Winter in New England, normally a time that folks describe with a wide range of adjectives: miserable, wicked, unpleasant, difficult, or the like. To be fair, there are people who love the cold and snow, especially those who ski or skate or snowmobile, all genuinely fun activities that I’ve enjoyed through my years. And while participating in them, the cold is either unnoticeable or at least tolerable. Winter sports are a great way to enjoy the winter and ignore the weather.
I have great memories of winter play, especially skating, sledding, and skiing, all of which I did as often as I could. Skiing was the hardest as you needed to go to a ski resort to do it and you needed a lot of equipment (and as a kid, you needed someone to drive you and pay for your ticket). But to sled or skate you only needed the sled or skates and once you had that, it was free – no transportation needed. A good pond or hill was always within walking distance, at least for me. Of course, the one other thing you needed for sledding was snow, which while generally predominant in winter, was not always there. When it snowed, it usually snowed a lot and we could sled for days on end. There were stretches without snow, especially in January when it was often too cold to snow, but February was always sure to bring snow, often measured in feet. The one thing you could always count on though, was skating.
Cold was a given here in the winter. Oh, there would be a couple of days in February where temps would go up well into the 40’s, maybe even hit 50, but always short-lived and quickly replaced with frigid temperatures once again. The cold nights would set in around November and by Thanksgiving I could be sure I’d find ice somewhere; not on the pond across the street perhaps, but deep in the woods there was always an area in a swamp frozen before everything else. And being a swamp in the woods, it was basically unknown to the world and was my private treasure. I so enjoyed testing the thin ice with at first one foot, then tentatively both, to see if it would hold me. Being a swamp, if it broke near the edge, I would only go in ankle deep, so no big deal it the ice broke. But once it could finally hold my weight, I would baby step my way out deep into the center where it was deeper and would invariably catch my breath looking through the ice; it was like looking through a picture yet with the world within still alive. While the surface was frozen, the rest of the water was not and the slight current would gently move the vegetation beneath. Rarely you would see a small fish moving too, which was always a huge treat for me. The funny thing is that to sit in a boat and look into the water in the summer was something we did a lot and was not all that special. But to peer into the same water through the ice in the winter? Somehow that was magical. I am sure it had something to do with being able to “walk” on the water and see everything, but also due to the fact that once the ice fully froze, it was milky white and you could not see through it. Early ice is thin ice and thin ice is clear – it appears black but only because you can see through it into the dark waters. I am sure you’ve all heard the expression “you’re skating on thin ice”? At least around here we used to warn each other to stay off the black ice, because it meant it was thin ice.
Eventually the cold would more thoroughly lay its cloak over the whole land and all the bodies of water would freeze. And that would begin the ritual of testing the ice. Black ice was a given – not safe (except for my swamp). But once the ice turned white, you could still go through it; white did not mean safe. And being that it was a pond, walking on it to test it usually meant that if the ice did break, you were going in far past the ankles. And no one wanted that! So, we would begin with throwing rocks onto the ice to see if it would crack upon impact. Looking back that was a seriously ineffective means of determining if the ice would support us, but at the time it made sense to us. Eventually I would pucker up and take those first few steps onto the ice and listen for the slightest telltale sounds of it cracking. If that went well, the next step was a bit more robust walking, quickly followed by jumping up and down on it. Not generally a recommended means, but it was how I did it. If all went well up to that point, the next thing was to make a hole in the ice to measure the thickness. I usually used my dad’s hammer to break a hole through and then stick my hand in to feel the edge. TV and radio would regularly advise their audience that 6” was the safe minimum (I don’t think they do that anymore, can’t recall the last time I heard that) but to us, it was a combination of how solid it felt, how little it cracked when we walked on it, and if all that worked out well, as long as we had three or four inches, we were good to go.
And once we were good, we were good for days, even weeks. Living across the street from a pond, I could skate at will – sometimes even before school, always after school, and every second that I could on the weekends, often to as late as 10PM when my parents would pull me in. It could be near zero degrees but if there was ice, I was on it. I remember bitterly frigid nights with the depth of the cold doubled with the speed of the skating, but it didn’t matter – it was all about the skating. In the deep of the freeze and the still of the night, ice begins to thunder; it booms as it contracts with the deepening of the cold. Always startling, it is a sound I will not ever forget. We’d stop and listen and look around, knowing the ice didn’t just break, but still fearing the idea due to the sound. The pond was basically set into the woods, with only 25% or so open to the neighborhood; there were only two houses on the shore of the pond, and mine across the street. That provided very little light on the pond itself. One house had a small dock and they had a floodlight, so there was some light in that small area, and in fact was the most heavily populated area for neighborhood skaters at night. Only us bigger kids would venture out onto the rest of the pond, behind the bog islands, and into the dark. It was magical and priceless and will forever live in my mind.
