The joys of learning to skate at the rink of hard knocks

I was 13 years old when I got my first pair of skates for Christmas.

From then on, I imagined myself gracefully sliding across the surface of the outdoor rink in the village about two kilometres distant.

I was too afraid to venture that far on cross-country skis (have you ever been alone in the dark when coyotes howl?), so I was glad when the neighbour’s boy, Ronny, age 11, informed me that he had the use of his father’s horse and van to go skating. The van was a tiny caboose on runners, the horse a long-legged nag retired from some racetrack or other.

Come skating night, I dressed in a sweater, parka, boots, a scarf and double layers of mitts and socks.

Tying the laces of my new white skates together, I slung them around my neck, feeling ever so confident, almost professional.

When I stepped out into the star-studded night to wait for my ride, the snow on the back step crunched underfoot and the moonlight cast long shadows across the frozen landscape. In the distance I could hear the excited barking of Ronny’s dog and I knew Ronny was hitching up the horse. In a few minutes the bells on its harness settled into a steady rhythm.

Before too long, I saw the caboose turn into our lane, Ronny’s collie dog padding along behind it in the smooth tracks the runners had made. Ronny had the reins pulled through a small sliding window in the front of the caboose.

He had made a fire in the tiny woodstove, and the smoke was curling up from the stovepipe that stuck through the roof.

The runners squeaked to a stop as he called out “whoa.” The horse’s muzzle was covered with hoarfrost and I stopped to pet its nose before squeezing into the caboose.

Closing the narrow door behind me, I inched around the hot stove and sat down on the wooden bench beside Ronny.

When he clicked his tongue and the horse began to pull, the whole conveyance creaked as if it were about to disintegrate under the strain, but soon we were going down the lane at a good speed.

As we approached the outdoor rink, I could hear the sound of skate blades slicing across the ice, one of the coldest sounds on earth, but being young and healthy, it was music to my ears.

Surrounded by a slab fence and floodlit by a dozen bulbs, the rink had a warming hut along one side with a woodstove in it.

In fall the local men had gathered to saw the huge pile of firewood stacked nearby. Come winter, others had volunteered to flood the rink. The warming hut reeked of wet woolen mittens and wood smoke, but it was filled with people I knew, among them the school caretaker, a fellow who offered to tighten my skate laces and tighten them he did. I doubt the blood supply reached beyond my knees for the rest of the night.

As I stepped out onto the ice, dozens of school pals were whirling past me, laughing and enjoying themselves. This is what I had been waiting for.

Wouldn’t they be so impressed when I joined them.

I took one step, and promptly fell on my backside. Concerned friends gathered around to help me up. I assured them I was fine, but I have to admit, my dignity was hurt.

It didn’t get much of a chance to heal that night, either, because the only way I could navigate around the rink was with flailing arms and feet, interspersed with awkward falls unbecoming an aspiring figure skater. In desperation I finally resorted to inching along the boards, in company with a few four-year-olds.

To be honest, I spent more time than necessary in the warming hut that night, under the guise of having cold feet — in more ways than one.

The old horse and I were so eager to go home that it took the corner too sharply at the railway crossing and the caboose pivoted around the pole in a dangerous fashion, but we didn’t upset.

When I staggered into the house, cold and disillusioned, my mother had a fire blazing in the McClary cook stove. As I thawed my feet on the oven door and sipped hot cocoa, I had to concede, secretly, that I would never be another Barbara Ann Scott.

I would, however, eventually learn to skate on the bumpy ice of an outdoor rink, the starting point of a great many Canadian athletes.

Unfortunately, I am not one of them.

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