Friday, February 24, 2012

On ice ...

In March of 2007 I visited Lake Placid, N.Y., for five days. In traditional terms, this would be like meeting the titular Hungry Caterpillar for a leaves and apples lunch date or a fan of "Good Night, Moon" becoming an astronaut. One of my favorite stories growing up was The Miracle on Ice, as told by my mom, who I should note found it acceptable to read to us from an Edgar Allen Poe anthology before bed and also has a well-worn piece of fiction about how it is possible to get pregnant without having sex.

It's hard to recreate her telling without shades of Disney's version distorting the way I would remember it. The highlight of the story was never Rizzo's game-winner with barely two blinks left. The goosebumps probably took root at the part where the announcer yells "DO YOU BELIEVE IN MIRACLES!" and then spread like a fungal colony when she told me about goalie Jim Craig wrapped in the American flag, looking up into the stands for his father.

Fact: I know where I was when Herb Brooks died. I was driving my car down 10th Avenue East in Duluth. I pulled over to listen to the news on Minnesota Public Radio. This is either significant or not. I think the one thing Generation X learned from Baby Boomers is to immediately note your surroundings when the answer to a trivia question dies. (FYI: I was at the Pioneer Bar when Michael Jackson died. I also noted where I was when a pope died, but I've forgotten where I was or which pope).

I came into town after a long bus ride from an airport nowhere near Lake Placid. One of those routes that feels like it is entirely on back roads. This is what a country house in Vermont looks like. Backyard trampolines covered in snow and small iced-over ponds rather than highway signs marking the next exit for Gas Food Lodging. We passed a ski jump on the out-skirts of town, one of the weirdest highlights of any horizon. Just once I'd like to see one that is active. Paste my forehead to a cold bus window just in time to see a lean mean flash of red spandex, a flying W falling from the sky. Instead they always look like the opening scene of a movie about cold, quiet and desolation. A place where a person could go crazy, from the beard frost on up. Somewhere there is a cupboard filled with dusty cans of Hungry Man soup from Olympics past.

Whenever I am far from home I have to consciously remind myself. Imagine a map, imagine myself embedded in the map, imagine a straight red line connecting Duluth and this place: This is Lake Placid. This is Lake Placid. You are in Lake Placid. You are here.

Fact: I was sitting in an arena in St. Cloud one afternoon, the crowd gone, the ice just resurfaced. Two teams began pre-warm ups. Boys with ear buds stretching in this corner. Boys jogging beneath the stadium seating. St. John's versus St. Thomas, my alma mater. The coach of the former was on that 1980s gold medal team, a janitor told me. "I'll go get his autograph for you," he said.

I knew him as soon as I saw him. Men who have had success with hockey and then success after hockey have a certain look. An ease with dress clothes. Compact and casual. Warmth in cold places. Their grey is sharper than the grey of other former athletes. They have fewer wrinkles and brighter eyes. Boyish, but in charge. Polite. Al Pacino as Michael Corleone.

After I'd forgotten about the janitor, he climbed up the steps again and pulled a practice puck with the former player known as Bah's signature. When I left, the coach smiled at me. A great story for my family. I put that puck in my glove compartment at least six years ago and I bet it's still there.

I stayed at a hotel with a brand name in comfort lodging but which looked like a luxury chalet. All clean wood and big windows. An A-frame that looked out over Mirror Lake. If you've seen the movie "Lake Placid," and I haven't, this would be where the sea monster lives, a peaked skull cracking up through the ice in the morning, gleaming like the blade of a skate, then his bulky hunched back, goalie pads, a ripple then back to glass. It was close to the Olympic village. There was always a fire in the fireplace. Turtleneck optional. Reunite on ice.

Everyone dressed in fitness-wear, like they might be called to compete in the biathlon at a moment's notice. Old-style Scandinavian music played in the streets, accordions. There were quaint and specific shops. Say you wanted a fedora. Strange that the site of an epic moment American sports history is the closest I've come to Europe.

When it snows in Lake Placid it seems too picturesque to be real. Flakes are just the right size and they fall at just the right speed and they land at just the right angle on hats and in hair. One night I saw two men stumble into a snowbank, hugging, but fighting, just outside of a bar. They rolled in the snow and took swipes at each other's faces and even the bloodied nose seemed pretty and certainly not threatening.

Five days, no car. My longest walk took me to a sushi restaurant, the other direction to a nondescript bar. I spent a lot of time alone and one night stayed up late enough to watch a Bam Margera marathon on MTV. Twice. By the time I fell asleep, I thought I actually knew him. When I think of Lake Placid, I always think of Bam, stocking cap, big grin, a skateboarder still pulling skateboard pranks, but rarely seen on this show actually skateboarding.

Lake Placid, a village in the Adirondack Mountains, isn't so different from Northern Minnesota. It had all the same ingredients, but in a different order. It was like a composite sketch of the space between here and Canada.

Fact: I always wanted to play hockey. That special kind of want reserved for things you know you won't get. So you want harder until the want is a caricature of want. At that time and in that place, girls didn't play hockey. Well, a few did and I can still remember their names: Becky and Kim. They were famous to me. Braids hanging from the back of helmets and even off ice they walked like they were still wearing breezers. I could skate, backward even. And I was an aggressive athlete, which is what happens when you chase your brother around long enough trying to knock loose the soccer ball that seems connected to his insoles. I bet I'd have been pretty good.

"Gymnastics or hockey?" my mom asked. A confident bargain. She knew I would pick gymnastics. If she had tossed out "Swimming lessons or hockey" I'd be sitting here right now with scars from years of helmet acne. Turns out I can't swim, spray an arc of ice with my powerful two-skated stop and my back handspring years ended the day I imagined how dumb this " ... and that's how I landed in the wheelchair" story would sound.

St. Thomas got a girls hockey team my sophomore year. Practices were at 5 a.m. By then I was more into not waking up at 4:30 a.m. than I was into nurturing my hockey career.

I was in Lake Placid at the same time as another member of the Miracle on Ice team and we were there for the same reason so I saw him often enough. He could barely walk 10 feet without someone asking him: "What does it feel like to be back here? Have you been back here before? What is this like for you?" He'd would say something thoughtful: How he had brought his whole family, a first trip to this place for three of his kids, and how they are finally getting the chance to connect the dots. Dad in 1980. Those goals. That medal. Those photographs. The movie. Then he would change the subject.


Hotrod said...

Herb Brooks died in my hometown.

Christa said...

I had no idea.

Suber1 said...

I have spent too many weeks of my life in Lake Placid. The monster in "Lake Placid" is in Florida. The dining hall at the OTC is pretty good, though.

Also, I am friends with someone on the US women's ski jumping team, and if you really want to see some jumping, you should go to Park City, Utah.

Christa said...

Well. Look who has a USA duffle bag.

Suber1 said...

Don't make me wear one (or all five) of the US Ski Team jackets I own.

Christa said...

I dare you.