In October, as the beginnings of winter lurked around the corner, my sister Mary and I became excited in anticipation of skating on the make-shift pond in front of our house. “Daddy, Daddy! When are you going to fill the pond for us?” we would begin asking at Halloween after the first snow flurries, as the weather turned cold. The slope in front of our house on Hillside Avenue would freeze over with a little help from dad
who filled it with water every winter. Our corner lot was 100 feet by 100 feet and flat
except for the front three feet where it sloped on an angle to Hillside Avenue and wound its way around the corner along Coolidge Avenue, giving us 200 feet, the perfect practice “rink” for after school until the weekend. My sister, Mary and I skated around the “mini pond”, enthusiastically, speed skating, practicing figure eights. That we did well! I fantasized skating on ice like Sonja Henie. On weekends we walked three miles to Phillips Park Lagoon. I liked to go early in the morning on Saturdays as the afternoon was too crowded. On Sundays, we went after church. In the beginning, I went with my friend Jane, but she gave up because she had flat feet and they hurt after too long on skates. After that, I went by myself or with my sister. I wore woolen slacks and sometimes leggings over the slacks, a sweater and jacket, a babushka and a red plaid scarf wrapped around my neck and of course gloves. I walked from home to Farnsworth Avenue, up New York Street to Hill Avenue and Ray Moses Drive, ending
two and a half miles later at the Lagoon.
I wasn’t very good at jumps, ice dancing, or going backwards but I managed to skate well and fast forwards. My favorite game on ice was Crack the Whip. I was always part of the whip and I wasn’t scared of that! Crack the whip was a simple outdoor game that involved groups of about twenty to thirty players. One player was chosen as the head of the whip and skated around the ice randomly with subsequent players holding on to the hand of the player in front and behind, whipping around the ice. There was much more force on the person at the end of the tail and this person held on tighter. As the game progressed most players fell off the tail. Sometimes they would get back on, moving up before the others could reconnect to the whip giving them a more secure position. There was no objective to this game other than sheer enjoyment.
Skating was a popular winter sport in Illinois. Dad told us he was a great speed and figure skater. According to my dad, Robert Fermazin, he was the Aurora city ice skating champion in his youth. My dad bragged to us over the years about his speed and figure skating prowess. The stories were collaborated by Aunt Lola, Oma and Opa and the lonely trophy which sat on the shelf of the cherry wood hutch cabinet. We haven’t found the newspaper clippings to confirm this yet, but I don’t doubt him.
One Sunday, Dad, took the challenge. Mary and I were 8 and 11 in 1954, watching our hero, our Dad, prove his skating talent to us on Lake Mastodon at Phillips Park.
Dad was only 5’6” tall and weighed about 150 pounds with bright blue-gray eyes and dark thick, wavy black hair, parted on the side and combed back from his forehead when he wasn’t sporting a crew cut. This particular Sunday, Dad took us to Lake Mastodon about two o’clock in the afternoon when the temperature was a frosty twenty-eight degrees. I remember this like it was yesterday. My sister and I watched with awe and amazement. He skimmed effortlessly over the frozen surface of the lake on this blustery, January day, with the collar on his jacket turned up and inward hugging his neck, cold air blowing off the lake into his face sending his hair straight up flapping in the wind over his ear muffs and black leather gloves warming his hands as he skated. He was as light and graceful on his feet as dancing was to Fred Astaire doing it all using an old rusty pair of clamp-on skates. Mary and I had pretty white shoe skates with striped red and white laces adorned with jingle bells on the top. And, oh how he could skate! ...moving with a grace that was wonderful to behold....gliding effortlessly on the ice...making figure eights and jumping with precision and twisting and turning in the air, skating backwards, then forwards... a look of sweet pleasure on his face. His large hands were clasped behind his back and his head tilted to the side as if he were listening to sounds from another time and place. We watched with glazed eyes, magically spellbound, not taking them away from Dad as his performance dazzled us. He was so proud.
Skating backwards was difficult for me. I bent forward at the waist, pushing off with my legs bent at a forty-five degree angle, but was never able to get up the momentum. It looked so easy when you watched the professionals. I skated fast, forwards and was able to do figure eights with ease. Jumping and twisting in the air was not in my repertoire. Dad did it with ease. In the beginning (of our ice skating days), Dad helped us get ready to skate. He would say, “Here honey, let me help you with that.” as he knelt in front of us taking the laces from our hands. He pulled firmly on the laces to make sure each skate fit snugly, wrapping the laces around our ankles, neatly tucking the ends in so we wouldn’t trip. Then he folded the tops of our wool socks over the edge of each skate’s boot and gave us a gentle pat, saying, “There you go, girls”, and stood so he could take our hands to hold us steady while we got upright. With ankles wobbling in the beginning years as our feet adjusted to the narrow blades we made cautious steps. “That’s my girls. You can do it.” With that, Dad left us self-confident to skate on the ice returning a few hours later to pick us up for the ride home. Even if you were a klutz on ice, you could still have fun. We played Crack the Whip, Red Light, Red Light, Stride and Glide and just skated and skated, round and round at the lagoon. In Red Light, one skater stands at the end of the ice with his back to the rest of the skaters counting out loud. Then, all at once he yells “red light” and you have to race back to the starting line, tagging it. Stride and Glide was where you took a few strides and then glided on the ice with the winner being the one who glided the farthest. Some times as a challenge, we glided on one skate. Not me.
We received lots of exercise skating. After a few hours of fun on the ice at the lagoon, with sore ankles, legs heavy, and toes starting to burn from being too cold and cramped, a scarf covering our mouth, bright red cheeks, eye lashes stuck together with ice crystals and nose dripping we would trek to the enclosed pavilion. The inviting embers burned in the pot belly stove and a full mug of hot chocolate piled high with whip cream awaited us. The invigorating afternoon was over and soon we would be home. On Saturdays, when I got home, I had lunch and a nap - walking into a warm house after being out in the cold had a somnolent effect.
Ice skating was a large part of our winter life growing up in Illinois and generated fond memories of by gone days. In door ice rinks have replaced the outdoor ice skating ponds. The lagoon remains, but it is fenced off and houses three resident elk. The pot bellied stove and the benches are gone, and the pavilion serves as a concession stand on weekends.