Skating on Ice

Skating on Ice

Skating on Ice

an essay by
Daniel Bull

Created January 19, 2009
Last Modified September 5, 2023


This essay describes Palmer Park, where I spent many
hours in various activities. The material was incorporated into the story
Deep in Paradise included on this site.
I hope you enjoy it and maybe benefit from it.

In summer, on Sundays, the park was always full. Full of children sailing their toy boats on the pond. Full of grownups watching over their children. Full of lovers loving in the grass. Teenagers acting out. There was a boathouse, but no boats saving the toys. Once upon a time small canoes and paddleboats could be rented, but no more. A flock of mallards made the pond home. Parents brought their children here after Sunday School, before Sunday dinner. In the boathouse, little boxes of crackers were sold to the children, as often as not to be fed to the ducks. The more daring of the children, if out of sight of their parents, might take off their shoes and wade in. Invariably the ducks would swim to them expecting a handout.

Behind the pond, beyond a small bridge to a not much larger island where the mallards nested stretched woods of maple, elm, ash and other hardwoods. Were you to climb one of those trees and look about, you would see to the east of the boathouse a sandlot ballpark and some tennis courts and beyond that the main thoroughfare of the city, eight lanes at that point, with trolley tracks in the center. The tracks are long gone, victim of the national obsession for automobiles and the plots of bus manufacturers. To the south was a mélange of winding streets and apartment houses large and small, affluent and less so. If you were to continue south you would cross DePuistre street into a neighborhood of one, two, and four-family houses. On the southwest another main road, much smaller than that to the east, curving to embrace the contour of the park. At one point along this road lay an entrance to a small parking lot surrounded by picnic tables. After dark, small crowds of young men and occasionally a few women gathered here to drink beer, sing songs, and pretend.

At the north edge of the park woods was a rectangular pond, a casting pond for fishermen to learn or practice casting bait or flies. Beyond that lay a golf course, as large as the park itself, boasting only men in peculiar clothes engaged in a seemingly pointless activity, endlessly walking after little white balls, finding them, clubbing them a few yards, then walking after them again. Local teenagers could make good money hiring out to these strange persons, carrying their clubs in large bags. The men chasing the little white balls apparently were not up to the task of carrying the clubs. Perhaps all that walking exhausted all their energy.

Concealed in the midst of the trees, almost exactly in the center of the park, were handball, racquetball, and squash courts. Weather permitting, the courts were always crowded, at least in the daytime. With no lights the courts were put to other uses after dark. For unknown reasons, there was no place in the park to play basketball.

Numerous trails wound through the park. These were not foot trails, but riding trails. At one corner of the park stood a stable, home to horses of the wealthy. If you were to try one of the trails for a hike, you risked encountering one or more horse and rider who were loath to give way to οί πολλοι, they being of course οί όλίγοι.

Deep in the woods of the park was a city police station. Why the police station was so isolated was a mystery probably known only to the dead as it had been there many years. If you hung out at the picnic tables, you would see patrol cars going to and fro, ignoring the knots of under-age drinkers. The drinkers returned the favor by generally behaving. The hazards of alcohol, especially for the young, did occasionally lead to fist fights, and even less often to knife fights, but the latter were rare, and I never knew of any serious injuries. Minor injuries, yes.

Winter in the city was indeed winter, and the park was mostly deserted except for around the pond. If the weather were sufficiently cold skaters glided across the pond. Skating on the pond was an ad hoc activity. There was no supervision, so there was competition for space on the pond between would-be hockey players, would-be figure skaters, and those who just wanted to have a little recreation. Since there was no one to stop them, sometimes skaters were on thin ice. I well remember picking my way across the frozen surface when I had no business doing so, hearing the crackle of the ice under the runners of my skates, not knowing if I would make it to the other side. The risk was measured, however, as the pond was nowhere more than a couple of feet deep.

After dark, skating got a little more serious. Sometimes there were spontaneous rounds of “crack the whip.” The idea was to send the skater at the end of the “whip” across the ice as fast as could be managed. A cheap thrill, benign most of the time, but sometimes the game ended fairly badly, with someone flying into the woods or crashing into the boathouse. Pick-up hockey games might be organized, without benefit of goals or of padding for the players. Hockey being the game it is, only the intrepid or the foolish would play.

For me, in my adolescent years, barrel jumping was my sport of choice. Maybe ten or twelve at most would take part. Of course we had no barrels so we had to improvise. If enough snow was on the ground we might roll up “barrels” of snow. Or trash receptacles swiped from around the boathouse might be pressed into service. Sometimes we could only manage markers of one sort or another at the beginning and at the end of the jump. Jumps would always start small, a couple of feet or so.