There are lots of things for which I'll remember my Uncle Joe, some good, some not. He gave me my first ice skates, a pair of double runners, and he introduced me to his bookie before I raced a Zamboni.
When I was five, I skimmed around the small backyard rink my father had built using wood he took late at night from a construction site in West Haven. I met the bookie a week before the Zamboni race ten years later. My father, my mother and Uncle Joe were all there that night, but each in a different section.
From the day my father took the hose and filled the rink, I zipped over the bumpy ice carving a two blade track. Learning on double runners taught me that skating was more about balance than ankle strength. My mother stood in the kitchen window watching, but never said anything when I came in exhausted and dizzy. My father was different. Two days after he built the rink, he gave me a hockey stick. I think he must have found it someplace because it was beat up, with the handle half covered in tape. "Let's measure this," he said, holding the stick against my chest. He cut about a foot off the top of the stick, and showed me how to hold it. He wrapped electrical tape around a flattened tennis ball, and threw it on the ice. I continued skating, now carrying the stick. Occasionally I'd push the pretend puck around and would shoot it the length of my rink. Almost every winter day I skated in circles, as fast as I could go, learning which way to lean around the corners. We lived at the end of a small street with only three houses on it, none of them with kids my age. I had no pets.
Less than a year after I got my skates, I traded them to Donny Best for a single blade pair that had belonged to his brother Alan, who'd been killed when he was hit by a car. I always felt funny wearing the skates of a dead kid, but they fit and allowed me to skate even faster. I also knew I'd outgrow them soon. When my mother asked me where I got them, I told her I traded some of my comics for them, knowing she would worry that a catastrophe would happen to me wearing the skates of a kid run over by a car.
My father drove a milk truck, sometimes with me beside him next to the open door. "Hold on to the seat bottom, Phil," he'd say, as we went around corners. He told my mom he always slid the passenger side door closed, which he did, then told me to open it, saying, "We need to feel the air." When he stopped to make a delivery, I sometimes walked with him to the house, carrying a quart of milk. I would look in the yards to see if other kids had ice rinks.
"Don't you want to play pee wee hockey?" my father asked at least three times a week after I'd come in from spinning around my backyard rink.
"No, I'm too small," I'd reply. Or, "Hockey's not fun," and I'd go into my room and find a book to read. He smiled and said, "Maybe next year."
I knew I wasn't too small, I just didn't like hockey. Skating around the ice let me think. I imagined I was king of a land where I had the only ice in the world. I'd skate every morning, while the rest of this world waited. Sometimes I was surrounded by people watching me. I'd skate so fast that their heads blended together into a pinkish, orange color, until I passed someone tall, or wearing a hat. They always applauded when I stopped. I smiled, but didn't say anything.
When I was twelve, my father came home one afternoon and I heard him tell my mom he was fired, something about money and his accounts. They started yelling and I left the house the back way and took the bus to New Haven where I looked at stuff in Grants and Woolworth's. I spent 25 cents of my money on a vanilla milkshake at Grants, which came with a shortbread cookie. I had saved about $2 from stealing the empty bottles behind Benson's Package Store and turning them in at the A & P.
I walked three blocks to the New Haven Arena. The lobby doors were open. No one was there to stop me, so I went through a portal and saw the rink for the first time, the ceiling lights reflected off the mirror surface, red and blues lines for hockey, a big New Haven Blades sign at center ice. It reminded me of the rink in my imagination. I walked around it, counting my steps and wondering how it would feel to have that much space to skate. When I came home, my mother was sitting in the kitchen, reading the newspaper. She gave me a slight smile and asked if I wanted a cookie.
"No thanks. Where's Dad?"
"He's out," my mother said. "We're having eggs for supper." She went back to her newspaper.
I put on my skates and sprayed water over my rink, imagining it was the one I'd just seen in New Haven. Then I skated faster than I ever had before; counting the seconds it took me to reach the number of steps around the Arena ice, in case I ever had the chance to skate there.
