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A Man Who Has Nothing In Particular To Recommend Him Discusses All Sorts of Subjects at Random as Though He Knew Everything

(Gagdad Bob Has Got Me Thinking Of) 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.

5 Responses

  1. I must have played either baseball, football, or basketball nearly every single day from ages 9 to 16 or so. There was no park nearby, so we played baseball in the street. Interestingly, people who parked their cars in the street knew that they were doing so at their own peril. Seems inconceivable now, but back then, people didn't seem to care all that much about their cars. There might be one old grouch who would bark about it if his car got hit, but today you'd probably get arrested or shot.

    I also don't remember anyone caring about what anyone's father did for a living. Nor do I remember any of my friends ever talking about "the future."

  2. There was a guy in our neighborhood that always drove a brand new Cadillac. When we were in grade-school, we thought he was rich, although he lived in a dumpy split-level with a carport like everyone else. A very heavy woman, always wearing an apron, would greet him at the door when he arrived home. We thought she was his maid.

    He worked at a car dealership, so he got to drive a car from the lot home every day. His "maid" was his wife. Such is the knowledge of children in these matters.

  3. Born in 1951, grew up in Needham. We'd go out in the fall and stomp down the cattails in the charles river flood plain alongside route 128. Cross the highway on the railroad tracks and play swamp hockey dawn till dusk; the more adept skaters would hop over the stalks and sticks frozen in the ice, the less so would trip a lot.

    In fall, we'd play a game called either Russian Smuck (cold war days) or rush and smuck, not sure, no written playbooks. Any number of kids from 4 or 5 or so or up into the twenties (easily achieved with the large catholic families); all that was needed was a field and a football. The player with the ball would toss it backwards over his head, no peeking, into a scrum of all the other kids; whoever caught it would head forward towards the end of the field and everyone else was charged with smucking him. Pig piles were encouraged. Points were awarded for reaching the end, but never remembered. Turn around and head the other way. Repeat all day.

    Life was good. And inexpensive.

  4. I loved this —

    We played a game called Fox and the Hounds — I have no idea if we made it up or not. It was a game with loose rules, but was all about being all over the neighborhood — in folks' backyards, climbing fences, and hiding in unlocked cars, hoping not to be found by the other team.

    My parents never checked on us — we ran wild until dark. Only then would my mother make us come in, as she was afraid we would bang into something in the dark and have brain damage.

    I hate to sound cliche — but it sure seemed simpler then.

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