Ice Skating at French Charlie's
rowing up in the Bronx was no different than anywhere else in New York City when it came to sports. It was always the big three: baseball was number one; why not, we had hallowed ground in the Bronx at 161st Street and River Avenue. Then came football; again, why not, it was a pure gang fight, moving people out of the way to level the ball carrier. And then there was basketball because it fit great in school yards. There was also running and boxing, but these were essentially self-defense skills for any kid growing up in the Bronx. However, these skills did became sports in high school. Imagine. Track. The first time I ran a 220 for Hayes in high school I thought it was easy. I was always running from big guys who didn't like a wise mouth. But in track no one was chasing you. The 220, 440, 880, they were all the same, like running away from those big guys (anyone two to three years older than me) who wanted to hurt me, but I didn't like the gun that shot blanks at track meets. The starting shot always scared me more than the race for some reason, especially during indoor season. Anyhow, track and boxing really weren't considered major sports. They were survival skills, as was being a schoolyard comedian. But that's another story.
When Sports Illustrated started coming out, or when I started reading it, I realized that there were other sports besides the big three. And I found out in a few years that just because we didn't get a chance to play these other sports as kids in the Bronx didn't mean that some Bronx kids couldn't do well in them later on. I had a friend from St. Brendan's and Cardinal Hayes who went on to become a college All-American in lacrosse and to coach the sport for a good part of his life, like at West Point. Who would have ever dreamed ... a lacrosse player who grew up playing touch football in Reservoir Oval.
Anyhow, there was this pond in French Charlie's. It was pretty close to the 204th Street bridge over the New York Central train tracks. It was down in a little ravine and right on the edge of the Botanical Gardens. It was nice in the summer with lots of trees...quiet, you hardly knew you were in New York City. But too much quiet gets boring when you're twelve or thirteen years old. Besides, I didn't like to fish. Not much else to do by a Bronx Park pond in the summer. You wouldn't swim in it. For that we had Tibbets Brook in Westchester, just over the Bronx line to the north.
But that pond would freeze in winter, and often freeze hard enough to walk on, or...skate on. My father had an old pair of speed skates in his closet. They looked like they went back to the days of Hans Brinker; they were the kind with blades like bayonets. He worked all day, and sometimes at night, too, so I knew he wouldn't miss them. First time I went round that pond on those skates was great. I was hooked. Every chance I had after that I was down by the pond when it was cold. Other kids would hang out there, too, trying to skate or just messing around, running on the ice, playing tag. I did this for many winters. I remember when I was in my first year of high school I had my first cigarette there, sitting by a fire. It was a Viceroy. I also had my first real kiss there, too. Arms all the way around, big hugs in winter coats. She didn't like the smell of cigarettes, so my smoking never got off the ground.
When the ice softened, I'd pack those old skates in a gym bag, hop on the D train and head to Wollman Memorial Rink in Central Park and go round and round for hours. I felt like I was a little out of my element there, though. None of my Bronx buddies would come with me, and there were lots of kids there with very nice clothes and fancy skates, figure skates as I remember. But I did skate there for a few winters. I remember many years later when people glared at me in a movie theater in Indiana as I was chuckling during the beginning of Love Story. I guess they thought I was showing no respect to poor Ryan O'Neil as he sat by Wollman rink doing his opening soliloquy about Ali McGraw's memory. Actually I was remembering the time some of my Bronx buddies did come down to Wollman to watch me skate and got in trouble because they climbed the boards and were running on the ice trying to impress some of the young women dressed in very nice clothes.
By my second year in high school I had ditched the old Hans Brinker blades (my father never missed them), picked up a used pair of hockey skates and headed off to finish high school at a boarding school far from the Bronx. Many of the guys in that school were from Massachusetts, Maine, and even Quebec. My first winter there, I thought, was going to be great. They had an ice rink, but no one skated. You didn't just skate there, you played hockey. And in the winter, all they did was play hockey every moment they were not in study hall. Even at night. The rink had lights. My first spin around the rink on the first ice after Thanksgiving drew stares. I could see some of the priests who ran the school off to the side talking among themselves and I knew it was about me.
"Where did you learn to skate," one of them asked.
"The Bronx., French Charlie's." I caught myself too late. Some of the priests were French Canadians. I hoped I hadn't insulted them.
"Oh, I see," said the principal. "We need a goalie on team C3. Why don't you try that. Use these goalie skates, they have longer, flatter blades. They make it easier to stand up."
I didn't realize it was a put-down on my skating. But I did hear one of them say, "He does sort of chug along." Well, I got in goal, and after two or three games when I was used to those pads and chest protector and catching glove and blocker, I did okay. C3 won a few games. But after each game I would always delay taking off my stuff. I'd stay outside and circle that rink by myself until the study hall bell rang.
And I followed that same routine in college and later in graduate school, and in jobs and careers still far from the Bronx, when I was playing in amateur leagues, or pickup games in different parts of the country where I lived. A goalie usually got all the work he wanted in those days. You could play five or six nights a week for free since goalies didn't have to pay for ice time because no one wanted to play that position. (That all changed after the '80 Olympics, and when goalies started wearing face masks). I always skated round and round by myself at the rinks after every game as long as they'd let me. Later when ice time was at a premium because so many American parents wanted their kid to be on the '84 or '88 Olympic teams, I'd still manage to squeeze in a few laps around the rink before they'd kick me off for the next game. After the hundreds upon hundreds of games I played down through the years I always skated round and round by myself after each game until I had to get off the ice .
Now one thing: the ice on the pond at French Charlie's was never as smooth as the artificial ice I played on. And it wasn't because we didn't have a Zamboni at French Charlie's. There were usually twigs sticking up through the ice, newspapers frozen on the surface, and even pieces of fire wood frozen on the ice as well. But the worst was when the parkies sprinkled sand on the pond to keep us off. We would usually scrape it off with big pusher shovels borrowed from some stores on Webster Avenue or 204th Street. I continued to go back to that pond and skate there into my twenties when I would come home to visit my parents in the winter. Sometimes I would get up early in the morning and head for the 204th Street bridge before the parkies got their hands on that sand. Maybe it was that sand that made me chug along or it could have been the twigs. I don't know, but that's the way I skated, even up into my late forties when I finally hung up the goalie pads. I got by all those years with my Bronx stride. I don't skate any more. Old people are afraid of falling.
So many years of hockey and skating round and round by myself after big games (when the stands were full), good games (when we won) and bad games (when I lost). So many years of skating, and just as I didn't like the starter's pistol in track because it scared me, I never liked those air horns people stared to bring to games in the late seventies. Those loud blasts may have fit in during a game, but after the game that was my time and they were, well, interrupting my memories of French Charlie's as I skated round and round. Those air horn bursts blotted out the stars in the clear night sky above Bronx Park and I couldn't hear the chug, chug, chug of my skate blades as I sailed along avoiding the twigs and traces of sand. But most of all that unwanted noise clouded my memory of the pretty young St. Brendan's girl who often sat by the fire at the edge of the pond in French Charlie's where I had my first real kiss. Arms all the way around, big hugs in winter coats.