Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Bog Hockey

This picture is a lot older than I am. Probably thirty years older. But it is an exact rendering of my winter life in our little suburb -- check that-- exurb --- check that -- that word didn't exist then-- out in the sticks where we lived in the sixties.

I was born in Boston. When I was but small, we moved into the country. And my life was amazingly different from my cousins who remained in the city.

We didn't have any money, really, but not so's you'd notice. We lived in a little house on a little plot in a little neighborhood, and had little, salubrious lives. Our mother would turn us out of doors, no matter the season, and we'd take our battered belongings, pool them, and play self -organized sports. We'd sort out the teams, and the rules, and the size and shape of the playing surface, and rarely quarrelled, unless it seemed like more fun than playing any more. And we could have sorted out the Mideast thing, if they'd let us. Maybe their quarrelling is more fun than they let on.

In the summer, we'd play baseball, and have to mow the field before playing. Right field's an out! In the winter, we'd play basketball in the elementary school gym. Shirts and skins. Onlookers were no doubt sorely tempted to play xylophone on many of the skins team's ribs. Weight training was still far in the future. In the fall, we'd play tackle football in a cow pasture with no equipment. There were no hash marks or goal lines demarcated, of course, but in a field recently used by ruminant animals, those weren't the things on the ground you would have been keeping an eye out for anyway. And in the winter, we'd dress in wool, gather our rusting hand-me-down skates that lacked steel toes, grab the sticks that were generally broken and discarded and then repaired with electrical tape, and we'd shamble on down to LaFleur's Pond, and get up a game. The idea of actually owning and wearing a replica of the sweater worn by our local professional hockey team was as remote and mystical as a strawberry on the kitchen table in the winter.

We were always half frozen with the cold. We had no protective gear of any kind. Hell, at the time, there was only one professional hockey player who wore a helmet -- Terrible Teddy Green-- and he only wore it because he'd already had his head staved in from a stick fight, and needed to protect the steel plate in his head from any further persuasion. When we first started going to Boston Garden to see Bobby Orr's mighty Bruins play, some of the goalies weren't wearing masks yet.

The ice was never really frozen properly, one way or the other. If it was thick enough to be safe, it was so corrugated it would rattle your teeth out of your head. If it was fresh enough to offer a smooth surface, it was thin enough to drown you. We always skated anyway. If you got checked, you'd occasionally slide to the margins of the pond, get caught in the brambles reaching up through the ice, get tangled up, and fall in up to your waist, and you'd spend the rest of the day skating with your pants frozen to your legs. You wouldn't stop.

"NO LIFTING!" you'd shout every time the more adept stickhandlers would get the puck up off the ice and crack your shins. We'd all readily and solemnly agree that there'd be no lifting, before we began each game, of course; some of us because we knew we were incapable of lifting it, and the others because they were incapable of not lifting it, so no one was much put out by the bargain.

We'd put two sticks five feet apart on the ice to mark out the goal, and get to it. Guys who never passed at basketball never passed at hockey either, we noticed. And they'd forever be taking shots from fifty yards from the goal, missing by fifty yards, and requiring a ticklish trip to the brambles to fetch the errant puck without swimming amongst the prickers.

When we got older, we'd fashion real nets out of scavenged lumber and chicken wire, and without fail we'd forget to fetch them off the ice in time for spring thaw, and we'd see them, on the bottom like scuttled privateers, winking at us beneath the new year's ice.

I wanted to be a goalie, but had no equipment. My father drove an old Rambler Station Wagon. Underneath the carpet in the back, there was -- check that -- there originally was a layer of foam rubber.
My brother and I spent many a miserable car ride rolling around in the back of the car with only the thin carpet between us and the rivets and bolt heads because I cut the pad up into rectangles, wove olive drab straps from army surplus utility belts through slits in the foam, tied them to my legs, and played the net like that.

At the time, the Bruins had a goalie named Gerry Cheevers. He was cool. He wore a white plastic mask, and he'd draw the stitches he would have received had he not worn the mask right on it, in magic marker, adding one every time he got hit in the face. He looked fierce like that. Young boys like fierce. So I tried to fashion one for myself out of the plastic scavenged from a Clorox bottle, held on my head with an elastic band, and burned my face with the residue of the bleach. The plastic was as thin as a negligee, and wouldn't protect me in any case; I didn't care, I wore it anyway.

And some of the kids were real good. A few played college hockey. One played on the Olympic Team and the Bruins and is now an NHL coach. But by the time he had started coming around, there was a real rink next to the high school to play in. Real equipment started to show up. Right handed goalies didn't use their brother's left handed hand-me-down baseball glove and bleach bottle mask and Rambler foam as equipment. Time marched on, and the younger kid's parents started getting up at 3:00 AM to make it to the rink for their allotted ice time, supplanting the older kid's ritual: mothers sticking their heads out the back door when the light got weak and the sun skimmed the horizon, painting at the last only the very tops of the dormant oaks that ringed the pond with the winter dusk's fire, shouting your name to call you to dinner.

My son played hockey on the Playstation once. Didn't care for it.


Pastor_Jeff said...


Great writing as usual.

Right now we're frustrated because our younger boy wants to play baseball again this summer -- but it's $250 for uniforms, league fees, and batting cage practice.

I think I played on organized sports teams two times growing up -- but we had football and baseball in the backyard, basketball in the driveway, and plenty of general horsing around.


I'm feeling more and more like an old coot.

SippicanCottage said...


My son participates in organized baseball. The fees are similar, so I'm sympathetic to your plight.

I was his coach at one point, but I got angry at two two things and recused myself.

1. Back when I had to travel for work, I drove from 20 minutes outside Philadelphia all the way home to Eastern Massachusetts to make it to a practice. That's after working for four hours in the morning. If you've ever driven up the eastern seaboard during the day, you know what that's like. I arrived 5 minutes early. One of my player's moms gets up in my face and says: "Where have you been? The other coach was here ten minutes ago!" The other coach is a gym teacher at the school we were practicing behind.

2. I bought cheap little trophies with my own money for the kids. We had the last game of the season, and afterwards, I gathered the kids in a circle and gave them out. They were transported with joy. The other team was bereft. The other coach was suicidal. I gave him another bag full of trophies for his kids. There was much rejoicing.

I got a stern reprimand from the Little League because every kid in the league didn't get a trophy.


Pastor_Jeff said...

Yikes - no more comparing commutes for me.

Sometimes you just can't win for losing.

Where did that come from, anyway? That's got to be the most pointless proverb ever.

Anyway, sometimes you can't please anyone. I have a lot of respect for our kids' coaches.

Our younger boy is still at the "We don't keep score" level in league sports. Like heck the kids don't. You better believe they know exactly what the score is and who won.

The older son was goalie on a select soccer team last year. It became a year-round thing. We said "No" (with his agreement) when they started out of town tournaments -- as in, 4-hours-away, out of town, weekend tournaments, for 8-year-olds.

then one of the parents on our 10-year-old daughter's team told us that the only way their kid was going to college was on a scholarship. They had told her this, too, to make sure she knew how seriously she had to take soccer. I know there are financial realities, but still...

Aspasia M. said...

I enjoyed reading about your memories - it sounded like a wonderful childhood!

It also reminded me of how all the kids on my block would get together to play sports and tag during the summer months. We used to do all sorts of crazy things, like trying to fry eggs on the street. Every Friday and Saturday night about 10 kids congregated to play hide-and-go-seek tag.

SippicanCottage said...

Hi Geoduck- Nice to see you. Fun was easier, or differenter then.