Vol. 3, No. 1



Lois Leveen


My father was born in 1933.  This made him, or might have made him, many things.  A child of the Depression — although in fact his family's financial struggles, their shuttling from one Williamsburg tenement to another, were unexceptional in a world suffering economic collapse.  A younger brother of the Greatest Generation — although his own older brother never went to war, section 4-F, too short to be of use killing or being killed or engaging in any other valorous act for the nation.  A young man of the postwar boom years — an engineer who married, bought a first home in a residential borough, had three children, then traded up to a larger house on Long Island and had another child.  A living fulfillment of the American dream paid for with his work on defense contracts, his small part in creating the aeronautic muscle our country flexed in the Cold War and Vietnam.


            But what it made him most saliently in my childhood and my memory of childhood, this having been born in 1933:  it made him forty-two and a half years old in February 1976.  And that was when Dorothy Hamill — of the cute bobbed hair and the Hamill Camel sit-spin — burst across the screen of our new, our first, color television, as she brought home the Innsbruck gold.


            She was a pixie, an icon, a source of national pride.


            She was my father's midlife crisis. 


            I do not now consider forty-two and a half so old as to warrant a midlife crisis, not as the gray hairs and laugh lines, the slowing metabolism, and the lightly aching muscles and joints sneak up on me and my partner and all of our friends.  Perhaps in 1976 forty-two was older. 


Old enough to have four children ages six to fifteen, and a wife who'd long grown bored with being a housewife.  Old enough for my father, finding his job a little dull, to have fallen into the habit of taking out his frustrations on his family, as petty tyrant in his thirteen-room suburban fiefdom.


Old enough to feel his day to day existence devoid of beauty, and to fear the years slipping by in unspoken yearnings.


            And so, seeing Dorothy Hamill, the graceful American darling beating out the world, my father decided he too would figure skate.


            Vanderbilt Parkway is a curving, hilly route that meandered through my childhood as it did through our town.  The high school from which I would graduate stood on one stretch, the synagogue where I would be bat mitzvahed sat on another.  My first minutes and hours behind the wheel were to be on that street, mandatory road training for Driver's Ed.


            In 1976 my father drove Vanderbilt Parkway to the Half Hollow Hills Public Library, a seventies split-level in steel and glass and stone.  He ran his fingers through the card catalog, flipping past one aged yellow entry after another, until he came upon Subject: Figure Skating, Call Number 796.91.  Off he went to the shelves.  He pulled books down one after another, leaving a gap  into which other books would slide and fall once he turned away, taking his armload to check out. 


These figure skating tomes were tall and wide, just under Oversized.  Their covers were wrapped in plastic, which imbued them with that peculiar odor shared by all our library's books.  They were full of illustrated diagrams and photographs anointed with arrows, instructions in motion, balance, and grace.  My father took each book to work and in a quiet hour of the afternoon Xeroxed every page.  He three-hole punched the photocopies, placing them into fastidiously labeled three-ring binders.  He read and reread every word, studied every illustration, penciled notes to himself in the margins in his meticulous block print.


My father drove Vanderbilt Parkway again, to the Dix Hills Ice Rink, an open-air facility operated by our township.  He took to the ice.  He taught himself.  He learned to glide, forward first, then backward.  To turn, tracing the delicate, mincing steps the books labeled a mohawk or choctaw or twizzle.  To jump, shaky and uncertain at first, then with greater confidence, a half rotation in the air, a full one.  Higher and faster, farther and farther my father went round.


He taught himself with the same engineer's precision he brought to designing a printed circuit board or disciplining his children.  He left work early every afternoon from October through April to make the start of the 4:30 session, skating two full hours before he drove home in the dark.  Saturdays and Sundays he roused himself from bed in time for the first of the morning sessions, often staying to skate in the afternoons as well.


He rented skates at first, cinnamon suede boots with dulled blades, that's what they offered at the rink.  But soon he found someone who custom-made skates for competitive ice dancers.  My father bought a pair of castoffs, used but still expensive, carved of stiff black leather that made his ankles ache.  He kept the skates in his car, carrying them daily across the ice rink parking lot, his talismans and tools. 


Sitting on a polished wooden bench before the wall of beige metal lockers, he slipped on sweat socks, then the skates.  He wore his polyester work slacks and dress shirt on weekdays, removing his tie and sport jacket before taking to the ice.  On weekends he wore a polyester track suit, chocolate brown with three white stripes running up the pantlegs and down along the sleeves.  It reeked of perspiration, acrid testament to his strenuous workout.


My older siblings, already adolescents, refused to have any part in his ice capades.  But I went with my father a few weekend mornings that first winter.  I was seven years old, my own hair cut in imitation of Dorothy Hamill's short, winged style.  I coveted the velvet skating dresses with flounced skirts, royal blue or ruby red, that hung in the skate shop at the rink.  When my father refused to buy me one, I decided I had no interest in skating after all.


Though my father begged my mother many times to skate with him, that year and the years that followed, she rarely did.  She had the house to run, the kids to care for, the meals to cook, plus a part-time job selling light fixtures at the mall that she took just to escape from all of us.  Pair skating, ice dancing, held no attraction for her.  She did not need a hobby in which my exacting father could find yet more reason to bully and belittle her. 


My father's entrance into our family's house always commenced a catalog of wrongdoing, our shortcomings exposed, his punishments meted out.  The hours that ice skating took him from us every day of every autumn and every winter were a respite.  As each March, my parents' anniversary month, faded into April, my mother's birth month, the days growing longer and warmer, my mother turned apprehensive.  We all did, knowing the ice rink would soon close for the season.


Springs and summers he returned to us.  Returned our lives to what they had been in the antediluvian days before Dorothy changed the world.   


My father never threw triples, he'd started too late and too old for anything like that.  But singles and doubles, toe loops and lutzes and salchows and axels — over the next two decades he mastered them all.  His children didn't congratulate him.  We didn't keep track of his accomplishments, just as he didn’t kept track of ours.  We grew up while he skated, we graduated, moved far away.    


Then one winter afternoon he jumped, alighting the same as always, but came crashing down flat on his back.  His head hit the ice.  He blacked out.  He came to as strangers huddled in a circle above him.    Their breath turning to vapor, they asked if he was alright. 


He was, he told them.  He got up, shaky, and skated another circuit or two around the rink just to prove it to them, to himself.  Then he stole off the ice, made his way to the familiar bench, put back on his shoes.  My sixty-three year old father headed home for the night.


My mother was furious.  He had blacked out, he might have blacked out again, how could he drive himself, he might have killed someone.  She wanted to take him to the hospital, he ought to have his head examined.  He refused to go. 


She tried to lay down the law, said that henceforth he had to wear a helmet whenever he went skating.  He refused.  He promised instead to stick to turns and figures, no jumps. 


I suppose he might have lied to my mother, might have gone on jumping without a helmet, and she never would have known.  But I don't think he did. 


It lasted longer than a red sports car or an affair with the secretary would have.  But still it couldn’t last forever.  Sooner or later each of us, even my father, has to realize we are skating on thin ice.