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.

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