On Thin Ice

When I was growing up in the ‘hood, there was no place to skate. Roller skates don’t work too well on soft dirt roads or sandy drives, and as a result, we had none. I don’t recall anyone in the ‘hood wearing roller skates. But when we got to Germany some of kids had roller skates. I used to watch them whizzing by, envy in my heart at their smooth passage, until eventually, saving up money from my garbage hauling job, I purchased a pair of used, metal wheeled skates.

Now this was back in “the day” when the song “Brand New Key” by Melanie Safka had just come out – and trust me, you needed that key. These metal framed skates bolted to the bottom of your shoes, clamped into place and secured with that all too necessary key. Nylon wheeled skates were unheard of (remember: everything came from an Army PX in Germany) – and “real” skates – the ones with shoes “built on” were beyond my meager budget. Hence my purchase of a cheap metal rollers from a family that was due to get shipped back “Stateside” at any moment.

It didn’t take me long to realize I didn’t have the heart, skills – or bottom – to be a true roller skater. Those metal wheels telegraphed every grain and granule of the asphalt roads; they caught in the cracks of the sidewalks, and slipped out from underneath me with a butterlike consistency, catching me unawares and dropping me onto my elbows – and butt – with a jarring frequency. (This was before the day when elbow pads and helmets became ‘necessary’ equipment.) I would often watch the other kids – the ones with the nicer roller skates – zipping along, my mouth twisted with frustration and butt aching from frequent falls. It didn’t take but a few months to consign them to a cardboard box, from which they simply faded away.

But when winter came, I discovered a whole new way of getting around – one that seemed to suit my disposition and skill level much better – and provided a whole new level of adventure.

Ice skates.

 

For a boy raised in the South, there was nothing like ice and snow. Each winter in Germany was greeting with joy and anticipation despite the necessity of thick clothes and heavy boots. Fluffy white flakes drifting down, icicles draping every horizontal surface like crystalline filigree – I found winter beautiful and fascinating. I had seen a few people ice skating – mostly kids – but after my experience with the steel wheeled roller skates, I figured it would be just as hard – and disappointing. Plus there was the cost factor. Clamp-on roller skates were relatively cheap. Ice skates were expensive. You had to buy the boot as well as the skate. But one day my parents took us to an open air ice skating rink, and donning my doubts and a pair of rented skates, I gave it a try.

To my surprise, they were remarkably easy to get around on – much easier than roller skates. The ice was smooth – no rocks or pebbles to trip you up, and no cracks for the wheels to fall in. (If there were cracks in the ice – you stayed away. Even a dumb Southern boy like me knew that much.) And speed! My mom and I both have a love for speed – shooting across the ice like a comet, I recalled the story of Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates – wishing for a canal’s straight run so that I could go faster and faster, leaving my troubles and life behind. There is nothing quite like ice cold air whipping past your face, the smooth gliding sensation – I fell in love with ice skating right away, and began begging my parents for a set of ice skates.

That first Christmas when I turned twelve I opened a box underneath the tree to find – long silver blades attached to shiny black boots, creased and buffed with age. My dad had given them a quick lick with the shoe polish, and they fit just right – tight around the ankles, snug around the feet. Of course the next problem was finding a place to use them.

Military bases weren’t well known for their entertainment amenities, especially if you were a kid. A small library, a small theater, maybe a swimming pool (not much use in the winter) – not much more. Some had Youth Activity centers, but those were generally boring, given over to arts and crafts. There were other “entertainments” us children would find, but I won’t go into them here – the military would disapprove!

However, it didn’t take us kids long to find what we were looking for: ponds across the fence. Usually they were short shallow ponds – mere rectangles in a snowy land, almost impossible to spot after a heavy snowfall. I always relied on the other kids on a base to lead me to where they were – and then, pushing aside as much snow as we could, we would skate and skate all day. For the most part this action was heavily frowned on by the military – there was a chance we’d find a pond with too thin ice, and no one ever knew where we were. Creeping along like little Indians, buried in our coats, we’d find a hole in the fence – and then setting out across the farmer’s fields, we go slugging through the snow to a pond that someone knew. Had one of us fallen in – well, they probably would’ve drowned. These ponds were sometimes miles (or kilometers) from anywhere – out in the thin, snow covered woods, or in some distant field. But we didn’t care. The thrill of skating called us.

 

I was no figure skater – I wasn’t interested in fancy footwork, skating backwards, or cutting nice curlicues in the ice. I always – and still – had one goal in mind: go as fast as I could as far as I could, and I would keep on going until something eventually stopped me – whether it be a snow bank, the end of the lake, or the sun creeping down in a gun metal blue sky, signaling it was time to go in. Pure and blinding speed – that was where my interest lay – not in impressing the people around me, nor racing someone across the ice. What I wanted was that sensation of eyes crying in the wind, the landscape streaming past, and the past left somewhere behind me. Speed and more speed. Only when I got to going fast enough could I escape from everything – sliding from the ‘now’ into the ‘now’, every thought concentrated on one thing: staying upright, and going even faster. No future, no past – just the thrill of the moment; no worry about impending disaster, no regret or memory to intrude: just the cold, cold wind whipping past.