Invariably, being winter, it would snow. And the ice would instantly disappear under the white blanket. After a snowfall, I was expected to shovel the driveway; a job I never enjoyed. Now in order to skate, you need clear ice – you can’t skate in snow. And that meant someone had to shovel the ice. Let me assure you dear reader, I never had to be asked to do that job – I was always the first one out on the ice, shoveling for as long as it took to open an area big enough to skate in. Funny how the same task is either a chore or a joy depending upon the need and desired end state!
One other thing about the pond: the ducks and geese. A former estate of a very wealthy man, the entire neighborhood had been one massive estate with formal gardens filled with all sorts of rare and exotic plants and flowering shrubs, marble statutes, koi ponds, paths, and this pond. And in this pond he kept ducks, swans, and geese, most of which could not fly. They were, I guess, meant to be ornamental, and were cared for by his groundskeeper. After he died, a large part of the estate was divided into parcels and houses were built. The estate was no more after that; the gardens were left to whims of Mother Nature, the koi ponds held no fish and only dirty, muddy water. The pond stayed as it always was and the swans and geese lived on there. But life for them was a little harsher lacking a groundskeeper; they had to rely on the naturally occurring food in the pond rather than being fed (although through much of the year there were always people stopping at the pond to throw them bread or some sort of food). The real difficulty came with winter. They needed water but that was not to be found once the cold came. And that meant that someone had to keep a hole open for them to survive.
To this day I have no idea if it was a spoken and organized effort or just the good hearts of the folks there, but every day, someone would go out on the ice and chop a hole in it large enough for the birds to swim around and eat/drink. Every day. As I grew older, I joined their ranks and often took on that duty, bundling up and heading out on the ice with an ax to ensure the hole was open and was large enough. Most mornings it required nothing more than a look; the birds’ motion would usually keep the water from freezing and no ice formed. Every so often we would have to open it up more as the ice would slowly being creeping in and making the hole smaller, and every couple of weeks, we would cut a new hole somewhere else on the pond and abandon the current one as the “mess” left by the birds would grow too large. The old hole would quickly freeze over, first a block hole and soon turning white and blending in with the surrounding ice. The first week or so after moving the hole, we’d all have to adjust our skating to: 1) remember there was now a new gaping hole in the ice and 2) there was an old hole not yet safe to skate over. This whole discourse led to the tale I wrote of many posts ago on falling through the ice in “Call of the Wild”.
I cannot possibly count the number of nights I spent in the cold and dark on that pond, circling around the bends and coves of the pond, dodging sticks and debris frozen into the ice, playing tag and hockey and racing and doing jumps and just playing with endless abandon, some nights fully lit with shadows cast by the full moon and other nights dark as the deep wood. And all the while the cold went unnoticed. And then I think back to the thousands of mornings when I would wake up at 4AM and climb into the deep freezer that was my vehicle and shiver all the way to work. Once at work, for years working outside or in an unheated open-door hangar if indoors, I would stay cold all day. And at the end of the day I would climb back into the freezer-mobile and drive home, shivering all the way. Eventually I would climb into the shower where despite how hot I set the water I would never be able to warm up. And I compare those memories to the memories of skating of sledding and I am astounded at the disparity between the two memories. It harkens me back to that concept of relativity by Einstein to which I often refer: “Put your hand on a hot stove for a minute and it seems like an hour. Sit with a pretty girl for an hour, and it seems like a minute.” A ten-hour day of skating seems like merely the blink of eye while a ten minute drive to work in a frigid car seems like it lasts an eternity. Relativity…. perspective…. fascinating!
It seems to me that one’s desire drives the relativity of the time; I know that if I now, at my ancient age, take my grandkids out to a hill to go sledding, that an hour will seem endless to me, standing and shivering while watching, while to them, that same hour will last mere seconds; to them the time vanishes like cotton candy to the tongue. And that is a great lesson of life. Yes, time is relative and I think we all know it and marvel at it. But that isn’t the lesson to which I refer, rather, that you need to always remember perspective in the moment. While you may be cold and shivering with ice crystals slowly creeping through your toes and into your feet, your kids (or grandkids) perspective is completely different. To them, the cold is invisible and nonexistent – they are simply having fun and are quite oblivious to it. And that is important to always remember with kids – not just with skating or sledding but with anything. The passage of time is directly proportional to the joy and delight you are personally basking in during the activity. That is relativity. So the next time your kids (or grandkids) are shrieking with laughter and happiness, always know that time is essentially standing still for them, regardless of the fact that the minutes are whizzing past for you; remembering that is a priceless gift to them!