Friday, March 31, 2017

On Thin Ice

Winter in Chicago is always unpredictable. Sure, it gets cold and an occasional snowstorm disrupts routines and even shuts down schools every few years. But ice worthy of skating when I was a child existed for a relatively brief time between mid-December and early March in the best of years.

There were no ice rinks where I grew up until much later. In those days, community groups cooperated with the fire department to flood a couple of smooth local fields when the weather forecast was favorable. And tucked away between my grammar school and a handful of sequestered homes was a small circular pond with a central tree-filled island. Skating there was preferable to the flooded fields. It was liberating to carve up the ice in any direction, not simply traveling around in monitored circles as you would in a roller rink.

Our pond was called Maine Park. When we were small it seemed enormous. Much later visits with my own children proved it to be not much more than a retention pond. But it was in a pretty, although by current standards isolated and creepy, setting.

Nestled in a suburban neighborhood, and being in such close proximity to our school, the crowd that gathered at the park for skating closely resembled the K-6 population. But young adults and parents with small children mixed in, serving as a buffer that prevented much of the clique formation and social structure inherent in gym class or recess. It felt safer.

The Park District constructed a temporary warming house each winter. A small wooden structure with benches along the walls, it provided a sheltered place to rest when tingling fingers began to hurt and toes became completely numb. I recall hot chocolate being available, but that may be a product of revisionist historical embellishment. Nobody really liked being in the warming house. It cut into our skating time.

On January 24th of 1965 Chicago was hit with a crippling ice storm that caused extensive damage, power outages and generally brought things to a halt for a couple of days. The autumn just prior to this, Oakton Street, a thoroughfare through the north side of town, began undergoing widening from two lanes to four. The project was worked on as weather permitted, redirecting traffic to two lanes as the others were paved and sealed with asphalt.

Sometime during the height of the ice storm, those of us at home due to school closure discovered that the cordoned off segment of the street, straight and smooth and flat, was thick with ice as smooth and hard as if it had been carefully conditioned for skating. And skate we did, at first tentatively while we tested the integrity and consistency of the frozen surface, and then with wild abandon, like birds launching into uplifting thermals over a canyon.

If an ice-covered pond provided a sense of liberation, speeding along a quarter mile of frozen road was freedom itself. It felt like dreams I’ve had of flying, or of swimming in impossible rivers painted through improbable locations by my sleeping mind. Our mood was giddy. We waved at smiling passersby, who watched astonished at our clearly innovative but acceptable behavior. A few adults even joined us. We skated and raced, the biting wind in our faces as we flew down the empty roadway. Even kids without skates were having a ball, running and sliding, crouching into a controlled fall and skimming painlessly along for dozens of yards. There was never again anything like it. The nexus of freakish weather and a one-time road construction project were perfectly timed to create a memory for those of us fortunate enough to be its beneficiaries.

Imagine my joy many years later when a mid winter rainstorm and a cold front conspired to flash freeze a large corner of our backyard at an age when my children could bundle up and skid across their own little ice rink from end to end. That too, happened only once and no doubt looms much larger in their child-minds, like a neighborhood pond and a frozen road do in mine.

Thursday, March 16, 2017


My new friend and neighbor in Florida has been threatening to take me out for a ride on his boat for about three years. Last month we finally headed out twelve miles into the Gulf of Mexico for a day of fishing. The cloudless sky was as blue as the nearly flat water on an ideal February day. As we ventured further into open water we eventually lost sight of land, but it didn’t make me nervous. I was in clearly capable hands.

But I was mistaken. I was informed that we weren’t going fishing. We were going catching. I was about to learn the difference, and I swear that this story is true.

Now, I’ve never caught anything bigger than a Bluegill or Sunfish in a local retention pond. Even on fishing charters, I stand with my empty pole, examining the horizon and enduring some kind of sea-curse while others gleefully pull a variety of fish into the boat.

“You’ll be frustrated with me,” I said, “when you find out how bad at this I am.”

My captain tweaked the settings on his astoundingly sophisticated navigational Garmin and just smiled as he throttled up and headed to a favorite spot, pinpointed on a digital chart full of other such locations.

If any idiot can catch a fish, I was the perfect candidate to test the theory.

A clear plastic baggy full of shrimp emerged from a cooler. I pulled the head and tail off of one slimy, gray creature, it’s cold body chilling my fingers as I embedded a hook from one end of the body to the other.

I was taught to hang my pole over the side of the boat and let the line play out until I felt it stop, at a depth of about 50 feet.

“Jig it up a little,” I was instructed. On the Garmin, a colorful sonar profile of the rocky bottom showed peaks and valleys – perfect for fish. I guess I was moving the bait in order to simulate live food.

I prepared for a long wait, settling back in my chair and trying to just enjoy the sound of the water gently lapping at the hull of our boat, rocking gently with a hypnotic rhythm that….BAM!

My line pulled tight, the slender fiberglass rod bending nearly in half from the weight and struggle of a snagged fish. I reeled like crazy, winding fifty feet of line back onto the pole and lifting skyward until a large red snapper broke the water’s surface.
The entire sequence of events had taken only a couple of minutes. We unhooked the fish, tossed it into a live well and repeated the process. And repeated, and repeated. Every time I put a line in the water, another snapper struck. We were both catching, often two at the same time, off of both sides of the boat, in a seemingly choreographed sportsman’s fishing highlights video.

As I lifted a particularly large specimen out of the water, my phone rang. Yes, twelve miles out in the Gulf, I had a signal, and I had to answer. I was on a more difficult fishing expedition back in Chicago. And catching back home was of paramount importance. On land, the bait was a house, and the call was to tell me we had caught a buyer. We had sold!

“This is the best day EVER!” I yelled, as I continued hauling in my fish. And indeed, we continued to load the live well until we’d reached the limit for the day.

So it turns out that there are those who fish, and those who catch. I have joined the ranks of the catching. And I keep in mind the need to be truthful about the adventure I’ve related, because in the words of Mark Twain, "Do not tell fish stories where the people know you. Particularly, don't tell them where they know the fish." And my captain surely knows his fish!