 

There was one pond I’ll never forget near Old Argonner, an Army base near Hanau. Unlike the other ponds, it was “sanctioned”. The Army used it for tank training (I’ll never forget watching the tanks plunging and roaring through the pond) – and during the winter they would come and test the ice along the shores to ensure it was the proper thickness. That didn’t matter to us – we would start skating long before they came and chopped holes in the ice, measuring it for thickness. And I don’t think they could of stopped us: we were intent on having fun, it wasn’t on the base – and even if they had tried, we would have simply waited until they left and went skating anyway.

This big pond was no mere mud puddle – it was a lake. When the weather got cold enough we would begin venturing out, taking hesitant steps onto the ice until it would start to dip and crack, marking the limits of “good ice”. Then we would skate in the shallow inlets and coves – small circles, growing ever wider and more daring as winter settled in. Eventually we would venture further out – twenty, fifty, a hundred feet from the bank. Like kids, we were always testing the limits, going a little further each day. And eventually the braver of us – the crazier of us – took the long discussed “dare”.

I only remember three of us ever taking “the dare”. I had long eyed the wide snow blown stretch across the middle – the part beyond the “thin ice” flags – for therein lay the straight shot, the long run, the place I could get the most speed. Looking across that quarter mile or so of thin ice, I could almost see the long straight run described in “The Silver Skates” – could imagine the speed required to get across. For there in the center of the lake lay the most dangerous section, the section where no one went – not unless you were willing to risk your life for the thrill of adventure. Thin ice.

We’d ventured out on the ice many times before – never far, not much further than the flags. As you’d go out the ice would bend and crack dangerously; we’d always turned around before. But there was a rumor going around that if you could skate hard enough and fast enough across the center you could beat the cracks, racing just ahead of a fatal plunge into ice cold water and almost certain death. And as time went on I found myself staring across that distance more and more – seeing not the threat, but the promise of speed, underlaid with the thrill of adventure. And so one day it came.

“I’ll do it,” I told my fellow skaters, mere kids like myself. There were no grownups around – they were all at work or “home” in the apartments, as they so often were. Ice skating, it seemed, was a sport for kids; I don’t recall ever seeing a grownup on the ice except when the Army would send someone out to check the thickness, and that was just at the beginning of the season. Two other kids, sensing the challenge, nervously joined me. Looping nervously around the main cove where we generally skated – shooting glances across that treacherous no-man’s land in the middle of the lake – we gathered up our speed and courage – and shot across the ice.

I’ll never forget that wild, exhilarating rush across the thin ice. From the corners of my stinging eyes I could see the ice dipping like a huge concave saucer, with me in the middle. To my left and right were the other two skaters, pushing themselves forward with all their might. Shoving my blades against the ice, pushing myself forward faster and faster, while all around the ice creaked and groaned. I could see fine white cracks spidering out from beneath me, shooting out in all directions. The dipping saucer, tracking us like a target, seemed to grow deeper the further we went. It was a long run, and my muscles burned as I approached the middle, but I didn’t dare stop – not now, not in the most perilous of places. Already the cracks were outracing me; feeling my heart skip, I pushed even harder. Finally passing the oh-so thin center, I could see the dark water a mere inch or so below, air bubbles racing away as I fled onwards. Here and there I thought I saw a few fine sprays of mist, like some creature breathing through the ice, though perhaps it was wind blown snow; liquid bulges emerged from the cracks and spread like gloss, as though the lake was bleeding – then I was past, racing towards thicker ice, my fellow skaters trailing in a ragged vee. Finally reaching the other side – empty, unpopulated except by bushes and weeds bowing their heads beneath the snow, I stopped, bending over to grab my knees, blowing out thick clouds of smoke. My two friends stopped alongside, equally winded.

“That was fun,” I finally gasped, looking up at the far side from whence we’d come. “Lets do it again.”

And so we did.

 

The second trip was much more dangerous than the first – I recall cutting through thin skims of water, hardening on the ice – but I didn’t care. We’d done it once – I knew we could do it again. Once again that sensation of sinking down into a bowl – the cracks, much more numerous now, shooting out beneath our feet. Small geysers of mist shooting up here and there, as though the lake was breathing. The thrilling sensation of speed, wind whipping past. Reaching the other side, we all but fell into the congratulating arms of our peers – the ones who were too afraid – and put our dreams aside for the moment. We knew we’d been pushing our luck coming across the lake the second time – lungs heaving, I looked back at the treacherous lake, knowing something.

I had beat it.

 

A few weeks later they shut the lake for about a week. A kid, attempting the same stunt, had fallen in. Rumor had it that he’d drowned. Maybe he did; maybe he didn’t. Bases are notorious for rumors. But being a kid, I didn’t care. I just know one thing: it increased my sense of pride. He had failed where I had succeeded: skating across thin ice.

And therein lays a lesson for life, I guess – albeit an oblique one. If you are skating on thin ice: don’t stop, don’t give into your fears, and whatever you do, don’t stop and turn around. Just keep on going – as fast as you can, because sometimes safety lays on the other side.

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