Skating Home Backward

How one man transformed vile, polluted, dank little swamp into the perfect glassy ice pond. A Wetland Restoration Comedy.

    On a frozen Sunday when I was ten, I stood in my PJ's decorated with rearing stallions and glared with contempt at the church clothes I'd flung on my bed. Here were wool slacks, a starched white shirt, a bow tie, a checkered sport coat, a pair of oxfords, and a ludicrous black fedora.

"Jesus fucking Christ!" my old man suddenly bellowed.

When I opened my bedroom door and looked around the house, I discovered it was empty. Dad had disappeared, and so had my six-year-old sister, Laura. The back door had been thrown open, admitting a wall of frigid air, so I went there to see what I could see. And what I saw left me utterly bewildered. There was the old man, butt-naked, his breath rising in angry clouds, charging down the snowy slope behind the house to Sand Coulee Creek, a ribbon of wind-polished ice winding through the shabby rural sprawl we called Rat Flats. I wrapped my arms around my bony self and stared.

When he got to the creek he fell to his knees and skittered across it like a fugitive in a prison flick. Had he caught on fire like those people you read about who suddenly burst into flames? Was he drunk?

Then I saw the hole, a devious blue crease. Suddenly uncoiling, he plunged his arm into it, his 225 pounds of muscle and sinew straining as he groped for something within. The air stunk of smoke from the coal furnaces everyone used. Danny, our Labrador, was out on the ice too, barking at the crease the same way he did when he trapped prairie rattlers against the chicken coop.

Dad lunged twice and brought forth a steaming thing in a fleecy blue snowsuit. Although I had begun to sense the importance of what was taking place, I had only one reference for what I was seeing: the breech birth of a neighbor's horse I witnessed that ended well when the man reached into the mare and yanked her astounded foal into the world. What Dad was now rushing back to the house wasn't a foal, of course. It was Laura. As he strode by, the sodden little doofus yowling in his arms, one of her skates trailing a lace, I saw that his face was lathered with shaving cream. Laura had disobeyed the rule about skating alone and was saved only because the old man happened to glance through the bathroom window as she crashed through the ice.

The next day I lay beside the crease and studied its architecture, fascinated by the fact that the ice had become as dangerous as it was fun. In the summer, the Sand Coulee was a simple, good-natured yokel whose water was clean enough to drink and harbored sunfish, crawdads, and even the occasional trout. We dropped into it every day from a tire swing roped to a box elder and poled around in it on our rafts and constructed elaborate mud cities on its shores.

In the winter, the creek became a different sort of sanctuary. It was a snap to skate the 300 yards from our place to the lagoon where the Missouri accepted the stream, but what I yearned to do was skate to the creek's headwaters, where I would live in tree houses and steal chickens from ranches. It wasn't just the easy pleasure of forward motion that seduced me when I took to the ice, but also the chance to escape all the unpredictable emotional weather back at the house. Yet I never got farther upstream than three miles. When I was old enough to mount a serious quest, it was too late. The creek began running the color of old blood, poisoned by acids and heavy metals leached from the coal mines. The frogs and the fish disappeared first, and finally the turtles. And then it dried up.

From Outside Magazine, Jan 2000 Get the Latest Issue

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