January 4, 2002

Black ice

By Kevin Paul Dupont
The Boston Globe

CONCORD, Mass. - My son Gates is now a skater. Nothing fancy, mind you. With a pair of double-runners buckled tight to his tiny boots with blue plastic straps, he shuffles more than he actually skates.

A miniature hockey stick in hand, he made his way up, down, and around a frozen Macone Pond here the last couple of days like a windup toy - a red-cheeked, runny-nosed stray from the set of "Toy Story II."

"This," he proclaimed late yesterday afternoon, fresh from his third day of spill-filled frolics, "is my greatest life ever!"

Any New Englander worth his or her rusted blades and balled-up, mothball-preserved woolen socks knows what a splendid gift of nature the last week has been. The ice on many of the local ponds has been perfect, mirrorlike sheets of ebony, the envy of indoor rinks as well as the international brotherhood of Zamboni drivers.

Rarely do these kind of skating days come our way. Be it rain, snow, hail, or simply the hot air bellowed by Old Man Winter, outdoor skating lives on the flipside of the New England Experience vinyl LP. The other side is the New England picnic, good in theory, until the menacing yellowjackets begin to strafe, armies of ants march in by the thousands, and storm clouds open.

To skate on New England ponds most often is, at best, painful and frustrating. Too many cracks, a surface of frozen slush and snow that makes cutting a figure eight as perilous as a rotary at rush hour. Good in theory, awful in practice.

But these are our skating salad days. Clear days and frosty nights have left New England dotted with frozen Rockwellian tableaus. It has been our chance to live the art, breathe deep the cold air, feel the familiar ache in our legs that comes with opening up a fast stride on wide-open ice.

A millionaire dreams of an open Autobahn and a purring Mercedes-Benz. A New England skater dreams of new Christmas skates, a frozen pond, and a steaming mug of hot chocolate topped with a fistful of tiny marshmallows.

Jon Conley was among the many yesterday who appreciated the simple sensation of Macone's smooth surface. The 55-year-old Conley grew up in Bedford and played on the high school's first hockey team in the early '60s, when practice was held on a patch of Page Field in the center of town that the local fire department routinely flooded as part of its day-to-day winter duties.

"There wasn't much money back then, and the hockey program was just getting started," Conley recalled, as neighborhood children slowly streamed to Macone's late in the afternoon, twilight and shadows dulling all but the enjoyment. "The high school would skate indoors once a week, maybe in Belmont or Lynnfield, because that's all we could afford. Otherwise, we were outside."

Seldom was the day, recalled Conley, when all of nature's elements conspired for the perfect practice day. He agreed that the recent days have made for idyllic ice.

"Kind of like the words of Ecclesiastes," said Conley, calling on the Old Testament while taking a break on skates. "You know ... it's time and unforeseen circumstances. It has been just right - no snow, no rain, and we've got good ice."

Team Lowenstein is new to it all. Brothers Alex and Stefan, along with sister Mira, moved to Concord from outside San Francisco in the summer of '00, never having experienced the joy of outdoor skating.

From the looks of them yesterday, decked out in hockey skates and carrying sticks, the California kids appear to have found their groove(s).

"In some ways, it's like skiing," said 12-year-old Stefan, a sixth-grader at the Fenn School in the hours these days when he's not wrestling 15-year-old Alex to the ice. "But to ski, you've got to drive up to the mountains. The neat thing about this is, you just show up with your skates, put 'em on, and you're skating. And it's free."

Johanna Boynton, head coach of varsity girls' hockey at the nearby Middlesex School, makes a living on ice. She wasn't in the school's rink yesterday afternoon, though, not with fresh air and the open acres of Macone's calling her farther east down Lowell Road.

Boynton had her 2-year-old son Tucker and 4-year-old daughter Scout out on the ice for late-afternoon learn-to-skate lessons. Mom's expertise and a plastic chair were the pillars of support.

"It's amazing, how you get a day like this and your childhood memories just come flooding back," said the 35-year-old Boynton, who did her childhood skating on ponds around Devon, Pa., just outside Philadelphia. "It's perfect ... black ice ... such a blast. Not a lot of days like this? You're not kidding."

The winter of 2001-02 has many days to go. Who knows what weather awaits us. If you've got skates, for the sake of Gordie Howe, get 'em out.

Only some 450 miles west, proud Buffalonians are still digging out from the 7 feet of snow that fell there Christmas week. It took the National Guard a couple of days to open up Interstate 90 in Western New York. Faster than you can say Cheektawoga, we could be digging and plowing and sanding, our frozen ponds buried and forgotten.

Carpe diem and get out the double-runners. After all, there are only so many greatest lives to be had.

Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.