February won’t let go. The air feels like witch hazel...
My ice skates were hand-me-downs. The white patent leather was cracked and hard, the laces were mismatched and forever coming undone. The blades were dull. The oldest daughter of the barrel-chested policeman, one of my surrogate fathers, Mac, gave them to me. I remember her balancing on piled up things in their garage to pull them down for me. We sat in her cold driveway on Evergreen Avenue and decided that the skates would suffice. She was babysitting me that day and wanted to go skating on the pond behind the grave yard. The boys were out there playing hockey and she wanted to be near the boys and her friends. It took two or three pairs of socks to make those skates fit. Her skates were new and they had blue pom-poms, so feminine, so pure white that they made the snow look gray.
My grandmother bought white shoe polish for the old skates. It smelled of magic markers and glue and had a three-color drawing of a nurse on the label. Her white shoes gave off little sparks—Sanitary! Antiseptic! All with a slightly sexy bedside manner! I applied the white polish to my skates, hopeful that it would miraculously wipe away their weary appearance. Instead, they looked like a child with makeup her face, paint outside of the lines, whorishly trodden.
When I no longer needed a babysitter or more than one pair of socks to make the skates fit, Anita and I would hike through the snow-filled woods that stretched from her house on Spruce Wood Lane to the mill pond on Sturges Highway. We’d cut through a pasture with some cold horses that stood pawing at the snow, looking for one blade of grass. Anita and I would pause to eye the old horses and then with our skates, laces tied together, and hung over our thirteen-year-old shoulders, we'd keep going.
The mill pond was crowded with skaters on Saturdays, its edges strewn with coats and shoes. Big boys in black hockey skates, bumping and running and kicking up shaved ice as they turned and skidded on their blades. The clack of hockey sticks and the puck, black like the bare trees skittering and answering the belt of the sticks with a satisfying POCK! The girls—the pretty older girls with long straight blonde hair up up up in high pony tails, wearing their fair isle sweaters, skating precisely and close to the edge of the hockey game...these girls smelled of shampoo and baby oil and the boys kept one eye on them and one eye on the southern edge of the pond that dropped off into a frozen water fall...the grist mill wheel gone years ago. Every year, a boy would go over those falls and come to school the following week in crutches or with a mess of cuts on his face. The cold that rose up from the ice was like no other cold—our blades rang against the hard uneven pond, the sound of metal slicing the ice, and it rattled up into the soles of your feet.
Anita and I would hold on to each other, she was taller than me and a better skater, maybe because she skied, maybe because she was Swedish. Whatever the reason, she excelled and I only endeavored to stay upright. The pretty girls with their Christmas scarves would skate by and I would see the flash of high color on a cheek or a lower lip, blood at the surface of cold skin. I felt like a different species from them, never equal, never as though I would grow into one of them, and somehow be allowed to skate on the edges of the hockey game.
Anita and I would skate away from the road and the hockey game and follow the frozen pond to a creek that led in to the woods, where in the summer we rode our horses. The valley of winter so cold that it froze the babbling creek like a photograph and we would skip and walk on our blades, digging them into the ice like crampons. We'd go way way back into these woods where the fiddle head ferns slept under the snow and the maple trees remembered the Pequot. We'd go as far as we could, way past the point of feeling in our feet, to a place where we couldn’t hear the boys playing hockey anymore. Something would turn us back again though, the cawing of a crow, the sight of someone’s house through the woods, the lowering of the winter sun.
There was hill on Bayberry Lane—if you walked through the gap in the stone wall behind my house and across a yellow grass field and past an old and very deep well, that seemed more like a mine shaft, surrounded by old hardwood trees, you would come to the base of that hill. There was a grand home at the top of the hill, grand by the standards of old Westport, owned by the Pabst Blue Ribbon family. There was a trail up that hill on its western-most side, the place where it faded into the woods; old rocky woods that I rode every inch of with my ponies.