My father eventually got another job, working at a movie theatre about a mile from our house. It meant I could get in free, and the person in the box office would just wave me through. About six months after he started working there, I walked to the theatre one night after supper, telling my mom I was going to the library. The show had already started. It was a film called Crime Wave and starred Sterling Hayden, who was in a lot of Westerns. There was no one collecting tickets and or at the candy stand. I walked by the manager's office and opened the door and saw Connie, the candy girl sitting on my father's lap. He had his arms around her. Her back was to me, and his head was buried in her stomach, though later I figured it was her chest, Connie being a bit chubby. I backed quietly out and went upstairs to the balcony where I sat in the back row, thinking that if I could skate even faster what I had seen would go away. I could take the candy girl by the hand and skate faster than time and she'd disappear into a theatre in another dimension. I don't remember much of the movie and left before it was over so I wouldn't see my father.
Scientists should investigate what I called the spray factor in ice skating - the shavings your skates create as they cut the ice and scatter it in the air around your feet. Sometimes I'd stare at my skates, seeing variations in intensity of the spray, depending on my speed and direction.
I figured there were millions of tiny ice crystals in each spray. Someday, I would find a way to collect it before it melted so it could be piped to the dessert to make grass and flowers grow there. Of course, I'd be famous, though no one would know my secret identity as the world's fastest ice skater.
When I was older, I'd skate at Clark's Pond, three blocks from my house. One day, I'd been skating around for about an hour. I had to detour a bit to avoid the kids playing hockey and the mothers holding the hands of their small children, but I felt I was the only one there. As usual, the hockey players asked me to join their game, but I waved them off and continued circling the pond, speeding up on the straight parts, slowing, and leaning to either the right or left on the corners. Usually when I began, I would set a starting point, a tree or rock on the shore, and count the seconds it took to complete a run around the pond. The first time would be my mark for that day, and before I would leave, I'd try to beat it. I used to have a stop watch I earned for selling packets of flower and vegetable seeds door to door, but when I had a bad fall on the ice landing on my side, the watch was smashed in my pants pocket.
My mother started taking me to the Yale freshman hockey games on Saturday afternoons at the Arena when I was fourteen. There was no admission to the games and we sat in the first row on the Yale side, where there was usually only a scattering of other people. My mother would tell me that the Yale kids were pretty smart and would have good jobs when they graduated. Sometimes she clapped when someone on Yale scored a goal, and with so few people in the building, the players would look over to where we were sitting.
I still didn't like hockey much, but I enjoyed watching the kids hired to clean the ice between periods. Most of them were in their teens, like me, but I knew I could skate better. The job looked easy -- first skating with a snow shovel in front you, side by side with two other boys, pushing the ice shavings into a large covered pit where it melted and fed into the sewage system. Then they'd push a two by four foot soft canvas pad held by a broomstick and soaked in hot water over the ice to clean and create a glaze on the surface. One or two of the cleaners would finish up by skating over the ice with a pole holding a wide bladed rubber squeegee. Often before they were even finished, the hockey players were climbing over the side boards and skating past. When the period ended, I'd stand at the rail around the rink, near the blue line, so I could get a close look at the ice cleaners. I knew I could do that work, better and faster.
"I want to do that," I said, going back to where my mother was sitting and smoking, not really watching the ice being cleaned.
"What?" she said.
"I want to be an ice cleaner. I can skate better than they can."
"You're too young," She took a puff of her Herbert Taryton cigarette. "You have to be 16 to work."
Some of the kids on the ice didn't look 16. I wandered to the end where the goal was being re-fastened to the ice. There was a man in a heavy green wool sweater, standing by the rink's sides that were open. I went over to him and said, "How do I get one of those jobs?" pointing to the ice cleaners.
He looked at me and said, "Grow about four inches and be in high school," and looked away.
"I can skate better and faster than those kids."
He looked back at me and asked, "How old are you?"
"I'm 16," I said.
"Yeah, and I'm the mayor of New Haven. Beat it kid." He walked onto the ice and yelled for the cleaners to hurry up.
One day after school, I talked with Susan Pastor from my English class, waiting for the bus home. She said she had seen me skating on Clark's Pond last Saturday. I nodded and asked if she had read Tale of Two Cities? She said yes, smiled and got on the bus. I almost sat next to her. I thought about writing my own book about a speed skating super hero who rescued a girl just like Susan.
