Tuesday, February 4, 2014


Winter Solstice...A December baby, I was born with it in my blood. Like every schoolboy, I often longed for the freedom of summer. But in my heart and mind lived the clean black and white landscapes of northern winters; the low, chill sun that, on the short days of winter, passed from east to west almost more horizontally than vertically, dodging behind houses and trees and surprising you in the clearings; the glint of daylight on the frozen road; the hiss of the drifting snow blowing north to south across the fields, the impeccable white mantle on the lawn by first light after a storm, before anyone had polluted it with their boot prints; the warmth of yellow lights in the windows of cozy homes when nightfall caught you out of doors in the late afternoon.

Years later, living in Buenos Aires for two decades, those were the scenes from childhood that I would miss most—the snow, the sharp cold, the black and white landscapes—in a city where snow had been a once-in-a-lifetime event that the old-timers remembered and talked about, but that smacked of urban legend to those who had never experienced temperatures below 40º F. I would try to time my visits “back home” with northern winter, and preferably Christmas. A few times I even prefaced visits with family and friends by taking a few days in wintry Toronto, before flying across the puddle to Cleveland and then “home”, as if to make sure I was storing enough frost in my cells to see me through until the next time that I could fly north.

As a boy, Ohio winter whisked away my Huck Finn fantasies of summer and immersed me in the harsh northern world of Jack London and in the TV adventures of Sergeant Preston of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, in the hopes and dreams of Christmas and in the stark beauty of Arctic-borne weather that changed everything so that it was hard to recall what it all had looked like that summer before...so long ago, it now seemed.
There’s a joke that claims that the seasons in Ohio are “almost winter, winter, still winter and construction.” That wasn’t quite true, even back then, before the vagaries of global warming. Summers could be long and very, very hot—Southern hot!—when Ohioans traded the Arctic blast of persistent winter for the equally persistent heat and humidity of the South Wind that blew up across the Ohio River and through the Miami Valley like the gritty draft from the subway grate up Marilyn’s skirt. But the mid-seasons were often brief and unpredictable: a fleeting shout and burst of amazing autumnal hues from late September through October, or a Stravinsky-esque rite of spring that flooded, roared and raged, then returned to intermittent winter again from late March to almost May before settling into a sudden explosion of unfolding leaves and multi-colored buds and blooms, just before the early arrival of the summer heat. Often it was hot enough for the city pool to open on Memorial Day, hot enough even for a member or two of the high school marching band to feel faint while standing at field rest and have to sit on the curb in order not to pass out during the endless droning speech by the VFW president at the end of the parade route—and before all were shocked out of their stupor by the color guard’s 21-gun salute.

But West Central Ohio winters were indeed long—often running from mid-November through March, with abundant snow and bitter cold, including wind chill factors that frequently and consistently plummeted to double digits below zero. It was Arctic weather, Alaskan weather, the icy breath of the polar circle that reached us undiluted, straight out of the glacier-planed north on 35-mile-an-hour winds that could drift the snow taller than a man—dunes more than drifts, like a sort of miniature, frigid Sahara.
(Photo courtesy of Steve Centers)

But when you’re a kid, unconcerned with job schedules or road conditions, you don’t care how much a severe winter storm costs businesses and the economy, and you can only hope that it’ll be bad enough (or good enough) to keep you from going to school. You listen with bated breath from the breakfast table to the radio as the local announcer reads the list of schools that have been snowed out and hope that you’ll be among the lucky ones who get to stay home and play in the snow. You explore your own yard as if it were uncharted territory and delight to see that, where it hasn’t yet been plowed, you can’t tell the road from the ditch or the yard from the road. Winter, then, is just another part of the rich tapestry that is your childhood, another backdrop for everything fun you invent to do. And in my case, it was my favorite time of all.

Often, tempestuous winter storms were followed by serene, windless, bright blue and white days, when the surface of the snow seemed glazed and glittered like diamonds in the pale sun’s rays, days when the surface snow was too dry to pack and the lack of humidity in the air belied the shrunken mercury at the very foot of the thermometer. Paying scant heed to our mothers’ warnings about the dangers of frostbite and exposure, we broke out our Radio Flyer sleds and took turns pushing each other down the hill on our road. And once the county snow plow cleared the road, as many of us as could duck our mothers hurried off a few blocks to a slope next to the city swimming pool in Harmon Field that was just made to order for sledding.

Oh, and we froze, just like our mothers said we would, so that when we made our way back home for lunch, it was on numb feet in socks, street shoes and rubber boots and pulling our sleds with mittened yet unfeeling hands. Back home the pain of thawing out fingers and toes and ears was excruciating and those appendages seemed about to catch fire once the initial pain of circulation had passed...But none of it was so terrible that we didn’t want to go right back out into the snow again, once hot soup and fried bologna and cheese sandwiches had been devoured and chocolate tapioca pudding eaten. Snow came often and sometimes stayed all winter, with new snows building on top of old. But in our minds it was unpredictable, ephemeral. You took snow while you had it because there were no guarantees for its endurance.

