Double blades graced the first pair of skates I owned-owned in the sense that they were hand-me-down skates from a neighbor down the street. The two blades on each skated helped manage the difficulty of balancing on ice, moving not so gracefully forward on the ice or remaining upright. These skates sported red leather flaps which wrapped across the top portion of my feet with a leather buckle strapped across my ankles, and were similar to the roller skates of the day. They were designed specifically for young children, or first time skaters, such as me.
Most of the kids we knew ice-skated as skating was a typical outdoor adventure in the cold, Indiana winters of the fifties. When the temperatures reached the low 30s and 20s, and the local ponds and lakes froze over, we found any piece of frozen water we could glide and slide across, either gracefully or more likely awkwardly with flailing limbs. In the alleys between the houses in our neighborhood, there were often long strips of frozen water from a recent rainstorm that afforded us a small opportunity to skate, but we always preferred the frozen ponds of the Woodmere Asylum.
Unlike during the summer, when our parents forbade us to enter the cornfields owned by state mental hospital (which sat behind our house) no such restrictions were enforced during the winter. During those icy cold winters, we skated on the frozen surfaces sitting in front of the imposing structures of the looming, architecturally beautiful buildings. The hospital openly allowed us to skate on the ponds and there was no charge to skate or anyone to supervise the activity. There were no signs posted to warn us of thin ice, and the frozen ponds were open for business-all day or any day, with the knowledge that we skated at our own risk.
The temperatures needed to hover around 30 degrees for at least a week, with a forecast of continued freezing weather, before parents even considered letting us skate on the ponds. The adult in charge, who was usually Daddy, carefully checked the ice for cracks or any weaknesses, before he allowed any of us to step foot on the surface, and no one was allowed to skate solo. We always had a partner and it was not unusual to skate hand in hand with Sissy or a friend.
If there was any indication the ice was not rock solid, we returned home until the temperatures remained cold enough to guarantee a skating outing in the next day or two. When the time was right and armed with hats, gloves, long pants and skates slung over our shoulders, Daddy or one of the other parents bundled us up once again and transported us the short distance to the ponds of Woodmere.
Some of the mental patients had access to the grounds and could be seen walking with caretakers or family members throughout the property. We generally avoided any contact with them, but occasionally they came and stood by the side of the pond and watched us skate or stared vacantly into space. None of them bothered us and besides, we had our protector watching over the ice, our audience and us.
We took advantage of this open availability and skated as often as possible, because once the winter ended and spring arrived, the restrictions on being allowed on hospital property resurfaced, and our travels to that world ended.
I only saw my father skate on one occasion when he borrowed skates from one of the older teenage boys in the neighborhood and skated with us. In spite of his athletic prowess, he failed miserable at skating. He wobbled crazily on the single blades and after that first fall to the ice, he decided skating was not in his future. After the experience of falling, he watched from the edge of the pond, making certain his children and the other kids were safe and free from danger of any kind.
I graduated from double blades after that first year to my very own pair white leather skates with a single blade. Each Christmas thereafter, ice skates made the list to Santa. I didn’t always find those new skates under the tree, so I to be content with Sissy’s hand-me-down skates, as there was a perfectly good, used pair of skates that fit me already. At a certain point in time, our skate sizes matched, and I soon found my own new pair of skates under the Christmas tree.
I cherished those new skates and painstakingly dried the blades after coming off the ice. With a single, careful swipe between two fingers, I removed the excess liquid from the blades and then placed the rubber blade guards on each blade, to keep them sharp and to protect myself from cuts. Daddy kept them polished, just as he did with all of the shoes of the house, and afterwards hung the skates by their shoelaces in the utility room until the next snowfall or week of icy temperatures.
Fortunately, there were never any serious accidents at the ponds and other than bruised egos, sore bottoms and skinned hands, we skated accident free for many winters. The ice itself was rough and uneven and the ability to maneuver the imperfections in the ice helped hone our individual skating skills. Skating forwards and backwards, around the rink in pairs or in a group, we soaked in the freshness of our youth and the cold, winter air.
Eventually, a large indoor stadium was built to accommodate basketball games for the University of Evansville, the annual Shrine Circusindoor skating and other events. We traded our frozen ponds for cleaner, smoother ice and a slightly warmer environment. Daddy now sat in a stadium seat to watch us and hot chocolate was available out of a vending machine, but we still came home to Mother with rosy cheeks, cold bottoms, scuffed up skates and bruised egos.
I skated throughout my childhood and often fantasized about skating in the middle of the rink, twirling effortlessly in a beautiful sparkling costume, mesmerizing the crowd with my skill and grace. What I actually ended up doing was making frequent trips to the ice rink at five and 6 AM with my son and his friends, for hockey practice and games. I took my hot chocolate with me and proudly watched from the sidelines as he beautifully glided across the ice, both forwards and backwards, maneuvering between the other boys on the ice and gracefully striking the hockey puck with finesse and accuracy as it sailed into the net. That was more special to me than any rhinestone costume or the cheers of an admiring crowd.
Whether on the smooth surface of today’s ice rink, or on the natural bumps and imperfections of the weather-induced frozen terrain of Woodmere’s ponds, slipping, falling and conquering the ice was the epitome of life in the fifties-simple, joyful and natural. Entertainment in the non-digital age.