The next weekend, my mother took me to another Yale game at the Arena. I watched the ice being cleaned before the game started. As I returned to my seat, I saw a man sitting next to my mother. She pointed at me and said to the man, "This is Philip." I knew from his coat and hat who he was, but had no idea why he'd be talking to my mother. Stanley Brownstern was usually called "Bear," though never to his face. He owned the New Haven Arena, among other things, including a bowling alley in the Westville part of the city and an apartment building in Hamden. He earned the nickname because whenever he was seen at the Arena, he wore a heavy jacket with a fur collar buttoned to the top. He was never seen without it, or the Cossack-type fur hat that he only took off in the presence of a woman.
"This is Mr. Brownstern," my mother said. The Bear stood and held out his hand, which I shook.
"I'm an old friend of your mother's," he said, looking me up and down. "Are you a hockey fan?"
I mentally shrugged, but said, "Yes, sir."
My mother reached into her purse and handed me some change. "Philip, please go and get me some cigarettes."
"Nice seeing you," Brownstern said, raising his hand in a wave.
When I returned, he was gone. "He owns this place," I said to her. She took the cigarette pack, opened it and tapped one out, looking at it for a second before putting it in her mouth and lighting it. "I know," she said, exhaling smoke.
"Maybe he could give me a job cleaning the ice," I said, not looking at her.
There was no reply for at least a minute, and then she said, "I don't know. You're too young."
But I wasn't. The next Saturday we were there in the same seats and right after the game started, I told my mother I was going to the men's room, but instead went to the lobby and knocked on the door marked Office. Brownstern answered and stared at me for a second, then, recognizing me, gave a slight smile and said, "You're Annie's boy," turned and walked to a big paper-covered desk. I followed and he pointed to a chair a few feet away at the side of the desk. The walls of the room were filled with pictures of hockey players, boxers and basketball players. They looked as if they all had been taken at the Arena. You could hear the sounds of skates on the ice, and an occasional clap as wooden cases of empty soda bottles were dropped at the refreshment stand. He was wearing the same heavy coat and hat.
"Sit down. Your mother OK?"
"Sure," I answered.
"So, then, what is it?"
"I'd like to be one of your ice cleaners. I can skate pretty good."
"You're what, fourteen?" Brownstern asked.
"I don't know if I have any openings. I'll ask McNally, the rink manager. You know those jobs are going to end when we bring in the ice cleaning machine."
"A machine? To do the ice?"
Brownstern looked at me, gave another of his fast smiles and started rummaging through the papers on his desk. He glanced at a couple of sheets, flipped them to the side and searched some more. "Here it is," he said and handed me a black and white picture of a truck, with an open cabin holding one seat. "They call it a Zamboni, after the guy that invented it. It'll clear the ice and lay down a new surface at the same time. One guy can do the job instead of three or four kids."
I stared at the photo, looking at the large wheels with chains, and an inverted plow-like contraption in the front, before I handed it back to him.
"Probably not as fast though," I said.
"Much faster," Brownstern said, giving me a hard look.
"You haven't seen me skate," I tried to sound older, but my voice cracked.
Brownstern laughed. "Your mom and I grew up in the same neighborhood. Tough times. She could skate pretty well."
I never knew my mother ice skated at all.
"I don't know when the machine's coming. Maybe a month or two. But if there's an opening, I'll call your mom, make sure she says it's OK. That's the best I can do." He opened a drawer and put the photo of the Zamboni in it and stood. My signal to go, I guessed.
"Ah, thanks, Mr. Brownstern," I thrust out my hand.
"Well, we'll see what we have." He walked to the door and held it for me. "Tell Annie I said hello."
I didn't until we were riding on the bus home and I knew she couldn't yell at me. But when I got home, she did.