It was when I moved to Oakwood Hills, just across an open field from “our river” that the Auglaize first became part of my winter territory. At first I got to know the joys of winter ice on common foot leather and with my sled (to the chagrin of figure skaters who hated sled runners on the ice)—removing my rubber snow boots and depositing them on the bank so as to increase my slide factor. By the time I got there that first year, the ice had already been thoroughly tested and cleared of snow by other people of all ages so I forged confidently out onto it, only mildly frightened by how expansion and contraction made it creak and crack and thud and groan underfoot. With temperatures that often dipped well below zero at night and never got above freezing for weeks on end during the day, the ice became solid and deep 
enough to hold just about anything you placed on it, and as such, it became the town’s winter playground.
Back then there were people on the ice at pretty much all hours of the day, but after school things really got lively. At that hour, skaters who did the entire run from near the dam to the downtown Blackhoof Street Bridge—gliding under it, continuing past the back of town and then making the curve and skating north to the Harrison Street Bridge and back again—had to thread their way through absolute beginners who jigged, scrambled, recovered, then fell in their path, past random hockey games that sprang up wherever there was a puck and enough boys with sticks and skates to make two teams, around young families with mothers and fathers skating at a leisurely pace pulling sleds full of small children behind them, and skirting other figure skaters who imagined more than drew a circle, as far as possible from the hockey stars, in which to practice their twists, spins, leaps and axels, imitating as best they could their favorite athletes from the Winter Olympics team.
(Photo courtesy of Don Elsass)

Immediately, of course, I started badgering my parents for a pair of skates. Although Whitie was always pestering me to take up a sport, figure-skating wasn’t exactly what he had in mind, so he said that if I wanted skates I’d have to get out and shovel sidewalks until I had enough money to buy a pair. I already had an early-morning paper route before school, but the proceeds from that brilliant job would never be enough for skates—at least not if I wanted them before I was 30. So I started also shoveling snow off of every walk anybody would pay me to shovel, only to find that, with those handsome profits, I might be able to cut the projection for when I’d have my skates to, say, 25 years old. It looked hopeless.

But then, my Uncle Chuck saved the day. Chuck was a little guy, like most of the Newlands. I took after the Weber side of the family, and at age 12, already had the same shoe size Chuck did. He was always razzing me about my big feet, asking if I had “paddles for those canoes” and so on. One day at the family restaurant that he, Whitie and their older brother Red owned, he said (for everyone to hear), “I swear, if Dan ever grows into those big feet of his, he’ll be nine feet tall.”

Mr. Z, a maintenance man in the local school system, happened to be sitting, reading his newspaper, at the long community table next to the counter where the town’s men sat and “fixed the world” over coffee in the morning. Mr. Z was a good six-feet-five tall and wore size 15 work shoes, so huge and boxy that they prompted the kids to refer to him as “Herman Munster” or “Frankenstein” behind his back. Without even glancing up from his newspaper, he said, “Hey son, just tell that pipsqueak it takes a bigger foundation for a courthouse than it does for an outhouse.”

Everybody guffawed, except Uncle Chuck, who flushed with irritation and embarrassment. But then he pulled me off to the side and said, “Hey Dan’el, your dad said you wanted skates. I have a pair I never wear any more. If you don’t mind used ones, I’ll bring them for you. If they fit, you’re welcome to them.” I thanked him profusely. I couldn’t wait!
(Photo courtesy of Douglas Beam)
Within a year, I’d outgrown Uncle Chuck’s skates—for the next couple of years I outgrew my shoes by half-sizes every few months and my trouser legs always looked as if I were preparing for high water—but those used blades served their purpose well that first winter when I was learning to skate. The first season I fell a thousand times and spent more time lying or sitting on the ice than skating on it. But by the end of winter, though bruised from head to foot, I was gliding more or less effortlessly from the dam to town and back again and had learned to stop and turn without breaking any bones (or accidentally flying over the dam).

By the next winter, there was no longer any way that I could stuff my feet into Uncle Chuck’s skates. But I went down to the banks of the Auglaize every day that homework and odd jobs allowed and hung out anyway, watching with something like longing as the other kids glided along on their wide variety of skates—shiny-bladed figure skates (black for boys, white for girls, sometimes with pink pompoms attached to the uppers for a coquettish touch), battered two-tone hockey skates on stocking-capped lads armed with hockey sticks, “shoe-skates” that were basically a set of blades that strapped onto the wearer’s street shoes, double-bladed skates (like training wheels for beginning skaters)—and envied them their mobility. I’d had it too. I’d been one of “the skated”! But now I was grounded on the river bank in my buckle-up snow boots.
(Photo courtesy of the Siferd Family)

That, however, was a new world I hadn’t known before. I had a powerful and growing interest in girls by then—actually, I’d never gone through the typical girl-hating stage that most boys do and had always had “girl friends” but now what I was looking for was more like a girlfriend. And, it seemed, girls were in great supply next to the campfires that skaters built on the south bank of the river to get warmed up.

