I'll Take Hippach Field Over Trump's Ice
One surprise of the new year was that Elysia’s ice skates still fit her. She was sure they wouldn’t and already mourned them, beautiful white figure skates. Size one, as it turned out when I found them finally in the hall closet, her current size. Of course her mom had bought them big, beginning of last winter. The skates went in the car to go to New York with us after Christmas—my frail father-in-law lives down there alone now that my mother-in-law has died, and the bother of our company is outweighed by, well, by our company.
Anyway, this past January 2, the very first Friday in all of 2009 (as Elysia pointed out), a crowd of us walked Grandpa Frank out into Central Park: Juliet’s cousin Nadine and her husband Tim and their two boys, Travis and Tucker (conversation: was Elysia first-cousin once removed to Nadine? Second cousin to her children? Or what?). The occasion was Travis’s seventh birthday (Elysia is much older: 8). Rowena, the Old Grump’s aide (an angel from the Phillipines), sat Grandpa on a bench in the sun. Nadine made a mildly lewd joke and he smiled. The Old Grump smiled! And the kids played and the less-than-ancient adults made further jokes and after a while it was time to go skating. The crowd of us bid Frank and Rowena adieu and took off hiking down through Central Park. Travis, the birthday boy, studied every rock formation closely, counted squirrels, read plaques: he is a collector of parks.
And to Wolman Rink, a beautiful little natural basin converted into a public rink for the price of $600,000 in 1949. It was closed nearly the entire time I lived in New York (from 1979 to 1990), because there was no money or civic will to maintain it, update it. There had been attempts, tens of millions spent, but graft and incompetence insured failure. Then, in 1987, Donald Trump challenged the city: I’ll get that rink up and running in three months, and then lease if back from you and run it at a profit. The deal was struck, and three months later, people were skating. Trump still runs the place, a complicated ownership deal, and his name is all over it, in a good way.
We skaters shelled out $14 per adult, $10 per kid, $6 each for skate rentals (but not for Elysia!), $12 for two tiny lockers. The lockers were necessary because you weren’t allowed to skate with purse or backpack: $128. We arrived at Zamboni time, perfect, really, because we could sit in the jammed lodge—very likely this was the busiest day of the busy Wolman Rink season—and put on our gear. The rental skates were made of molded plastic, deep blue. I’ve always regarded foot pain as part of skating, and so didn’t think to exchange the skate with the caved-in toe.
The Zamboni man finished — a fun operation to watch, the machine spraying water and scraping the ice into a glistening mirror of a surface. Onto which we made our way with the crowds at the sound of a whistle. I’d like to say we glided or even swept out onto the ice, but we wobbled. Wobbled, in fact, is probably too strong a word. We lunged, we flapped frantic wings, we groped strangers, we crashed into the wall and held on, our feet refusing to stop, skated there in place alongside scores of people from all over the world: desert people, Laplanders, rain-forest people, Inuits (I’m pretty sure), equatorial types, Siberians. None of us could skate. The people who could skate, across the same range of humanity, were whizzing around and around the rink in the proper direction, even four fellows in turbans, perhaps a Sufi hockey team, anyway skating casually backwards and forwards and chatting as they went, a clear challenge to people from Maine, people just like us.
Elysia hit the boards beside me and we drew ourselves along hand-over-hand with the others, a good way to meet a pair of extremely beautiful young women from Burma (they told us, carefully using the new name for the country: Myanmar). We skipped ahead of them. Or not really skipped, exactly, more like staggered, anyway moved somewhat faster than they could, or would, fumbling past them intimately.
The shape of the rink is oblong and eccentric, taking the contours of a natural bowl, really rather beautiful, fanciful, a massive refrigeration project. At the beak of the parabola I got brave, let go of the wall, took the short way straight across the ice, actually more-or-less skating, sudden memories of hockey pucks. Hockey pucks! There were hockey pucks all around my family’s house in Connecticut. And hockey sticks. Unbidden, I recalled wrapping the handle of a new hockey stick in flat-black tacky electrician’s tape—this came in a roll that could in a pinch be used as a hockey puck. Also, rocks, ice chunks, anything we pond skaters could find to play with in the era before safety, the era of chipped teeth and detached retinas, fist fights with kids you’d never seen angry before. Anyway, I’d been a skater, and skating was coming back to me.
Elysia tried the shortcut, too, and together we made catenaries along the boards, became aware of the music. Pretty soon, and we lapped the Burmese women, who giggled wildly — they’d progressed a solid twenty feet or more since we’d left them. The plastic of my skates began to soften slightly, took on all the comfort of a workbench vise eased a quarter turn.
Rarely (and always briefly), the ice on Temple Stream is suitable for skating. This happens when things warm up and the stream overflows itself, leaks above its own ice, melting several feet of snow and leaving enormous puddles to freeze flat, sometimes end-to-end. There are numerous ponds in the neighborhood, too, just waiting to be shoveled off and flooded.