The telephone rang later that night and my mother was on for a long time. When she hung up, she called me downstairs. She was in the kitchen with a cup of coffee and a cigarette burning in her ashtray. The kitchen radio was on to a New York talk station, probably WOR. Some of my friends in school had a television, but we didn't. "Turn the radio off," she said and pointed to a chair and told me that Mr. Brownstern had a job for me on the ice cleaning crews which worked the public skating sessions and the pee wee hockey games, mostly Saturday and Sunday mornings. "I'm not very happy about this, Phillip," she said. "But we can use the money, that's for sure. I see some of those guys cleaning the ice smoking and you better not." She put out her own cigarette as she said it.
I was excited about the news, though more about skating on the Arena ice than anything else. Two of the guys on my crew went to Hamden High, but were two years ahead of me, and mostly just nodded at me when I took my shift. One Sunday afternoon, during the public skating session I saw the Bear watching from in back of the pit where we pushed the ice shavings. After the skate ended, we cleaned the ice for that night's New Haven Blades hockey game. As I changed out of my skates, the Bear came over. "Stop in my office before you leave, Phil." Then he walked away. Richie O'Keefe, who was on the crew with me that day, came over and said, "That doesn't sound good, Phil. Maybe the Zamboni is arriving. Then we'll all be gone." I just shrugged.
After I sat down in his office, The Bear looked up at me and smiled. "You do skate pretty fast, Phil. I've got an idea maybe you'll be interested in. He reached over and picked up the same photo of the Zamboni machine he's showed me a couple of months ago. Waving it, he said, "It's finally gonna get here, and I was thinking that to show it off we could have you and a couple of the other good skaters on the ice crew skate with it as it drives around the rink between periods of a New Haven Blades game. What do you think?"
I didn't know what to say, so I just sat there. But I was thinking of a picture from one of my history books in the sixth grade of a horse racing against a railroad train, and remembering that was one of the ways that the railroads attracted attention and business when they came to new towns. "How about I race your new machine, Mr. Brownstern?"
He looked as if he wanted to laugh, but didn't. "Phil, why would you want to do that?"
"Because I can beat it. I can clean half the ice faster than your new machine can." I paused, then added a quick, "sir."
The Bear was quiet for a moment, giving me a hard look, and then glancing at the picture still in his hand. Then he smiled. "OK, kid. You got a race. We'll advertise it, pack the place. You tell your parents, make sure it's OK. We'll mark off half the ice, from end to end. First to finish cleaning, and wetting, the ice is the winner."
Oh, boy. I hadn't thought about putting the shine on the ice, that would mean an extra trip, but the Zamboni would have to turn in a much smaller space having only half the ice to maneuver. It might just give me the time I'd need. I smiled back at him. Now all I would have to do is convince my parents.
"I know you think that the Zamboni can't make the turn cleaning half the ice and you'll catch up, Phil, but…" he paused here and looked again the photograph, "my guess is the machine will be far enough ahead not to make any difference."
I didn't respond.
"But," Brownstern added, "I'll give you an extra $100 in your paycheck for doing this."
I didn't tell him, but I was more than willing to do it for nothing, though I knew the extra money would make a big difference in how my parents felt about this.
And it did. My mother wasn't at all happy about it. "What if something happens to the machine?" she asked. "And it runs you over?"
My father laughed, which didn't help. "It can't go that fast," I said, "because it has to make turns and it will have to back up to make the turns on half the ice. Besides, I'm pretty fast."
"That he is," my father said. "It's quite a thing he'll be doing."
"Yeah," my mom said. "Just to bring more money into Stanley's wallet."
My father didn't say anything, then, but later, when I was upstairs I heard them arguing about something, with my name mentioned a couple of times.
I worked at most of the public skating sessions. A week before the race against the Zamboni, my Uncle Joe arranged to meet me at the hot dog stand. Winky Wexler, the owner of the stand, who was also my uncle's bookie, was placing about a half dozen hot dogs in a pot of boiling water, while three others behind the counter waited on people and served sodas, coffees and hot chocolate. Uncle Joe was eating popcorn.
"Howya doin', Philly?" Joe asked, holding out the bag.
"I've never placed a bet before," I said, shaking my head "no" to the popcorn.
"That's okay, kid, I've placed thousands of them," he laughed.