That’s where I met up with Mary and had an immediate and searing crush on her. Most of the girls my age in town I’d known since kindergarten. They were as familiar to me as sisters. But Mary was “exotic”, a parochial schoolgirl who went to Saint Joseph’s. I was seeing her for the first time there in the firelight, with her prominent overbite and high cheekbones that were like an arrow through my heart, and I wondered where she’d been all my life! She skated like an angel, graceful, swift and agile, in her short white jacket with faux fur collar, pink and white-striped stocking cap worn fashionably askew, and leg-hugging black ski-pants tucked into her impeccably white skates with their pink and white pompoms.

By the fire, she was always surrounded by a covey of boys, some wearing Catholic school Knights varsity jackets, and she always managed to entertain them with her magnetic wit and sensuality. I tried to get close, tried to find the courage to talk to her, but always ended up standing on the outer edges of her campfire circle. I was, after all, skateless! Like a lizard who drops his tail in a fight in order to get away and is then ostracized in his own society until he grows a new one, I formed part of the unfortunate “unbladed” and there was no way to be cool if you didn’t have blades. Besides, Mary was an older woman. She was gorgeous 14 and I was barely, bespectacled 13. What hope was there? So I suffered and waited.

But I didn’t have to wait long. That winter, my mother took pity on me and bought me a brand new pair of shiny black figure skates for Christmas. And when I reached the Auglaize the very day after Christmas, I was amazed to find that skating was a lot like riding a bike: Once you knew how, you never forgot, and off I went on my new skates and never stopped until the ice thawed the following spring. Once I was “skated”, I dropped by Mary’s fire a few more times and skated close when she was on the ice, but it wasn’t meant to be. She didn’t even know I was alive. In the end, however, it was easier than I’d thought to write her off as “stuck-up” and move on. I mean...what was it about girls on skates!? Girls I went to school with every day...strap a pair of skates on them, put them on the ice in the orange glow of the streetlamps or in the blue light of the rising moon and they suddenly had a new allure, a kind of seductive magic as they glided on the smooth ice or warmed up in the firelight, and I would fall in love at least a dozen more times before that skating season was over.

I was 54 the year my father died and I made an unscheduled journey back to Ohio from South America. I was sorry that I hadn’t made it back in time to see him one last time before he passed away. He’d been very ill for a very long time, so when my brother called to let me know that they were sending Whitie home under the care of Hospice because there was nothing left to do for him, I somehow figured there would still be time. But he was gone before I could book a flight. He died in mid-January and my brother sagely suggested that I not rush home for the funeral but wait a few weeks for when everybody had delivered their condolences and offered their immediate support and our mother ended up being left very much on her own.

When I finally got there, it had been hard-freezing cold for weeks on end—one of those old-fashioned winters like when I was a boy. I never travel back to my home town, back to my past, that I don’t spend a great deal of time walking, retracing the paths of my childhood and youth, revisiting the neighborhoods that saw me grow up, passing by the four houses that I called home at different points in that journey. And these pedestrian sojourns never fail to lead me to the Hamilton Road Bridge, where I did a lot of my best (and worst) thinking when I was young.

Despite the frigid temperatures, this trip had been no exception to my walking tours, and now I found myself standing midway across the Hamilton Road Bridge, gloved hands folded and forearms resting on the railing, gazing at the stretch of the Auglaize between the dam and the Blackhoof Street Bridge. My thoughts on this particular walk, and throughout these difficult days, had been unequivocally existential: what my father’s life and death meant to me, what they had been to him, the realization that my mother might also be gone soon, my links to this town as a base that I had always come back to and what their passing would signify in that context, the fact that the passing of the older generation meant that mine was becoming the “new” older generation...

But suddenly, I was distracted from these thoughts by the long, broad stretch of clean, smooth ice that was the surface of the Auglaize River that day. At first, it was just the sheer beauty of it that attracted me. It was a clear blue day, despite the polar cold, and the pale sun gleamed on the ice as if it were a freshly waxed green marble floor. It was stunning, that straight stretch of natural ice between the two bridges. But that was also what was disturbing enough to have shaken me out of my existential reverie: There wasn’t a blemish on it—not a rock thrown to gauge its safety, not a skate or sled mark on it, not a single burned-out blackened bonfire scar on the right bank, not a single pitch squared off as a hockey rink, not a single sign that any human being had noticed the gift that winter had bequeathed to the town. Perhaps, I thought, the joy of skating, like so many other wonderful things from times gone by, had been discouraged and prohibited. “But how conformist could kids these days be?” I asked myself, and wondered what authority, short of the National Guard, would ever have been able to keep teens of the sixties generation off of that exquisite ice.

I stood there gazing up the frozen Auglaize, every other thought gone from my head, seeing images of the new-millennium cyber-kids all home with their PCs, laptops, notebooks, play stations, MP3s, etc., etc., and felt genuinely sorry for them. They had no idea what they were missing!