Black Ice Blues

Life slips back and forth.

Come late December, in my hometown in northern Illinois, we kids used to run home from grade school—and later middle school—drop our books, pick up our skates and head to Lake Ellyn, an oval of about 12 acres of spring-fed nirvana that was frozen by mid winter nearly all the way to its 10 foot bottom.  Since then, the lake has shrunk in size and been landscaped for more ornamental, park-like display. No deep ice, no snow trucks; no snow trucks, no skating surface.

The Chicago area was “speed-skating central” back in the ‘60s and had been for years.  It was so renowned that a set of Olympic time trials were held on Lake Ellyn a year in advance of the 1964 Winter Olympics.  A couple European officials even came to attend, which was something special, since the Norwegians still dominated the sport and had been legends for years.  We little boy and girl speed skaters were amazed.  “Europeans”!  “Olympics”!

At night, street lights, the kind that used bulbs, surrounded a quarter edge of the lake, perched on high poles with pie-tin style lids.  The weak illumination was ghostly out on the ice and chiaroscuro along the shore of the lake, leaving everyone opportunities for all sorts of activities.  Lake Ellyn was an archetype of a simple natural structure providing great drama, romance and joy to a small community.

In those days there was still a tiny island off the northwest side about 50 feet from the centrally located “boat-house” that was what the town called the cavernous old skate prep cabin that had rental lockers at one end, complete with an attendant, a concession counter for hot chocolate along the back wall and a fireplace at the other end.  Long benches filled the main space where everyone would change into their skates, rest and tighten them, or just hang out.  Imagine a bowling alley without the lanes.  I remember first hearing ‘Telestar’ on the tiny transistor radio hanging on the wire wall covering the locker area.  Everyone wondered what the lead instrument was (a clavioline!).

Those winter afternoons and evenings were the height of my childhood.  Starting after breakfast on Saturday and church on Sunday, the weekends provided two-day marathons of every skating competition and elimination game imaginable.  Stingo, hill-dill, the AAA track events, bird-dogging the few girls that bravely showed up in their figure skates, always with a parent in striking distance, so to speak.  (The girl speed-skaters were magnificent tomboys for whom we had sisterly affection.)

Absolutely no one played hockey.  We used to look away every time a guy showed up, either from another town or a new neighborhood kid, wearing those odd-looking skates.  They were not a bit like our narrow, sleek, low-rising black leather boots with 16-17” steel blades.  In Midwestern racing, the design was the Norwegian, with the tubular steel clamps descending from the shoe to the long and elegant blade.  Planerts were the prized brand of this speed skate (from Canada) but they were pricey, so most of the amateur racers in our generation had local or mail order brands.  Everyone else rented from the boathouse.  I have seen maybe a half dozen Planerts in my entire life—like Stradivarius violins to us.  Nowadays, the “speed skate” is split into two types—sprint or track, and long distance.  Ours were like an original type between these two newer ones.  Also, the shoes or boots are now plastic.

The coaches and officials were typical “Dutch uncles”: brusque, direct and great skaters—even Mr. McLeese, the patriarch who must’ve been in his late 60s.  They viewed us as if we were race horses.

Then the blues came down like rain, as Robert Johnson sang so sweetly and so long ago.  Lonely, loveless, heartfelt blues.  They slowly crept up on the speed skating heaven of Glen Ellyn, Illinois.  By the early 1980s, the deed was done.  As usual with the blues, the crisis might have been averted had someone been wise.

However, no one even noticed.  At some point—and the precise date is locked up under piles of aged files, or perhaps destroyed—someone decided to increase the drainage capacity of the town’s streets surrounding the lake—enlarging and extending sub-sidewalk storm tunnels and punching more runoff grates through the street curbs.  Next, more cars entered society as wealth increased during the 60s, 70s and 80s.  Then—the major blow—someone invented an inexpensive and highly effective street salt.  Men stopped using chains for the few weeks they usually needed to—which was a nuisance but not a big pain.