He explained to me that there was not "a lot of action" on the Zamboni race yet, but a story coming out in the New Haven Register would "spike it up." He asked how much I was going to bet.
"I thought five bucks," reaching for my wallet.
Uncle Joe shook his head. "Have some faith in yourself, Philly. You can skate faster than a truck with chains on its wheels."
"Sure, I know that, Uncle Joe, but it's cleaning the ice that slows you down, pushing the shovels and pad, not to mention the squeegee." I explained how the rink would be divided in half vertically, north to south, by a two inch wide black tape. The Zamboni and I would each have a half to clean and the first one to finish would be the winner.
"They should just flood the Yale Bowl and see who can make it from one end zone to the other first," Joe said, taking off his hat and scratching his bald head.
I tried to hand my money to Joe, who shook his head and said, "I'll take care of it," and he signaled the man at the hot dog pot. "Come're, Winky, I want you to meet somebody."
Winky threw a few more dogs in the pot, wiped his hands on his apron and smiled, sticking his hand out to Joe. "Hey, good to see you."
Joe put his arm around me, "This here's my nephew, Phil. He's skating against that Zamboni thing. Hell of a skater, Winky."
"Hey, kid," Wexler winked at me with his left eye and stuck out his hand, which I shook. "So this the Bear's kid?" he asked, looking at Joe.
My uncle coughed and took his arm away. "This boy is Ray Dugan's, my sister's husband." He coughed again. "He's gonna beat that hunk of steel."
I had stopped listening at the words "Bear's kid," seeing both him and my father in my mind, my mother hazy in the background. It was one of those moments when all the sound around you stops. I was in my backyard rink, on double runners, but when I made the first turn, I saw my mom talking to the Bear at the Arena and in back of them, Connie, the movie theatre candy girl on my father's lap.
"Give us a couple of dogs," Joe said, and when Wexler came back with them, he handed them both to me and told me to put mustard on his and meet him at the portal to the rink. When he got there he handed me a small piece of paper. "There's your bet. Put it in your wallet. Don't lose it." It was a snack bar receipt on which someone, I guess Wexler, had written: $25/Kid.
"I only was going to bet $5," I told Joe.
"Yeah, this is on me." He took a bite of his hot dog.
"What did he mean about me and the Bear?"
"Nothing, nothing at all, Philly. He's confused. Must have thought you were someone else. I got to go meet a fellow about something. Finish your work. I'll see you."
A few days before the race, I sat with Susan about halfway down the left side of the Whitney, watching a movie called Hard, Fast & Beautiful. It was about a young tennis player, whose mom pushed her to be the best. Sally Forest played the girl; Claire Trevor was her mom. Susan liked tennis and had wanted to see it. On the bus ride to the theatre she had asked me if I was scared about the race. "I'm going to be there," she added. "My father goes to all the Blades games and sometimes he takes me."
I said I was trying not to think about it. Which was true.
"You're going to win. I know it," Susan said.
"Maybe. It all depends on how fast the Zamboni can turn."
She asked me why.
"It has a wide turning radius. That's why it does the left side of the rink, goes down the middle, then the space in between those two and finally the right side. But with the rink cut in half, it has to do the left side and then back up to turn. That's my best chance, because it will take some time."
The movie was okay. Halfway through, I reached over and took Susan's hand, but really got more of her candy box.
"Good and Plenty?" she asked, shaking the half empty box, but still holding on to my hand.
"Did you ever wonder if your parents were really your parents?" I asked as we were riding home on the bus.
She looked at me strangely. "Only when they say something dumb. I look like them, especially my mom's nose," and she quickly touched hers. "Why?"
"Just something someone else said. That my father wasn't my father."
"That's kind of hurtful." She looked at me. "I've seen your father, he looks like you." She said it quickly, like she wasn't exactly sure.
"Yeah," I said.
The next day, during the first period of a high school game at the Arena, I was soaking one of the canvas mop pads in a pail of hot water when the Bear came into the pit. "After you get through, come to my office." I told him I would, then picked up my mop and stepped on the ice. I was the only cleaner that day, as we usually alternated high school games. It was a lot of work for one guy, but I got to skate all around the Arena ice.
