A Norman Rockwell dream come true

It didn’t seem like it’d happen, but it did.

What happened, you ask?

The Old Adirondack Winter Cold Snap, that’s what.

How long it’ll last is anyone’s guess, but it has for the past few days and (at least according to the weather wizards) it still has a ways to go.

It was no big deal in The Cold Old Days. Then, days if not weeks of subzero were just Bizness as Usual. They were expected, and they were dealt with. Period.

It was the same for all the snow we used to get. It snowed; we shoveled it. It kept snowing; we kept shoveling — sometimes on and off through the night. Obviously, it wasn’t fun, but it WAS a fact of life. And ditto for all the things that got shut down or screwed up by Jack Frost and Co.: cars, furnaces, water pipes, power lines and so on. The mercury could’ve dropped out the thermometer’s bottom, and we still would’ve shlepped our sorry selves up the Petrova hill for another full day of readin’, writin’ and martial regimentation.

Then again, I was a kid, and to me and my peers, winter was not only no hassle — it was a lot of fun. I think that’s true for today’s kids, too, but we had something they’ll never have, much less know about — the Petrova Rink.

The rink was less a recreation site than a Wonderland. Its size was gargantuan — it took up the entire area the soccer field is on. And when I say the entire area, that’s no exaggeration: It had a regulation 440-yard speedskating oval, and in its center was a regulation-size hockey pen. And if that wasn’t enough, there was another hockey pen separate from the rink, in the field’s northeast corner.

This probably seems less impressive today since rinks are routinely resurfaced with Zambonis. But back then, a Zamboni in My Home Town was as far in the future as the moon landing … and just as impossible to imagine. So the entire Petrova rink succeeded the only way it could have — by literal manpower.

The men supplying it were village workers; the only ones I still remember are George Bedore, Bing Kunath, Ed Lamy and John Trummer. And when I refer to them as village workers, the emphasis is on “work.” As I recall, the rink was flooded from the fire hydrants. After that, it was touched up by being sprayed with a garden hose. The men cleaned off the snow frequently by hand, with shovels. After a big accumulation, they went high-tech: They had a Jeep with a huge cylindrical brush on the front. They flipped a switch, and the brush revolved at blinding speed, whisking the snow off to the banks at the edges of the rink.

That wasn’t all they did, however.

Shelter from the storm

We had a warm-up hut. It was a little wood cabin with a coal stove against the far wall. Surrounding it was an iron railing, and just back from the railing were benches. The hut was always toasty, and my breaks were as ritualized as the 32-count manual of arms. First, I took off my jacket, hat, mittens and skates. Next, I hung my hat and mittens on the railing so even if they didn’t dry out, at least the snow and ice on them would melt. And after that, I sat on the bench and parked my feet on the railing so they’d thaw and some feeling would return.

Of course, I didn’t just sit there all by my lonesome. Instead, the place was packed with other kids who were also thawing themselves and their gear, so it was a great place to goof and gossip.

The hut was a full-spectrum sensory experience — especially an olfactory one. Even now, when I think of the hut, I think of the smells of wet wood, wet wool and sometimes burning wool (from the scientifically challenged who figured if it took a half-hour to dry mittens on the railing, they could be dry in mere seconds if put on the stove itself). Obviously, the hut didn’t sweep itself out any more than the stove kept replacing its spent coals. So it was one more chore for the village guys.

Frozen delights

I practically lived at the rink. I’d go after school, on weekends — any time I could. And as much as I liked to skate, I didn’t go there for that alone, or even for that primarily. Mostly, I was there for the company. And that’s the best thing about the rink — there was always a bunch of kids to hang with. At the time I didn’t realize it, but looking back I see the socializing was an age-group thing. The really young grade school kids hung out with their peers, the high school kids with theirs, and so on. And because all the kids went there, I had company with my age group, from first grade till my senior year.

My favorite time there was at night. During the day, it was just a rink; at night, it was downright magical. It was ringed by light poles whose old-timey bulbs twinkled delightfully, as opposed to the fluorescent or vapor lights we now have that can make any place look like a jailbreak in the making.

Another great touch: There were speakers on the poles, and a record player in the shack kept the joint alive with music till closing. The selection was as old-time as the lights. While rock ‘n’ roll had hit when I was in fifth grade, it still hadn’t made it to the rink by my senior year. In the rest of our world, we had Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee, Little Richard, the Everlys, The King and on, ad hepcat-initum. But at the rink we had the pop music of my parents’ generation: the Ames Brothers, Glenn Miller, the Andrews Sisters, Burl Ives, etc. In all fairness, I don’t think there could’ve been a choice since the old music was on 33-1/3s but all the rock was on 45s, so if they’d played our music, they would’ve needed another full-time employee just to keep flipping the discs.

One more Petrova rink aesthetic: After Christmas, the village collected a bunch of the trees that’d been tossed out and stuck in the snowbanks that circled the rink. I don’t know if they do that anywhere else, but they should. Not only is it a woodsy accessorizing at its best, but it reminded me of Christmas spirit, something that should last long after the holiday itself ends.

The rink’s surface was unlike anything we skate on today. Because it was surfaced with hoses, not a Zamboni, it was bubbled and blistered, cracked and corrugated — less a rink in today’s terms than an obstacle course on ice. Of course, because we didn’t have the basis of comparison, we thought it was fabulous.

It was open morning till night, seven days a week. It was constantly maintained (and, from a parent’s point of view, constantly chaperoned). It was within walking distance from anywhere in town. It was free, and used skates were cheap to come by. No matter how cold it got, the warm-up hut made sure we couldn’t get frostbite. There were always kids to play with, and fresh air and exercise to be had — all of it to a musical accompaniment.

And catch this: Even though that music was as square as it got, and the ice was rough as a cob, I never heard anyone utter so much as one word of complaint.