When I was a kid, we grew up in a rural farming community outside the college town where my father taught piano and music theory. In the winter, we skated on a fire pond on an Amish farm. We hiked through the frozen rutted cow pasture while the dairy herd solemnly watching our progress. We crawled through the three strands of barbed wire protecting the cows from the pond, and the pond from the cows, and laced up our skates – whatever pair in the Box Of Skates approximately fit that year. Too big, we filled them up with lots of socks; too small, we wore one pair and knew that our toes would be numb and dead on the walk home, then roar back to burning stinging life as we warmed them up on the hot air register in the kitchen. How it was. We didn’t mind, and never pined for “new” skates.
After a cold snap, my sister and I would go over to check the ice. 9- and 7-year old experts. We’d throw out a rock. If it bounced, we’d step out on the ice. Carefully walk out from the edge toward the center of the pond. We’d stamp a foot. The surface of the ice didn’t budge, and no crack appeared. We’d walk out farther. Then jump with both feet. Pops and cracking sounds didn’t mean the ice was too thin – we judged it was “just settling”. Safe for skating. I don’t remember any adult ever checking it for us. Certainly no adult ever warned us off when we skated on it at the end of the winter, the ice thick, but flexible, and wavy like a sheet of frosted plastic. We used the “jump test”, and even though it waved and radiated out from our feet, it didn’t crack or break. We deemed it safe. 9- and 7-year old experts.
On that pond we were Peggy Fleming and Eric Heid. We were Bobby Orr and Dorothy Hamill. Bundled up in two pairs of pants, and 3 shirts, jackets, hats, and wet mittens, we would practice spins and turns, skating in pairs, and always getting so tangled up we’d fall down. Hard. Skating season meant spectacular bruises on knees, hips, and elbows.
Joined by friends from the neighborhood, all of them trudging through the pasture to get to the fun, by ones and twos, we put together a “hockey” game. Splintery barn boards, a discarded baseball bat, an old field hockey stick and a good sized rock were our equipment. We divided up, the hyperactive out of control boy on one team with the big tough farm boy on the other team, the girls evenly divided, and my little brother added in as an incidental extra. The designated referee – usually me because following the rules was my life’s creed, and the boys certainly couldn’t be expected to uphold the rules like they needed to be upheld in order for a game to proceed – tossed the rock/puck up in the air, and the game started with barn boards slashing and whacking each other’s shins.
One winter found me with a huge scabby upper lip that ballooned up absorbing the momentum of a slapshot with a barn board. After I regained consciousness, the game was temporarily suspended while we trudged home for medical help. I never mentioned the loss of consciousness. That would have just worried my mom and was just so cool. Who wanted that cool factor to be diminished by too many adult ministrations? I still have the little white knotted scar. I’m lucky I didn’t lose some teeth. That same winter found my sister with a fractured occipital orbit, confirmed by an X-ray, and a fabulous purple and red speckled eye that swelled up like a baseball. Another casualty of a wildly swinging barn board. We all secretly wished it had been us.
What has happened to headlong living? Too cautious by far, too hemmed in by self-control, we tiptoe along, sure of our footing before we step. Sure, we avoid the black eye and the loosened teeth, but we also cheat ourselves out of the indelible memories recalled with warmth and laughter. I think the lessons of caution we learned as we grew were too well-learned. It’s time to snip the barbed wire, lace on the skates whether they fit or not, and step out onto that ice never really knowing how thick – or thin – it might be. It will snap and crack alarmingly, but it’s just settling, and I’m skating out into the middle.