Bear yelled, "Come in!" after I knocked on his door.
"You wanted to see me?" I asked.
"Sit down." He pointed to the chair next to his desk. "I think this Zamboni race is a bad idea, though I know it's too late to stop it."
It wasn't a question, so I stayed quiet.
"I know you think you can win, and maybe you can…" He paused and picked up what looked like a New Haven Blades game program, then slapped it on the desk.
"I've spent thousands on the Zamboni. It won't look good if some kid can do the work faster." This last came out in a torrent of words. Before I could say anything, he held up his hand, with the palm facing me. "Look, I'll give you 300 bucks if you slow down just enough to let the truck win. You can slip, drop your mop, I don't care. Just don't win." He took a deep breath, and looked everywhere but at me.
I thought about having $300. But I also thought about how all my time skating in circles I'd really been practicing for a race. I'd had people I didn't even know see me and wave, or tell me good luck. Now the guy who gave me the job wanted me to lose on purpose.
"I can't do that, Mr. Brownstern," I said and left his office before he could say anything else.
But when I arrived home, my mother was in the living room, waiting for me. "Stanley Brownstern called and asked me to talk with you. It really should be your father, but I'll try." She pointed to the other end of the sofa and I put my skating bag in the corner and sat down.
"You know I was against the stupid race from the beginning. And I wasn't too happy about your job at the Arena either. But I go back a long way with Stanley, and he gave your father the job at the theatre. That was a big favor."
"He owns the Whitney?" I said.
"He owns a lot of stuff, Phil."
"I can beat that stupid machine, the machine that's going to take my job away, a job I like…" I felt my voice go hoarse.
"That machine's here to stay whether you beat it or not," my mother said. "Stanley told me he'll keep you on the crew that works with the machine, so you'll still have a job. Plus the $300. That would be nice."
I just shook my head, got up and started for the stairs, hearing my mother sigh as I reached the landing. I had a hard time sleeping that night. The last thing I remembered was skating at Clark's Pond and being chased by a Zamboni that somehow was cleaning its ice. A huge spray was coming off my skates.
The next night before supper, with my father already at work, I said to her, "Did Uncle Joe tell you what his bookie said to me?"
She continued to drop potatoes in the pot, not looking at me. "Nothing your Uncle Joe says would surprise me, Philip. He used to be a boxer. He got hit in the head too much."
"His bookie said Mr. Brownstern's my father." I could smell the potatoes as they started to cook.
She picked up a big spoon and began stirring. "His bookie cooks hot dogs for a living. Don't pay any attention to him. Your father is your father." She slammed the spoon down on the stove, as if that would be the end of it. But for me it wasn't.
The night of the race Susan asked me to meet her at Portal 6. She introduced me to her father and he told me good luck then walked away, telling Susan he'd be at their seats.
"You have his nose, too," I laughed, and she hit me on my arm, then she reached into her pocket book and handed me a small silver ice skate on a key chain. "This is for good luck, Phil," she said, putting it in my hand. "Not so you'll win, but so you'll always love ice skating the way you do now." She gave my hand a squeeze and ran through the portal.
I knew my mother would be sitting in the usual place where we watched the Yale freshman games, so I made sure to go by there on my way to the pit, where I'd get ready for my ice cleaning shift between the first and second periods.
"Don't get hurt, Philip," she said, looking as if she wanted to cry.
"Where's Uncle Joe? And Dad?" I asked.
"Joe and I aren't talking much these days. He's sitting on the other side. I don't know where your father is. He's here, though, I know that."
"I'll see you after the race, mom. I'll meet you here, OK?"
Probably no more than 25 people in the Arena that night had ever seen a Zamboni before. It had been stored in a parking lot next door, covered in canvas, making it monster-like, with the covered cabin where the driver sat rising over the truck's body like a hump on a dinosaur. Before the race started, I was told to stand in the area behind the visiting goal, where we always kept the shovels and mops to clean the ice. I heard a loud noise, turned and saw the monster pulling into the space next to me. It was bigger than I expected. Some guy in a striped shirt like football officials wear was placing a wide black tape down in the middle of the ice from one end to the other. "Hey kid," the guy driving it said, shouting to be heard over the sound of the engine. He looked down from his seat on the machine. "Be careful. I get behind you, this thing will suck you up and turn you into a snow cone!" He laughed. His name was Joe Bulkowski, Billy Francis on my ice skating crew had told me, adding that he was a real jerk.
