer’s case), the Boomer kids were out the door and calling on neighborhood kids, who were already assembling to decide what was first on the day’s to do list.

Very often, sledding started the day. More often than not, there was plenty of snow on the ground. It was one activity that kids of every age, girls and boys, could do at the same time, in the same general vicinity of each other. A walk to a nearby school that had a suitable incline situated alongside, which provided a ready-to-sled opportunity, though it was tame in its angle. The city had built a sledding hill in a neighborhood park, but the experience was more structured; the park teen-hires maintained order as best they could, keeping kids in line for their turn down the slope. Brother Boomer showed Mister B the correct timing to bypass the park workers, and the line, and sneak off to sled the back side of the hill. It was forbidden because of its sharp angle and abundance of trees. That was exactly why kids wanted to sled it; the speeds were fast and steering was essential to prevent an accident. There were a few casualties along the way, with sleds ramming into trees, acquiring cracked wood and bent runners, while the occupants endured everything from a few bumps to bloody lips. If the workers caught the kids going down the backside, they would not be allowed back up the hill for another run, even on the “legal” side.

After a few hours, kids were cold and ready for some quick nourishment. Mister Boomer does not recall a time when he and his siblings ever stopped for an actual lunch. Rather, it was more like a pit stop. Mister B and his siblings would return home with their sleds through the back door of the house, where they could bring the sleds to the basement. Back up the stairs to the landing, they could remove coats and boots, as well as wet socks and wet gloves. It was the age before polyester outerwear, so boomer kids dressed in layers of mostly cotton and wool.

A quick jaunt into the kitchen was intended to warm them up a little. While they were there, they could grab a few Christmas cookies and maybe a slice of lunch meat; Mister Boomer’s parents always had ham, bologna and olive loaf, and sometimes salami, available. Snack in hand, Mister B and his siblings would get fresh socks and gloves, and repeat the process of dressing for the afternoon’s outdoor happenings. Two possible activities would be next: either ice skating for all, or a split between the girls and boys, so the girls could make a snowman while the boys built snow forts and had snowball fights.

There were no indoor ice rinks in Mister B’s area. All available skating ice was formed naturally in depressions in the landscape of a nearby park. There were multiple spots of varying sizes available to kids, so smaller “rinks” the size of a kiddie pool were often taken by kids learning how to skate. Mister B and his siblings had started that way, on skates with double blades, then “graduating” to full adult, single-blade ice skates through a Christmas gift package a couple of years later.

Sometimes, Mister B and his brother would bring their hockey sticks and play with neighborhood kids on the largest patch of ice. Goals were formed out of lines of mounded snow, but skating around and taking the puck from each other seemed to be the biggest attraction. Kids would stay until the setting sun took enough light away to see what was going on.

In every instance, boomer kids were outside for hours at a time, completely unsupervised by adults (except the city-controlled sledding hill). Kids might return home with a few bumps and bruises, broken glasses or a little blood here and there, but nothing that a mother’s kiss and a little mercurochrome couldn’t fix.

How about you, boomers? How did you play in the week between Christmas and New Year’s?

Winter Ice: Boomer Plaything and Adult Annoyance

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?