It was already dark at 4:00, when I ran from our back gate over the icy lanes, skate laces tied around my neck, galoshes flaps open in the current stylish way, past Kwenchels grocery—where I had a credit line for penny candy—across the dark school yard to the rink—a white patch of joy, shimmering in the glacial light cast from the light poles. Only because the air was still, were we allowed to skate at -20 degrees F. With even a zephyr of air movement, the wind chill would turn the skating rink into a blast freezer.
Inside the warming shack, I pulled on my white skates, impatient with the laces, anxious to get on the rink with my friends to play "Crack the Whip." We’d form a line of skaters and speed down the ice as fast as possible, the lead skater stopping abruptly and causing the rest of us to swing in an arc around him while the person at the end would let go and be catapulted across the ice at high speed. Being the catapult was exhilarating and required skill to judge how long to fly before braking to avoid slamming into a snowbank at top speed. Wrists had been broken and teeth lost. It was dangerous and it was fun.
|Back row: Gail, Jerry, Eilleen. Front row. Me.|
After skating for an hour, we went into the shack to warm up our noses, our numbing toes and freezing fingers. The boy I liked, Jimmy Krantz was sitting in the corner staunching a nosebleed—the air was so cold and dry that bloody noses were a regular occurrence. Old Jim, the rink man, sat next to him on the boy’s side of the shack puffing on his pipe. Little icky clumps of bloody tissue were scattered around on the benches and floor despite Jim’s regular scoldings about putting them in the trash. Jim, our de facto parent, kept order in the shack, scraped the ice clean, performed first aid and stoked the pot bellied stove. The stove pumped out plenty of warm air which combined with the snow melt from our clothes and skates making the air feel almost tropical. The only ventilation in the shack came when the door opened and shut, letting in a huge cloud of frigid air which, like something alive, swirled in and raced across the floor as if trying to reach the other end before vanishing. Inside, the shack smelled like all of us - a combination of tobacco, burning wood, wet wool, black licorice and cooped up pre-teen feet.
A highlight of the skating experience was throwing your ice-caked gloves on top of the stove where they would hiss and sputter. Like my fancy skates, I inherited the bright orange gloves from my older sister, Eilleen. She'd left our childish ice play behind her, spending that winter practicing her role in the high school production of the Mikado, set in the imaginary town of Titipu. "Titty Poo, Poo Titty, Titty, Titty, Poo Poo," I'd repeat, loving the sound of those dirty words now legitimatized in our home. I couldn't believe my luck! My God-given job as chief torturer of my sister was a snap that winter after such incredibly witty material fell into my lap. I called my sister "Titty" at every opportunity for months. In retaliation, she called me "Hegen the pig woman," a riff on the character of Moonbeam McSwine, an Al Capp creation we both enjoyed.
Time proved her to be the superior namer as fifty years later, I still signed my emails to her as Hegen pW, over the years transmogrifying “pig woman” into an honorific which we laughingly compared to her JD. It seems odd to me now in the remembering, that I never called her Titty or Titipu again.