My daughters gave me a Christmas gift certificate for ice skating lessons at a nearby rink. I had been complaining that Long Island winters have not been cold enough for ice skating. The canals, ponds, and Great South Bay rarely freeze over. Yes, there is an indoor ice rink providing year-round access, but, it is not the same.
When I was a kid (I can’t believe I just wrote that) winter was frigid enough to freeze the ponds and canals for months. My friends and I would toss our school books on any horizontal surface, quickly change into “play” clothes, grab our skates, and get outside. There wasn’t much time since the days were short and we all had to be home by dark. My neighborhood was a budding development within a rezoned estate along the Great South Bay. Brackish streams from the tidal overflow bled through unfenced backyards between bare trees. We could skate these creeks in relative safety since they were barely knee deep. Although I had a little sister or brother tagging along, the afternoons were fun and free. I imagined that kids in Holland got around much the same way. I wondered if they came home as wet and cold as we did.
When the canals froze over, the bulkheads were littered with boards acting as planks leading to the solid ice. The hockey players always got on the ice first and claimed their space. Bricks or pieces of lumber marked the goals. Despite their territory, there was plenty of room for the rest of us kids. We raced, twirled, and practiced lazy figures eights. I prided myself on being decently fast skating backward. Whip lines spontaneous formed, attracting kids and adults like magnets to race and pull and finally stop and turn shaking off the end skaters who screeched and fought gravity with exhilarating speed. Ice skating on the neighborhood canals and ponds made winter playful.
The ultimate ice skating happened on the Great South Bay. I grew up in a house that overlooked the bay toward Fire Island. When the bay froze, and the wind blew in just the right direction, “glaciers” would creep up the bulkhead. In the still of the night, my sister, Mary, and I could hear it creaking.
Dad put out an aluminum ladder to climb on and off the ice. In the distance, the Blue Point Clam Company dredgers plowed through attempting to harvest burrowed bivalves. But their efforts did not foil the ice on our side of the bay. It was not a smooth rink. There were small bumps and fissures caused by the wind and waves as the water became more solid.
We all bundled in hats mittens and snorkel jackets. Mom, my sisters, and I had white figure skates. I think my grandmother made pompoms from leftover yarn to differentiate the skates. Dad and my little brother, Billy, wore black skates that were pompom-less. Our neighbors, the Driscolls, Clarks, and Dohertys came to our backyard and tromped down the ladder with their bulky winter gear. The whip lines were epic. We also raced back and forth in relays; my Dad shouting out “Faster! Faster!”. Most attempts to imitate the skating Olympians by forcefully swinging our arms side to side or crossing one skate in front of the other confounded fragile agility causing collisions and fits of laughter. We made slow figure eights that looked like rounded triangles. We glided on one leg, stretching forward on the bumpy ice. Mom coached us to lift our arms and hold out our hands and fingers gracefully like Peggy Fleming. Peggy Fleming never wobbled or fell as clumsily as we.
These days, winters have not been quite so cold. I suppose it’s better that the bay doesn’t freeze for months at a time, saving worry and repair on the bulkheads. When my daughters were small, we built an eight by 20-foot rink with spare lumber and a plastic tarp. For a week or two, they had fun sliding and skating in the backyard. Occasionally, a local pond would freeze solid enough. My girls were amazed I could skate forward and backward without falling. About ten years ago, I bought a new pair of wide figure skates but had used them once or twice.
The ice skating lessons will prepare me for whenever a big freeze does happen. I’m thrilled that my skates still fit and I can stand in them. I will be ready. I can’t wait to open my child heart to those warm memories of playing on top of the bay.