Life slips back and forth.
Come late December, in my hometown in northern Illinois, we kids used to run home from grade school—and later middle school—drop our books, pick up our skates and head to Lake Ellyn, an oval of about 12 acres of spring-fed nirvana that was frozen by mid winter nearly all the way to its 10 foot bottom. Since then, the lake has shrunk in size and been landscaped for more ornamental, park-like display. No deep ice, no snow trucks; no snow trucks, no skating surface.
The Chicago area was “speed-skating central” back in the ‘60s and had been for years. It was so renowned that a set of Olympic time trials were held on Lake Ellyn a year in advance of the 1964 Winter Olympics. A couple European officials even came to attend, which was something special, since the Norwegians still dominated the sport and had been legends for years. We little boy and girl speed skaters were amazed. “Europeans”! “Olympics”!
At night, street lights, the kind that used bulbs, surrounded a quarter edge of the lake, perched on high poles with pie-tin style lids. The weak illumination was ghostly out on the ice and chiaroscuro along the shore of the lake, leaving everyone opportunities for all sorts of activities. Lake Ellyn was an archetype of a simple natural structure providing great drama, romance and joy to a small community.
In those days there was still a tiny island off the northwest side about 50 feet from the centrally located “boat-house” that was what the town called the cavernous old skate prep cabin that had rental lockers at one end, complete with an attendant, a concession counter for hot chocolate along the back wall and a fireplace at the other end. Long benches filled the main space where everyone would change into their skates, rest and tighten them, or just hang out. Imagine a bowling alley without the lanes. I remember first hearing ‘Telestar’ on the tiny transistor radio hanging on the wire wall covering the locker area. Everyone wondered what the lead instrument was (a clavioline!).
Those winter afternoons and evenings were the height of my childhood. Starting after breakfast on Saturday and church on Sunday, the weekends provided two-day marathons of every skating competition and elimination game imaginable. Stingo, hill-dill, the AAA track events, bird-dogging the few girls that bravely showed up in their figure skates, always with a parent in striking distance, so to speak. (The girl speed-skaters were magnificent tomboys for whom we had sisterly affection.)
Absolutely no one played hockey. We used to look away every time a guy showed up, either from another town or a new neighborhood kid, wearing those odd-looking skates. They were not a bit like our narrow, sleek, low-rising black leather boots with 16-17” steel blades. In Midwestern racing, the design was the Norwegian, with the tubular steel clamps descending from the shoe to the long and elegant blade. Planerts were the prized brand of this speed skate (from Canada) but they were pricey, so most of the amateur racers in our generation had local or mail order brands. Everyone else rented from the boathouse. I have seen maybe a half dozen Planerts in my entire life—like Stradivarius violins to us. Nowadays, the “speed skate” is split into two types—sprint or track, and long distance. Ours were like an original type between these two newer ones. Also, the shoes or boots are now plastic.
The coaches and officials were typical “Dutch uncles”: brusque, direct and great skaters—even Mr. McLeese, the patriarch who must’ve been in his late 60s. They viewed us as if we were race horses.
Then the blues came down like rain, as Robert Johnson sang so sweetly and so long ago. Lonely, loveless, heartfelt blues. They slowly crept up on the speed skating heaven of Glen Ellyn, Illinois. By the early 1980s, the deed was done. As usual with the blues, the crisis might have been averted had someone been wise.
However, no one even noticed. At some point—and the precise date is locked up under piles of aged files, or perhaps destroyed—someone decided to increase the drainage capacity of the town’s streets surrounding the lake—enlarging and extending sub-sidewalk storm tunnels and punching more runoff grates through the street curbs. Next, more cars entered society as wealth increased during the 60s, 70s and 80s. Then—the major blow—someone invented an inexpensive and highly effective street salt. Men stopped using chains for the few weeks they usually needed to—which was a nuisance but not a big pain.
More and more women began driving in winter, as second cars became popular in the outer suburbs. Street salt was a godsend to a young woman on her way to work or an older lady visiting family. They weren’t about to mess with chains. Also, black ice on the hilly streets around town could make any driver nervous. Add teenagers in cars during winter holiday seasons in affluent suburbs and you have a potential nightmare.
Here’s the irony. Today virtually every new automobile can handle a typical, snowy and icy road. Not only the cars but also the tires (performance vehicles excluded). The need for road salt has dropped to very little. Only the rare, crippling deep freeze, ice storm or blizzard will bring out the town salt truck. Black ice will defy all tires.
Unfortunately, salt accumulates—especially the new road “super salts”—in the lake’s clay floor. As we know, salt raises the freezing temperature of water – thus melting the ice on the streets, but also destroying Lake Ellyn as a world-class circus of deep ice and one of the greatest centers of the village’s unique culture.
For nearly four months—a third of the year—we literally lived on our skates. At night local mothers would sometimes have to shout us off the lake. The lights were always turned off and the “boat house” closed up at 9 PM leaving us enough time to make 10 o’clock bedtime—common in those days—by which time we’d already be half dead. It made me a bad student, and I wasn’t alone. Generations of residents grew up in this way.
But in many ways it was a blessing. Our lungs and hearts were certainly helped to develop, while our quads, calves and ankles were remarkably optimized—much beyond mere strength.
For instance, many years later, when my dad had his stroke, I was sitting near his ICU hospital room while he was being tended to. I heard a rise of odd, light-hearted chatter. Concerned, I went back in. One of the nurses had asked a couple of others to come see this old man’s legs. I knew immediately what was amazing them—they’d never seen a set of healthy thirty-something legs on someone well over twice as old. They were acting appropriately—oohing and aahing.
That is one of the many legacies of speed skating.
Sometimes I’m told I’m “living in the past”, as if I was a poor learner or an unrealistic dreamer. In fact, the past lives in me, some of which, in my view, should not have disappeared.
Whether it is walking to school, parental toughness, a high literary level or a small lake in the middle of a town that transformed the lives of its citizens for almost 100 years—it is the past I wish to return to us.