But the rink of choice in Farmington is at Hippach Field, a simple rectangle of boards, about 8500 square feet or so of one of the baseball diamonds, flooded with a big hose. Our Donald Trump, at least in terms of skating, is the late Sumner Peter Mills (father of the new attorney general of Maine, Janet Mills, and the Surgeon General of Maine, Dora Mills. Also state senator Peter Mills, who recently ran for governor, and Paul Mills, noted lawyer and historian). The Mills fund is used to maintain Hippach field, which is named after Howard Hippach, whose parents (our Wolmans!) built the original field house in 1916 after his death in a car accident. It’s a beautiful little building, refurbished just last summer, enormous fireplace with cast-iron rings at each side, portrait of Hippach over the mantel, huge benches with new cushions and sumptuous pillows, new curtains on the windows. It looks like a Turkish seraglio just waiting for a harem. Hot chocolate, 25 cents.
Elysia and Juliet have been the skaters in the family, but after the Wolman experience, I was determined to join them. The two of them had heard somewhere about soft skates — all my complaining about hard plastic—and Juliet found me a pair at L.L. Bean (a little mom-and-pop store over toward the coast in Freeport), half price at $40.00. So, just this past Sunday, we ventured out for our first family skate north of New York City:
The ice is untouched as we arrive, flat and hard under a quarter inch or so of new snow. The fieldhouse doesn’t open till noon, so we sit on benches on the porch and change into our skates. Mine glide on like slippers, look like hiking boots with blades on them.
There’s no waiting for the Zamboni, and no lines, no fees. We are the only ones there. Skating with friends, Elysia has learned to spin since we’ve been in New York, and has improved on her former one-leg style, and added some ballet moves just for good measure. She leaves beautiful swirls in the coating of snow. She skates and hops and you can see plainly from the resulting marks that she has completely left the ice.
Promptly at noon, the Zamboni arrives, in the person of a young woman named Ashley, who is the attendant for the day, an employee of the Farmington Recreation Department, which is itself a very good argument for paying taxes. She unlocks the fieldhouse, lights a fire in there, and emerges shortly with a smile and shovel. “Just my luck to have, like, a quarter inch of snow on my shift!” she says with good humor, and gets to work shoveling. There’s no difference in the skating between clean ice and snowy. It’s ten degrees out and the ice is rock hard.
Elysia has several stopping methods, as there are no walls here. One is to crash headlong into the snowbanks at the edges of the ice, humorous. She’s got a method for falling, too, like sliding into home base (which in fact is somewhere under us). I explain that even with such a sliding technique the ice is further down for Daddy than it is for her, and that I don’t really want to try it out. Around and around the rectangle we go, every mark our own. Juliet joins us and with no witnesses we feel like Disney on Ice. Elysia’s a princess, of course. Her mom’s a tea pot. I’m Shrek, at best.
A family arrives, parents and three tiny kids, much work about putting their double-bladed skates on. They disperse across the ice in their helmets. Under all the scarves and hat and fuzzy collars their mom turns out to be Andrea Bergman, our veterinarian. She remembers us as Baila’s family, big smiles. Her husband gets his skates on, very serious about the enterprise, chases the quickly dispersing children. Andrea stands at the sidelines—no skater she—stands there with a camera and laughs and grins and waves no matter what mayhem is happening on the ice.
Ashley goes inside the fieldhouse to make herself some cocoa. A young teen arrives with her mom. They find one of the milk-crate stacks kids use to learn their moves. The young teen practices skating on one foot, pushing her milk crates elegantly in front of her. Inspired, the little kids retreive their own crates, push them along businesslike leaving clear paths behind them, and after a while there’s a pattern of paths, a study in random design, like some drunk was shoveling alongside Ashley’s methodical work: solid, widening stripe in the middle of the rink.
One of the little kids announces he wants to go home! Home!
Elysia shows me her speed-skater method. You bend over forward with your hands on your back and go as fast as you can, crash into the snow banks.
We race again.
I lose again.
“Watch!” Elysia commands. She spins, stops with one foot forward, her hands in a perfect ballet pose, tip of her skate dug perfectly into the ice. I clap, of course. Juliet flies past, makes a big turn, spins and falls, no harm done: she’s picked up Elysia’s sliding method. And I try my own spin, my own big finish, hands in a girlish circle over my head, big triumphant grin. No one applauds. But I realize that a little crowd of teen girls has arrived, and that they’re all staring at me, big clod who thinks he’s Dick Button.
But they’re wrong: I’m Apollo Ohno!
I bend into my crouch, hands on my back, skate away from the teens full speed, trying to catch up to the snow-fairies spinning away ahead of me.