More and more women began driving in winter, as second cars became popular in the outer suburbs.  Street salt was a godsend to a young woman on her way to work or an older lady visiting family.  They weren’t about to mess with chains.  Also, black ice on the hilly streets around town could make any driver nervous.  Add teenagers in cars during winter holiday seasons in affluent suburbs and you have a potential nightmare.

Here’s the irony.  Today virtually every new automobile can handle a typical, snowy and icy road.  Not only the cars but also the tires (performance vehicles excluded).  The need for road salt has dropped to very little.  Only the rare, crippling deep freeze, ice storm or blizzard will bring out the town salt truck. Black ice will defy all tires.

Unfortunately, salt accumulates—especially the new road “super salts”—in the lake’s clay floor.  As we know, salt raises the freezing temperature of water – thus melting the ice on the streets, but also destroying Lake Ellyn as a world-class circus of deep ice and one of the greatest centers of the village’s unique culture.

For nearly four months—a third of the year—we literally lived on our skates.  At night local mothers would sometimes have to shout us off the lake.  The lights were always turned off and the “boat house” closed up at 9 PM leaving us enough time to make 10 o’clock bedtime—common in those days—by which time we’d already be half dead.  It made me a bad student, and I wasn’t alone.  Generations of residents grew up in this way.

But in many ways it was a blessing.  Our lungs and hearts were certainly helped to develop, while our quads, calves and ankles were remarkably optimized—much beyond mere strength.

For instance, many years later, when my dad had his stroke, I was sitting near his ICU hospital room while he was being tended to.  I heard a rise of odd, light-hearted chatter.  Concerned, I went back in.  One of the nurses had asked a couple of others to come see this old man’s legs.  I knew immediately what was amazing them—they’d never seen a set of healthy thirty-something legs on someone well over twice as old.  They were acting appropriately—oohing and aahing.

That is one of the many legacies of speed skating.

Sometimes I’m told I’m “living in the past”, as if I was a poor learner or an unrealistic dreamer.  In fact, the past lives in me, some of which, in my view, should not have disappeared.

Whether it is walking to school, parental toughness, a high literary level or a small lake in the middle of a town that transformed the lives of its citizens for almost 100 years—it is the past I wish to return to us.

This entry was posted on Thursday, November 12th, 2009 at 9:04 pm and is filed under Original Posts. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.
Follow Comments:
RSS Feed for This Post

49 Responses to “Black Ice Blues”

  1. Tara Dillard said:

    Twenty-two years in my garden & I’ve never looked up in the night sky and seen the Milky Way.

    In childhood seeing the Milky Way was no big deal.

    Thanks for sharing your remembrance.

    Garden & Be Well, XO Tara

    • George said:

      Dear Tara-
      Thank you Tara. I wonder if also our eyes are unusually keen in childhood. “Memory as metabolism”? Might be a slight factor. Certainly we might agree that time is a function of metabolism.
      Thank again.

  2. Sid Raisch said:

    Great memory George and although this one is yours and not mine (no lake nearby) it is enjoyable to live it through your words. While my memories are a different they are similar in that a lot of character building came with the experiences. You made me think of what kind of past the children who grew up in the past decade or two, and those growing up today will have to live in, and the character that will be built as a result.

  3. George said:

    Dear Sid-
    I, too, worry about this, Sid, but the USA has gone through many different kinds of enormous stresses, and character weakness just may be the next generation’s. I hope not. I rather think it is just “too much, too soon” for the last 60 years. Human resilience is great and recovery can occur surprisingly fast; one generation or so might be all it takes—20 to 30 years.

    Thank you for posting.

  4. Janet Mills said:

    I have several friends who currently live in Glen Ellyn. One of them owns a home right on the lake, a beautiful example of the Arts & Crafts movement in architecture. Reading your story, I can vividly imagine your childhood speed skating experience. I grew up in Palos Park, IL. We had a fantastic toboggan slide there, which is my version of nostalgic winter fun. When we began ‘pre- dating’, groups of us being dropped off by our parents for an hour or two on weekends, the thrill of riding a toboggan with a boy I currently had a crush on was an important part of the thrill. The slide has been closed for some years now, but I will always remember it fondly.