Before Mrs. Hitz banned me from her son Edward, I would go to Edward’s house on snow days and bang on his front door. Mrs. Hitz would come to the door and stare out at the snow and then at me, "Can Edward come sledding with me?" Anita walked up from her house down the road to join us and we would fill buckets with water, carry them through the gap in the stone wall, across the wide snowy field with the yellow wheat grass poking up here and there and then, like a small army, we would steel ourselves up to the top of the hill, where we would carefully dump the buckets of water down a path that we had carved with sticks. The water took the soft top off the snow and froze perfectly and dangerously smooth. And as it hardened, we'd make our way back down the hill, making rules as we went...“Only walk on this side of the track!” “No sleds today! Only gliders!” When we reached the bottom of the great hill, we built snow jumps, one to hit at the very base of the hill and then another a few yards from that. Maximum speed, maximum height, maximum danger. We piled snow high after the second jump, a soft landing spot, foooof!
Edward had the gliders...I had two Flexible Flyers, which had been ruled off the course that day; Anita had a short toboggan, painted the colors of a Mohican canoe in an illustration by N.C. Wyeth. The toboggan was always good for a test run and the three of us fit on it quite snugly. The first run never led to the jumps, the jumps were saved for later, for the gliders. What were the gliders? They were nothing but sheets of some flexible blue plastic polymer with a cheap little handle. Gliders rolled up like sleeping bags and while they didn’t look like much, they went like stink down our icy course.
The toboggan test run went great; the ice was smooth and fast, we had control all the way to the bottom. We probably ran the toboggan down the hill a few more times before we decided to hit it on the gliders. The picked me to run the glider down first and this time the snow jumps at the bottom were required. The toboggan had packed down the course and we had even trekked back to my house for more water to make the course even slicker.
How do I tell you how big that hill was? This isn’t just me a remembering a hill that seemed big to kids...this was a stupendous hill. Everyone knew the hill on Bayberry Lane 'cause this hill extended out to the road and many a car had not made it down that hill. We would sled on the hill, but I was actually afraid to ride my bicycle down the paved part of the hill...a friend’s brother raced his bike down that hill and he came off the top so fast that he went airborne and crashed into the woods near the Pabst’s stone wall. He lost two teeth and broke his shoulder. Yeah, it was a big hill. No one could get up that hill when it snowed...you would hear the cars spinning their wheels and gunning their engines and then they retreated and went back to Long Lots Road to take a longer route around Bayberry Lane.
I can tell you that I used to gallop my pony up that hill, sometimes in the dark on hot summer nights...woo woo woo, bareback, gripping onto his mane. I taught him to charge up that hill using all his hind quarters to make it as dangerous and thrilling a ride as possible. Sometimes I stood him at the bottom of the hill, held him there, and kicked his sides without letting him go, and this loaded him like a gun. Finally I would turn him loose and we would bullet up that hill like the Lone Ranger was on our tails. Yeah, that hill was big and it encouraged all sorts of bad behavior.
So I remember sitting at the top of the hill, Anita and Edward standing midway down the hill, off to the side, like referees. The thing about those gliders was there was really nothing to them, they could get away from you and unlike my Flexible Flyer, which I was expert at steering, you couldn’t steer the glider and you had no protection from the surface below it, you felt every jarring bump on the way down. I stared down the hill, and just the way I would hold my pony to fire him up at the bottom of the hill, I held the glider at the top for a moment to seize some sort of extra energy and I let it fly with a deadly line on those jumps at the bottom. But something went terribly wrong midway down, that damn glider spun and now I was traveling at the speed of light down the hill backwards and there was no bailing out. I could see Anita and Edward standing at their stations, their pink cold cheeks stretched as they hollered to me. But there was nothing I could do and I went up and over the first mogul, the gravity filling up my stomach and DOWN I came, hard, legs akimbo and like being pulled under by a wave at the beach, and then finding the relief of the surface again, you get that one gulp of air before the second wave comes to take you down—I approached the second jumped without any sense of it at all and I went up it, became airborne and flew right over the soft landing spot we had made and came down in a mass of winter briars. I remember hitting my head and the waking up to see Anita and Edward wrestling me by my legs out of the briars. Stars were all around me, I had never gone so fast in all my life, not even when my pony ran away with me on Long Lots Road, clackity clackity clackity...his steel shoes on the pavement.
I lay in the snow and looked up at Anita and Edward, “That was soooooo coooooooool!” “You were waaaaaaay up in the air!!!!!!!” “Do it again!!!!!!!!!”
“Okay, yeah! I’ll do it again!”
And I did, then we all did it, over and over and over—until it was dark and my grandmother appeared in the yellow glow just beyond our house, like a little snow queen, she called from the gap in the stone wall and we heeded her pleas to come inside.