(This 721st Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on January 23, 2005.)
Two recent experiences have turned my thoughts to ice. My wife is slowly recovering from bruises suffered in a fall on our icy sidewalk and I had a close call on Route 77 when the car in front of me suddenly spun almost completely around. (When I skidded past the car, I glowered at the unidentified woman driver only to learn a few minutes later that she was a good friend.)
Like snow, ice is an important component of our winter weather here.
But today most people don't even think of ice in terms of winter. To them, ice is something you make in your freezer. And we now have indoor ice rinks everywhere, even in Florida. I suspect that it is a rare child nowadays who has ever skated outside. What must modern children think when they read of Hans Brinker skating on Dutch canals?
I guess you have to be old like me to appreciate outdoor skating. I'm from Rochester and we used to go regularly to the Erie Canal Widewaters to skate. The ice was maintained by the city and crowds of people skated on a rink the size of a couple of football fields.
There are two things I recall about that skating. First, we were not supposed to play snap-the-whip, which made doing that all the more attractive. For those of you who are uninformed, this is an activity in which skaters in line hold the hands or sometimes the hips of the person ahead of them. The leader gets the group going as fast as possible and then turns suddenly to send the line of skaters behind him into a turn like a snapping whip. The result of this is maximized toward the end of the line, the tail members speeding off and often tumbling. I never recall a young woman serving as leader. None I knew had the malignant desire to send her friends off to possible injury.
The other thing I remember about Widewaters skating was an accident. This was long before the time of the Zamboni, so a small tractor plowed snow off the ice. Unfortunately, that tractor went too near a cordoned off weak area; it broke through and the driver was drowned. I wasn't there at the time but my older brother was. Knowing how brash my boy scout brother was, I had nightmares visualizing him drowned trying to rescue that poor driver.
We didn't always go to those Widewaters to skate. It was a walk of over a mile and there was a low area in a closer field that usually flooded and froze. We had to shovel it ourselves, but it gave us a big enough area to play pick-up games of hockey. That was a different game for us. Each goal was a couple of stones placed a few feet apart on the ice. There were no specialized roles in our contests and in particular no one served as goal tender. We did try to pass the puck - often another stone - but most of the time it was simply a gang of kids rushing back and forth on the ice. Contrary to modern hockey contests, scores for each team were always in double digits.
We were so attracted to our sport that we continued to play during warm periods when the ice was covered with water. Falls at those times were especially punishing.
I don't mean to imply that Buffalo had no outdoor skating in the past. Before our long succession of warm winters, there was skating in Delaware Park. Every Buffalonian should recall the famous incident when the then Parks Commissioner, angered over the removal of a concession he favored, had his men melt the ice. Now we only have the small artificial Rotary Rink at Fountain Plaza on Main Street.
Of course, ice was not just something you skated on. When I was young, people had milk delivered to their homes in glass bottles. On really cold days the milk froze and the expanding slush pushed the paper seal up out of the neck of the bottle for as much as an inch or two. This often gave the bottle a rakish appearance because the white column usually tilted to one side.
Easily our worst local ice story was the tragic episode when in 1994 a group of law school students tried to walk across Lake Erie on the ice. Three promising lives were ended that afternoon. I suspect that they had roped themselves together like mountain climbers and one falling through the ice pulled the others down.
Memories of ice are a mixed blessing.-- Gerry Rising