  5. George said:

    Dear Janet-
    Thank you for your vivid memories. I may know your friend. Please see Studying Rubbish. Lake Ellyn is how a mere large park pond. Ample decorative ponds don’t come much larger and certainly no lovelier than this, but it’s no longer a lake. The bottom is probably mostly bentonite, which is a porous, light density clay, and somewhat absorbent. It is the gooey stuff your feet stand on in shallow, muddy lakes. I think the “spring” was filled in—sort of gummed up—years ago. Water grasses, rushes and sedges love it there; of course, they tolerate salt so well they practically spit it out. The Glen Ellyn Park District would have to empty the lake, shovel out the salty bottom, and also redirect the street salt runoff to the nearby swamp. The project would be costly, but worthy. It would return speed skating to thousands of residents.

    Thanks again.

  6. Lynn Murphy said:

    Thank you for taking an inherently nostalgic person back to years of “time on the Ice”, outdoors that is, in contrast to Rinks. The flimsy lights, the electricity of laughter, the mom’s begging you all to come home, those were rich years of Natural Fun.

  7. George said:

    Dear Lynn-
    The pleasure of reading your memories is all the thanks I need. I’m very happy to know that so many other people had these experiences.

    Thank you.

  8. Helen Colbert said:

    Your vivid descripton of Lake Ellyn brings to mind the old holiday movie, “The Bishop’s Wife”, where Cary Grant and Loretta Young skate on a lovely frozen lake!

    Unfortunately, it seems all good things must sooner or later come to an end and more’s the pity! Luckily, the good times you had on Lake Ellyn will live on in your memory.

  9. George said:

    Dear Helen-
    Thank you. I shall rent your movie recommendation. Actually, I wonder if this particular event – or comedy of errors—might have been avoided. Rather like a car wreck.

    Thanks again for your kind thoughts.

  10. Leslie said:

    I loved your article! I grew up in Northern Maine back in the 60s. We went ice skating all winter long at the local public rink, right near the river. My Dad taught us all to ice skate when we were toddlers. Even on the coldest days, my Mom would bundle us up and send us outside with instructions to not come in until lunch! Those were wonderful, simpler days without cell phones, laptops for 1st graders and cable TV, and I think we were all the richer for it.

    Thanks for reminding me!

  11. George said:

    Dear Leslie-
    I agree we were much better off without the clutter, at least during childhood. I see some kids today, and it is like they are in hell. Thank you for your wonderful memories, so much like my own.

  12. jo said:

    let’s do it…is there an office to sign up? i would do it in a new york minute…i’m so glad i know what your talking about…i can feel that feeling…the cold air…how good it felt on a friday night out late…thank goodnes i was one of the tomboys…

  13. George said:

    Dear jo-
    Interesting that you propose to “do it”. I know of a non-profit that is considering to help Glen Ellyn to dredge and repair the lake. However, it isn’t about money (never is), but about political will. Who’s going to manage it? See it through? And, ultimately, who cares? If the kids are playing Halo all day, we’d have to start with a whole new generation. I once fantasized that maybe a mass migration of poor East Germans to the Chicago suburbs would help. But Europeans, who don’t leave, remain in Europe for a reason, usually involving family and language. So the change will have to be “home-grown”. Thus, maybe I am, indeed, living in the past. If I changed the lake, back to its previous status, I might be disappointed—no one could show up. Life is certainly not a fantasy.

    Thanks again.

  14. Lynn said:

    We also had such a place in Minneapolis, Powderhorn Park. It had a beautiful speed skating oval, and they had “Silver Skates” races every January. My 3 boys were lucky to have participated in more than once, winning a few times. There is also an island on the lake. It was beautiful, it also almost changed my son Joe from a hockey player to a speed skater the older gentleman whom ran the races saw Joe and commented on his style. Joe had to think twice about switching but chose hockey, he went on to be a National Junior College champion.