I pretended I didn't hear the guy and turned away to look up at the crowd. Both sides of the Arena were filled, and it sounded like all 3,000 people were talking at once.
The official came over and told the Zamboni driver to climb down. "I'm going to fire my starter's pistol and that's your signal to go," he said, holding out the small gun. He looked at Bulkowski. "You're on the right side," and then at me, "you're on the left. The first one to break the line tied up at the end of the ice is the winner." I looked out on the ice and for the first time I was scared.
I placed my shovel in position in front of me, angled just right, adjusted my gloves, squared the New Haven Blades knit hat they made me wear and watched Bulkowski climb into his seat. A booming voice came over the PA system, welcoming everyone to "The Battle for the Ice! Man versus Machine! Zamboni against Skates!" Then the announcer introduced us, saying: "Driving the newest invention in the world, the Zamboni Machine, is Jake Bulkowski of Milford, and representing the Arena Ice Cleaning Brigade, (that one was news to me), Hamden High School sophomore Philip Dugan." They had told me to wave, but I didn't.
When the pistol fired, I knew this first lap was the most important part of the race, where I had to build as much of a lead as I could because I had to cover the space three times, to only one for the Zamboni. The Zamboni's speed was limited by the ice, and the chains, to keep the tires from slipping, slowed it down. I knew the best angle of my shovel to clear the ice, and not slow me down too much. By the time the Zamboni was halfway to the far end, I was already making the turn to go back to the starting point. I worried about having to put down the shovel and pick up the mop pad, but when I looked ahead, I saw Bill Francis there, holding out the mop stick, ready for me to take it, his other hand set to grab the shovel.
I made the transfer in one movement and started up the ice a second time with my mop laying a thin surface of water. This was the part I liked best, making new ice. Two of me, one reflected, both of us a blur. I was halfway to the other end and saw that Bulkowski was finished with half his side, and was backing up so he could make the turn without going over the dividing line. This is where I needed to be really fast.
I could hear people yelling, but it was one sound, not individual words. I could hear the Zamboni, too, its engine roaring. It felt like I was standing still. I took a quick look at the Zamboni and saw Bulkowski throw something at me. Did he know what happened if your skate hit anything going as fast as I was? But when I looked down at my skates and saw the spray around them, I relaxed and wasn't cold. I wasn't scared, either. I knew I was the fastest kid on skates.
When I made the turn with my mop, I lost a couple of steps because I'd missed a small spot and had to slow down and slide the mop over to the lane I'd just finished. The Zamboni was starting its final side and I heard its motor rev faster. I looked up and the Bear was waving his hands. Billy was reaching for the squeegee to hand me, as I lengthened my stride. It felt like I was flying. He took the mop and handed me the squeegee as I made a perfect turn.
I was gaining on the Zamboni. The players from the Blades and the Comets had come out from their dressing rooms and were lining the side of the rink, watching, a few of them banging their sticks on the side boards. I don't know who they were cheering for, but I think it was me. There was a line tied up at the edge of the ice and hanging from it were about ten signs, reading Rossler's Hot Dogs, each with a drawing of a hot dog, covered with mustard in a roll. The machine was about seven feet ahead of me when I saw Bulkowski stand up from his seat, lift his foot, and slam it down on the floor of the truck. I guess he was hitting the accelerator. With a loud noise, that Zamboni just took off.
I dropped my squeegee to go faster, pumping my arms, but the truck pulled further ahead. The Bear and Billy Francis were standing behind the pit where we usually dumped the ice, in the space where the goal judge always sat. I couldn't tell if they were saying anything. All I could hear was the screeching of the Zamboni engine. The machine plowed through the finish line, throwing the hot dog signs all over the ice, and continued through the pit, slamming into the boards at the end of the rink, coming to a stop as the Bear and Billy jumped to safety. I was about three seconds behind, they told me later. I stopped just short of the end of the rink, turning to go back and pick up some of the Rossler signs. The hockey players were already on the ice warming up and I heard the Bear shouting to get the Zamboni out of here, yelling at somebody to put the goals back in place. When I left the ice, my father was there with his hand out to help me off, saying, "Good try, kid. Real good try."
