THE AFTERNOON was cold, that bitter, hard freeze that comes after New Year's when the days are getting longer but spring seems forever away, and Little Lake was frozen. It was the pond/dump adjacent to the Southern Railway switching yards at East St. Louis, Illinois, the kind of a bubbly marsh/eyesore the EPA wouldn't allow in 1986, but from which the men in the neighborhood in those Depression days would seine crawdads in the summer for their families to eat and on which the boys would ice skate on a day like this one.
My pals all decided to go skating, and invited me. They all had skates, the kind that clamped on to the soles of your street shoes like old-fashioned roller skates. I, of course, had none, so I was lent, with all the implied warnings of punishment to come if anything happened to them, some black hockey ice skates that belonged to a woman friend of my mother.
On Little Lake the wind blew hard and my fingertips grew numb and I couldn't stand up on the skates because my ankles would bend; and when I fell I couldn't get back up onto my feet. And one of the boys with the clamp-on skates paused by me on his apparently effortless, gliding course to sneer, "You can't do anything, can you." It was not a question. Well, I thought, I certainly don't have to go on proving it out here in the cold. And I never ice-skated again.
There is always a however, though. Perhaps a decade later, I was asked to go on a roller-skating date with a marvelous young creature who owned her own white leather mid-calf skates, almost unheard of in those days just after the ravages of World War II. And I went, and rented, yes, clamp- on skates (and was tended to by a pimpled boy with a skate key who seemed to be the very incarnation of a Hans Brinker on wheels). I had learned roller-skating on the concrete pavement of East St. Louis, but not, it appears, to the point that would satisfy someone who owned her very own skates.
As we sped along, my feet clunking awkwardly, taking two or three steps to her one glide, she turned to me and said, not so sweetly, "You can't roller skate either, can you." That also was not a question. But I never tried it again.