  15. George said:

    Dear Lynn-
    “Silver Skates” indeed. What a great organization that was. I believe the YMCA was involved in our town at some point too. Plus, it turns out the Chicago Tribune newspaper was a big sponsor as well. Those days are definitely gone. However, perhaps today kids find great adventure and satisfaction in the indoor rinks. Sigh. It is their world, after all. Maybe Google could sponsor outdoor skating nationwide.

    Thank you very much for posting.

  16. peter rinaldi said:

    Very nice story…rekindles many memories of Irvington Park.boathouse and all..thanks, pcr

  17. George said:

    Thank you very much, Peter.

  18. Charlie Bright said:

    That was a wonderful remembrance that like so much of what we remeber, can not be repeated again, even if the forces and factors that made it possible were still in tact. I’m afraid that many of my same memories of activities i enjoyed are very fleetingly participated in today.

  19. George said:

    Thank you, Charlie. As Thomas Wolfe said, “You Can’t Go Home Again”.

  20. Betty said:

    Thanks for this blog. It really made me stop and think and I re-read it three times. We can’t go
    back but I appreciate your sharing of your experiences.

    Thanks again.

  21. George said:

    Thank you, Betty. Three times? Thank you and thank you again.

  22. I vividly remember the early 1940s, how the air was clear and on a sunny day, you could “see forever”. Pollution has changed all that, everything has a haze in your view except the few times a cold front sweeps out the cobwebs and you can see more clearly. I remember well before television your imagination would visualize pictorial images of what you were hearing. The same could be said about books we read.

    In those days of yesteryear, we had no fear of being shot by a fellow student in school. We walked streets at night without fear of molestation, morals were high, a handshake was binding in a business deal and we showed respect for one another.

    My, how the world, as well as your Lake Ellyn has changed, and no, the young people of today do not know the joys of the life we enjoyed in our youth. It is very sad.

    Progress is not necessarily a good thing.

  23. George said:

    Dear Robert-
    I agree that television has played a powerful role in developing peoples’ perceptions, especially those of children. They age more quickly.

    However, do not despair. I have seen adults change on a dime. More often, as a result of a moral awakening. My mother’s entire family were Baptists from the south, and uplifting change was always around the corner, even with some physically “uplifting” help—like a swift kick in the butt. Adult baptism—interesting concept, to put it mildly. For over 30 years I’ve believed that faith is the answer, when “hybridized”, if you will, with technology. Knowing right from wrong. That is all I think about sometimes.

    Thank you.

  24. Johnebook said:

    I never ice skated, but as a child we had marsh with lots of wildlife and a couple of 55 gallon drum pontoon boats, which slowly disappeared as our Minnesota suburb grew. Nice article, thanks.

  25. George said:

    Dear Johnebook-
    Thank you for your kind thoughts and memories.

  26. Angela said:

    As always, a beautiful, evocative piece. Thank you so much, Mr. Ball!

  27. George said:

    Dear Angela-
    You are so kind to appreciate my humble, little blog. Thank you very much.

  28. Vicki Cochrane said:

    Thank you so very much for the Speed Skating piece.
    I’m with you…..How I miss that PEACE that we felt then!

  29. George said:

    Dear Vicki-
    Speed skating is still with us, don’t forget. Vancouver in February! It might not be the same but it will be close. Especially nice to watch are the elegant stances and explosive starts. Always enjoyable to read about the latest innovation in the technology of the skates themselves. If the skaters are not “juicing”, then they surely will be at the place we used to feel.

    Thank you for posting.

  30. Darlene Brown said:

    I sit another sleepless night listening to the pounding rain outside and geese flying overhead and read this delightful story full of days gone by and experiences never to return. I remember the lake at Lakeside Park in our small town in Southeast Kansas as a child. It wasn’t as deep, but it too froze over in the winter, and while there were no rented skates or shelter with benches and fireplace, the lake would be filled at night with kids and parents either on skates or slick bottom shoes (before the advent of Nikes and heavily patterned soles). There were old metal barrels circling the lake with burning fires for warms and to roast marshmallows. Now that lake is strewn with trash, the ducks and geese removed this past summer because someone new who had moved into the neighborhood complained about the droppings and the ducks nestling on their lawn. Once again, the big guys responding to the complaints of the few to the detriment and pleasure of the many. Now the seasons are not as harsh, the water doesn’t free that deep, and even if it did, the police would soon be there to run anyone away who dared to enjoy the freedom of being on the ice.

