Skating with Shirley

When you live in Laramie, Wyoming – where it is, essentially, winter for 8 months a year – you tend to accumulate a lot of Winter sports equipment. On one side of our garage, there was a corner reserved for skis, poles, and ski boots. We put toboggans, plastic saucers, and regular sleds in the rafters overhead (I have never understood what possible purpose the steel runners on a sled serve. If the hill you’re trying to slide down is covered with anything more snowlike than a half-inch of glare ice, the runners just sink in and stop. “Rosebud” my butt.) And the odd-shaped, little storage space under the laundry room steps was where we kept the ice skates.

There were several places around Laramie to go ice skating. One of the Old Man’s friends was a rancher who kept a trout pond on his property. We were welcome to skate on the pond whenever the ice was solid enough. Because the wind moved the surface of the water around while it was freezing, the ice on the pond was bumpy and caused you to fall down a lot. Another option was on the Northside of town where there was a large pond affectionately known to the locals as “Stink Lake”. When Laramie was in its early days, the pond had served as the town’s sewage lagoon. Many years later, it gave off very little odor but still kept the name. By Halloween, the pond was frozen over. After that, the town fire department would periodically come out and spray water on it, thereby making a pretty good skating surface.

But the best place to go skating was the Laramie City Skating Rink at Undine Park. The Rink was built like a stockade with 10 foot high, weathered wood walls around the perimeter and two big poles that came up out of the ice in the center. Instead of a roof, there were 2 foot wide strips of heavy muslin hung overhead like sheets on clotheslines. Attached to one side was a “warming hut” that included the main entrance to the rink.

The patrons, usually with their skates hung around their necks by the laces, would come in, pay their 25 cents, then find a place on the several rows of benches to remove their shoes and put on their skates. There were heavy rubber mats on the floors and out to the rink so you could walk around – ka-lunk, ka-lunk – with your skates on. Then it was through an inner door, across a porch, and out onto the ice. In the daytime, the muslin overhead blocked the sun’s direct glare and gave the place a nice, subdued illumination. But at night, there were floodlights that made it seem almost magical.

Most of the people would skate clockwise in a large oval around the outside of the two poles. If you were a pretty good skater and wanted to show off a little, you could skate in the center of the rink. Here were the people who could skate backward and do little leaps and spins. There was a scratchy PA system and over the constant sound of steel blades scraping on the ice they would play all the old chestnuts like “Roll Out the Barrel,” Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker,” and, of course, “The Skater’s Waltz.”

By the time I was in the last couple of years of High School, I had nearly stopped going to the Rink. I found that I preferred skiing to skating for winter fun. Skiing was considered to be “cooler” than skating, and when you fell down, packed snow was a lot easier on your rear end than hard ice. Instead of having to stay balanced on 1/4 inch blades, I had a full 3 inches of ski to stay on top of, not to mention stiff, plastic boots clamped to my feet that took my weak ankles completely out of the picture.

When I was a Senior, a pretty little Sophomore named Shirley caught my eye and we began to return each other’s smiles in the hallways between classes. She was cute, with a generous spray of freckles across her nose and cheeks and she wore her hair in a long braid that hung down well below her waist. In a short time, we were dating.

In a little Wyoming town in the winter, there isn’t much to do on a Friday night except go to the movies. So on our third date, we arrived at the Wyo Theater on the East edge of town expecting to see The Pink Panther. Unfortunately for us, they had, just that day, changed the feature to a schlock horror movie. Instead of Inspector Clousseau, we were being offered The Night of the Living Corpse Bride.  Neither of us was thrilled.

“There must be something else we could do,” I said. “But I can’t think of anything. Have you got any ideas?”

“Well… we could go skating,” she suggested.

A goofy grin lit up my face. I thought that was a great idea. We could get bundled up and hang on to each other as we giggled our way around the rink. Maybe a stolen kiss in a dark corner followed by a cup of hot chocolate in the warming hut. “This,” I thought, “would be fun.”

My house was closer so I left Shirley in the car with the heater on while I went in and rummaged around under the back stairs for a pair of skates. I’d grown out of the pair I’d used the year before, but my brother Lewis’ skates would fit fine if I put on an extra pair of heavy socks. I grabbed a hat, a muffler, and some gloves and I was out the door.

My old Plymouth had one continuous bench seat, which may not have been very comfortable, but allowed your girl to snuggle up next to you as you drove – a major plus. We crossed the viaduct and went to Shirley’s house on the West side of town. Being more polite than I was, she invited me in to talk to her mother while she got ready.  Having covered the weather, and how did I like school, her mother and I were straining to fill the awkward silence with small talk when Shirley reappeared. She had put on some warm leggings and a short wooly skirt and had wound her long braid of hair into a large knot on the back of her head. Instead of a pair of skates hanging around her neck, she was carrying a little suitcase.

In the warming hut, we sat down to put on our skates. She had hers out of the little suitcase, on her feet, and laced up in the time it took me to put on the extra pair of socks and get my feet into Lewis’ skates. When I went to tighten them up, one of the old, frayed laces snapped in two.

“Why don’t you go ahead,” I suggested. “It’ll take me a while to fix this.”

She smiled, said “Okay,” and left me to it.

Having knotted together the ends of the broken lace and rethreaded it through the eyeholes, I finally managed to tie the uneven lengths into a serviceable bow and I headed for the door out onto the ice.

My skating style was to kind of run in place until I had some momentum and then glide for a few seconds. After I had built up a little speed,  I could push off from the inside edge of one skate, then glide a bit balanced on the other skate. Then I’d push with that one. I was a little wobbly and due to my unsteady ankles I had a tendency to catch an edge and go careening off in an undesired direction from time to time, but I could mostly keep up with the stream of people skating around and around.

After about half a lap, I pulled over and looked for Shirley among the oncoming skaters. I didn’t see her for a while and began to wonder where she’d got to when my attention was drawn by the higher-level skaters in the center. There was Shirley, gliding along on one skate, arms out to her sides, as graceful as any swan. She wasn’t just good, she was really good. She went into a little spin, and then took off backward, leaped up, made a full turn in the air, and landed smoothly on one leg. Setting her skates on edge, she suddenly stopped, sending a little shower of snow across the ice.

My hopes of silly fun, holding hands, and skating around together to the “Blue Danube” evaporated. I made my way back around the Rink to a long bench next to the warming hut door where I sat and watched Shirley skate. She looked for me once or twice and came over to ask me if I was okay. I told her yes, I’d been skating, how impressed I was by her skill, and that I was enjoying myself just watching her.

Later, I took her home, kissed her goodnight, and then never asked her out again.

Why not? I’m sure I had some rationale at the time, but the truth was I was intimidated. I was struggling just to get a few leaves up above the soil and she had already begun to blossom.  Since that time, I have been close to more than a few folks who were extraordinarily gifted in one way or another (the woman I am married to, for example, has spent the majority of her life developing her innate talent as an actor) and never once has anyone asked or demanded that I disregard the path I am following to help them follow theirs.  But I was young and insecure with a generous dollop of foolishness. Perhaps I did us both a favor and perhaps I missed out on a great adventure.

A few years later I heard that Shirley had auditioned for the chorus line in The Ice Follies and had gotten the job. Good for her. She probably has grandchildren now. I wonder if she takes them skating.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *