“There are three things in life that people like to stare at: a flowing stream, a crackling fire and a Zamboni clearing the ice.” - Charlie Brown
In February of 1951 when I was 11, I was on my way to breakfast when I heard my mother use words that I had only uttered in private to the bathroom mirror. I liked testing the sounds, examining the power of a mono-syllable. The words in context, though, tasted like a different animal.
I ducked into the hallway and waited.
My parents were of Dutch descent, but we lived on the outskirts of Los Angeles which my mother hated, in an apartment my mother wasn’t satisfied with. Theo, why can’t we have a little house where real Dutch people live? A place where it snows. This was her chronic lament.
My mother, who had never experienced snow, had a theory that when human beings saw the grime of the streets, or the flaws of the landscape covered in white, it helped them understand how Christ worked. That’s how she came to believe that Christians who lived on the east coast were holier than those residing on the west coast. The east coasters were given an annual reminder of their salvation.
My mother’s voice rose again, this time in a plea. She assured my father she’d never swear again if only they could move to Pennsylvania.
We can’t afford it, he told her.
You mean you won’t.
I can’t work any harder, Millie.
If you were smarter, you wouldn’t have to.
That made my breath catch mid-rise in my chest.
The Camden clock on the bookcase ticked off two seconds before a crash, of what must have been my father’s fist slamming the Formica countertop, sounded. Tin and iron clattered, glass clinked and crashed on our wooden floor. I had been leaning my head against the wall, and felt the reverberation in my teeth.
Decades later when I learned the term, “Nuclear Winter,” I would think of that day. Explosions big enough to block out the sun. That’s what had happened. My parents talked to me and my younger brother, but they wouldn’t talk to each other. They wouldn’t even look at each other. No kiss goodbye on my mother’s cheek as she straightened my father’s collar. No pat on the back of her skirt when she rose to clear the dinner table.
My mother had wanted winter?
She got it.
A plan began formulating in my brain a week or so later when Emily Van Oster bragged about skating at this stellar ice rink that was all the rage. It was located in Paramount which was forty miles west of us. Fortunately we owned a car—a ten-year old Chrysler Town and Country. I loved the square of wood paneling on the sides. I think my mother did, too—the way she touched it with two fingers before pulling the chrome door handle—though she never once said. Would it have killed her to show a little appreciation?
Well, Emily Van Oster was a goon. She hadn’t given me one significant detail about this rink, so when we drove up on Valentine’s Night (that took considerable maneuvering on my part), my parents weren’t the only ones awestruck. It was appropriately named, Iceland, as it was big enough to be its own country. The attendant who handed us our skates told us it was 20,000 square feet and could accommodate eight-hundred patrons.
That first night my parents stood at the railing, skates slumped next to their feet, watching bundled-up skaters glide by. When intermission came, the ice cleared—everyone jostled for spots along the outside of the oval. And when we thought there was nothing left to astound, a machine for smoothing the surface emerged from somewhere at our end of the stadium. It looked like a large, boxed tractor, one man in control. He turned to his left, to his right, tipping his hat to the waves and cheers of the crowd. Then he circled the ice slowly, steadily, fanning out from the center.
“Ohhh,” my mother cooed, her back relaxing. My father strung his arm along her shoulder.
The power of a single syllable.
Later when we returned our skates, my father picked up a flyer from the counter and folded it into his shirt pocket.
It was a “Help Wanted” notice.
Iceland needed a part-time Zamboni driver, and my father was no dummy.
In honor of Frank Zamboni, 1901-1988, a Christian and innovative problem solver/inventor, inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame—2009. Long overdue. The Zamboni Brothers opened Iceland in 1948, as refrigerator technology had begun reducing the need for the ice blocks they manufactured. Frank would begin building the Zamboni the following year in order to keep the ice smooth.
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