  31. George said:

    Dear Darlene-
    Heck of a wonderful memory of a place that I must say I envy. We in Glen Ellyn had it too good! As far as the winters not being as cold: Is there a “heat shield” coming from a newly developed nearby town or suburb? That may amount for part of the lack a deep frozen surface. As for the cops, they work for you; get a few citizens together and reclaim your rights.

    Thank you for posting.

  32. Kitty Lewis said:

    Oh, thank you for the nostalgia! As a child in the fifties, i skated on the milkshed water overflow. It was very bumpy, covering the feed lot for the cows, but it was SKATING. And the cows were not there on that ice. Also skated on nice ponds in Northern Wisconsin; i wonder if any are left. Thank you again. Kitty

  33. George said:

    Dear Kitty-
    Yours was the way the British used to skate in East Anglia, also called “The Fens”. They simply flooded low farm field and held races. Also, I’m sure there quite a few lakes in Wisconsin where kids skate, so long as they avoid using the lake to drain salty street runoff. Also, have you heard about the “Elfstedentocht” This is supposed to be quite an event.

    Thank you for posting such a sweet memory (The bumpy part).

  34. mpd said:

    Maybe you are just a Luddite?
    Sounds like a great childhood.

  35. George said:

    Dear mpd-
    Actually, this is a great question. I’ll have you know that Ned Ludd’s very first attack was to vandalize the farm of a local farmer who had set up one of the “new- fangled” semi—mechanical frame looms that cut down on labor, or “time on task” in today’s parlance . The farmer woke up in the morning and his new loom was smashed to pieces. He cut to tree went to the local authority, requested a warrant for Ned Ludd’s arrest.

    The farmer’s name? George Ball. No kidding? I found this out after I wrote the WSJ op/ed piece that appeared in a different form on this blog as “The Neo–Luddites”. What are the odds, if any?

    Thank you very much for the post.

  36. MarionT Etheredge said:

    It is within the kind of community you have described that we really learn to trust one another, to have mutual experiences of athletic pursuit of physical pleasure as a group. I do not know what if anything can replace or does replicate that kind of joy in living.

    I will think on it. Glad you brought your memory alive. Lovely, being a child and playing with friends into the night.

  37. George said:

    Dear Marion-
    Thank you for the kind thoughts. “Playing with friends into the night” was, indeed, quite special, especially in the icy cold.

  38. Mr. B, thanks for the journey back to speed skating kids. living in hockey land (minneapolis) Our group of kids (finns and swedes) had Lake Harriet. (you would love to see Lake Harriet and its rose gardens today). Took my husband to see my elementary school pond, where in 1957, my mother, president of the local garden club, planted trees with her cronies. Teens came by and busted them all down, but one.

  39. George said:

    Dear Shla-
    I’m sorry to hear about your mother’s rose bushes. That is a sad story. There were lots of Swedish and Finnish families in the Chicago suburbs back in the old days, but not as concentrated as you folks up there. And, yes, their kids were among the most physically active. Great athletes—naturals with large hands and feet. Many Hungarian immigrants produced very athletic kids as well.

    Thank you for the memories.

  40. WebFadds said:

    Hi – I live in Oregon, near Portland, and people lack the experience to drive well in the snow, since it doesn’t snow here often. Interesting your notes about the improvements in autos. Times are indeed changing.

