Down at the rink there was a constant stream of guys from youngsters to teens who slogged in and out, all winter, with bags of equipment, tapes, pucks, pads, skates and sticks. They came at all the hours of the day and night.
In this small hockey-crazy town, how did I end up in the figure-skating club?
Of all the gifts my parents bestowed, this was the one that took the longest to understand. But whether it was their intention to produce a figure skater, or just to keep me occupied, I eventually saw the light. And it was dazzling.
My parents moved to Delhi in 1948 and in a short time took a lead role in starting the Delhi Figure Skating Club. It was the same year Canada’s Sweetheart, Barbara Ann Scott, won the Olympics. This may have been Dad’s idea, but Mom would have pushed him along, and with the help of those many post-war friends who landed in this small tobacco-growing community, the DFSC was born. It drew widespread endorsement, especially by parents whose daughters couldn’t play hockey. Within a couple of years there was a long list of members aged 7-70 who came to the rink on Wednesdays and Saturdays to cut figure 8s, do steps, spins and jumps and dance in wavy processions around the rink. You might say it was a little Arthur Murray mixed up with some chilly ballet.
While all my friends went the hockey route, I went figure skating, primarily because it was my ride home. So, I owned a pair of black, shin-high laced skates with long, slim silver blades with chiseled picks on the toes. My buds all had CCM hockey skates: black with brown trim, yellow laces, reinforced tendon guards, and wide, hard, puck-stopping steel blades riveted into the soles. Their scarred and dented toes resembled miners’ helmets. Mine shone like OPP boots. There couldn’t be a greater contrast between the two sports.
Or could there?
In fact, I discovered in figure skating that for every boy there were at least five girls. This may have been the unintended consequence of my membership, but it was a serendipitous awakening that I have never regretted, much less forgotten.
In the earliest of my stumbling skating career as a Junior, I wandered around crowds of other newbies on the ice, learning to push out for forward and butt-wiggle for reverse. Once ice-friendly we graduated to Intermediates where we attempted three-turns and hops like little bunnies in the snow. We raised our legs and arms for spirals, imitating clumsy birds landing on the feeder. I perfected the nose-plant.
In the midst of my imperfect executions however, there were some real stars. Paul Rapai, Suzanne Klein, Skip Lumley, Marion Pitts, Jack Kellum, Mary Ann Coyle, Nora Marie VanHove–these older kids were excellent skaters. Gifted with balance, strength and grace, they captivated their audience, both those of us on the fringes, and the adoring crowds on the benches. They had nailed it.
But as a 12-year-old, I found the boy numbers had thinned, my skating buds had evaporated to the hockey track, and I was accompanied by a few guys who hung on, to witness like I did, that we were surrounded by girls. It was a stunning, magical, delirious moment for an addled kid who until then had been happiest with a pellet gun in the woods.
The girls always dressed up for figure skating. They wore colourful toques, scarves, furry ear muffs, white gloves or mitts, smart tunics and on occasion, impossibly short skirts and tanned tights. They had immaculate white skates with bows or jingle bells laced into the toes. To a one, they had fresh rosy cheeks and bright eyes, lovely curls and some even sported earrings. In the middle of a cold grey winter I had somehow stumbled into a warm, sunny bakeshop at Easter.
The task of serious figure skating still advanced however. We were now instructed in drawing crisp, neat figure 8s on our outside and inside edges. My 8s looked like shaky ampersands. We learned to launch into the air with 3-jumps. Mine looked like 4s and scratchy 5s. A simple cutback into a spin left me doodling aimlessly, slowing to a halt after one rotation. In short, I was a figure skating klutz.
And I was treated that way, pretty much. But still there were high points. In the annual competitions I could draw a bronze medal for third place because there were only two other guys in the field. But best of all, I was indispensable as a dance partner. We needed boys to partner with girls to perform dances. So I may have been a solo wash-out, but I truly learned to deliver a passable Dutch Waltz, a Swing Dance, or my favourite, the Canasta Tango.
These dances guaranteed a pairing, arm in arm, hand in hand, eye to eye, with some of the prettiest girls Delhi had. We strode around the ice to orchestra tapes of Perfidia, Blue Moon, Wonderful Copenhagen… it was surreal, exciting and riveting all at once. While I may not have ever shared a social word with these girls at school, on the ice it was a joint challenge to perform, and that seemed the winning ticket.
While my hockey friends were scrambling and whooping around the ice like scrappy junkyard dogs, slamming the boards and crossing sticks, I was gliding along smooth arcs, laughing and talking our way through a complicated foot-move in time to Andre Kostelanetz. While the guys were groaning in the sweaty change rooms breathing the high-sulphur coal-heated air, I was enchanted by the occasional wafts of Breck shampoo, Noxzema and Juiceyfruit gum. How bad was that?
The climax of the skating season however was the Ice Carnival. This was the DFSC’s presentation to the town. It was a top-tier war effort, and in addition to its spectacular performance, the carnival was, to many of us, the most exciting and enchanting event of the season.
More, next week.