I found my mother waiting for me at her seat. "You did fine," she said.
We started toward the exit to the bus home, me looking for Susan. I reached in my pocket just to feel the skating charm she had given me. On the way out, I saw my Uncle Joe and my father at Winky Wexler's hot dog/bookmaking stand. Winky handed them both some money. It took me just a few seconds to figure they'd both bet against me. My head throbbing with anger, I headed toward the counter. My mother reached out to stop me, but I pulled away.
My hands were shaking as I walked up to my father and uncle.
"You bet against me." I knew they heard me, but I said it again, more loudly. "You bet against me!" I was trying not to cry.
My father looked at Uncle Joe, who said, "Phil, no, no. We made some bets on the Knicks, and they won." My father nodded. My mother standing a few feet from us looked away.
"You did good, Phil," My father said. "I think the guy cheated, that machine revved up fast at the end. You would have won…" his voice trailed off.
"I'm proud of you, Philly. I told everyone I got you your first pair of skates," Joe said, while stuffing the bills in his pocket.
I was standing next to a counter with two large jars of mustard on them. I took one with both hands and lifted it. I heard a voice from the stove area shout, "No!" I saw my father shake his head and say, softly, "No, Phil. Don't." In my mind, I heaved it at them, but all I did was put the jar down and walk away.
"Wait for me at the bus," my mother said as she went over to my uncle and father. My father reached in his pocket and handed her something. I couldn't tell what it was. I hoped it wasn't money and that she hadn't bet against me, too.
At the bus stop she handed me a business card with a small drawing of an ice skater on it. "Your father got this for you," she said. "It's from a man who runs a skating camp here at the Arena in the summer, teaches little kids how to skate. He wants you to help and said you'll get paid, and learn some skating skills yourself. It's a good summer job, Phillip."
We got on the bus which filled up fast. My mother took a window seat and looked out at the traffic. We passed the house on Whitney Avenue where my Aunt Mildred lived, my mom's sister, whom she hadn't spoken with in ten years. She looked away and shook her head slightly, as she often did when we passed it. I stared at it, wondering what the three story home was like inside, seeing a light on the second floor, thinking that's where my aunt sat, perhaps reading or sewing. Maybe she had even been at the Arena and watched my race. But I knew better than to ask my mom anything about Aunt Mildred. I looked down at the skating camp card. "Why would my dad and uncle bet against me?" I asked, sticking the card in my pocket with Susan's charm.
She looked at me, then out the window again. The show at the Whitney Theatre was just getting out. Racing the Zamboni may have been the biggest thing in my life, but I knew the world kept going on.
Still looking out the window, my mother said, "I can't speak for your Uncle Joe, you never know what he's going to do, and your father would bet on when rain would fall in the Gobi Desert, or anything else for that matter. But I do know your father would never bet against you, Philip. He loves you too much to do that. Your skating is everything to him. Too much, I think. Ten years from now, he'll still be telling people how you beat that Zamboni machine in front of thousands people at the Arena." She reached over and touched my hand, just for a second. "And I will, too."
The Blades came back to beat the Clinton Comets 4-3 in overtime that night. The New Haven Register had a photo of me and the Zamboni taken during the race and of the machine crashed against the rink boards. The story said Jake Bulkowski, 27, was slightly injured. It also said the Zamboni would be in repairs for about three months because its governor, a device to keep its speed at about three miles per hour, had broken at the end of the race.
M C R
This work is copyrighted by the author, David Howard. All rights reserved.
The usual smell of popcorn and beer was in the air at the New Haven Arena the night Philip Dugan raced a Zamboni. Someone said General Eisenhower was seen going into the press box, lots of talk he might run for President. Alan Ladd was reportedly seen sitting in Section 10, shorter than he looked in the movies.