  41. George said:

    Dear WebFabbs-
    Tires are an interesting subject. In slick ice, you need to have something between you and the ordinary tire—sand, cinders, salt. Otherwise, either chains or studded tires which are called now “winter tires”. Some are more, some are less “studded” or else sort of granulated with abrasive strips or sections to maintain contact, rather than spinning and slipping. The advent of the “radial” tire back in the early 70s helped lead the way to greater sophistication of snow tires. But, salt has always been required when black ice comes a ‘callin’. Although I have always been a fan of cinders because they always looked so dramatic to me when I was a kid.

    Thank you for posting.

  42. Brad Jones said:

    I was one of those skaters, thanks for the many memories. You did forget to mention the excitment we all got when the jeep which cleaned the lake of fresh snow would at times fall through the ice. I still have my Planerts skates and have on the few occasions when the lake is frozen, returned to skate.
    Thank you, George

  43. Rachel said:

    Hi, my dad was from Chicago, same area. He grw up there in the 1930’s. He and his three brothers would wait for the field near their house to flood over after someone opened the fire hydrant. They would skate for hours. WHen my dad had his first hip replacement twenty years ago, he put his skates on and skated down a river near their house in Samford, Connecticut. He knew he would never be able to do that again. One year I made a gingerbread house for him . On the one side was a large blue pond, with four boys skating, their dog sitting on the side, watching. THanks for the story. Rachel

  44. Libby K said:

    I loved the ice skating story. Just beautiful. Could close my eyes and see all those strong kids having a “ball”.
    Even though I grew up in southwest VA, we, too, had many icy cold winter games. Kids were always skating or sledding, building snow houses,etc. to see who was the strongest. We loved the outdoors and stayed out for hours playing.
    Thanks again for the beauty of our childhood.
    Have a Blessed New Year!

  45. Dale L. said:

    George, you must be related to George Ball, Ball Nurseries, etc. in GE. Did you graduate from Glenbard? Very interesting, nostalgic look at Lake Ellyn

  46. katie gAGNON said:

    I remember both as a female and one with weak ankles who was truely a poor performer on the ice many wonderful days and nights of my formable years the culture of lake Ellen transformed into a winter wonderland and those amazing cups of hot chocolate sitting on a bench by the large stone fireplace with a cozy fire blazing.
    This is also where I first started noticing boys as potential companions and not just playmates in my own Kenilworth neighborhood.
    I have raised my own children in Florida on the Gulf Coast so they have no point of reference when I rememinense, but only vague complaints of sand beaches and lack of snow and snow activites, not able to pass this one down but always a part of my fondest young adolescent memoires.

  47. Dick L. said:


    Thanks for the exquisitely written trip down memory lane. My parents built on the last (and closest to Lake Ellyn) lot on Deer Path in 1950. I was 3 then and have also lived the skating culture you described. AAA must have had open meets as I don’t remember practicing with them but I do remember racing on weekends with ribbons etc. My last set of skates, Planerts are still in the basement and the grand kids use them. My early skates came from Paul’s shoe repair, some were white and some were hockey. Memories include; tag, where the tag was a whack from someone’s skate guards, viewing the gold fish under and in the ice at the pier, and watching with amazement while they cleared the ice with a Jeep, which did fall though at least once. I moved back to Glen Ellyn in 1984 and they have drained the lake twice since then, making improvements to the shore line and trying to improve the water quality with inlet alterations? Never being involved with restoration of the Lake, I have wondered why they don’t direct the water straight to the outlet in the winter until the salt is gone then return the water to the Lake the other seasons.

  48. Scott Engstrom said:

    What a great blog entry. I grew up in the 60s skating on Lake Ellyn, winning enough ribbons to entually join the Glen Ellyn AAA speed skating team, and going on to compete until college. It was so much fun on that lake. We spent all weekend skating down there. I had no idea I was preparing for short track in those many games of tag. You had to be quick and tricky. I also remember going thru the ice once and thinking I was going to die. Another highlight was the toboggan run on the side opposite the boat house. My mom was at an art show in Oconomowoc, Wi in the 80s and saw a black and white painting of Lake Ellyn. It was not labeled as such but she knew exactly where it was. I now have it hanging in my house as a great reminder of those simpler days.

Follow Comments:
RSS Feed for This Post