Between the Lines: If You’re Gonna Fall, Fall Forward
by Tim Kelly
I never saw stars, at least not in the cartoon sense.
Nor did I see little tweeting birds circling my head like a cockeyed crown.
No, first a brilliant while flash, then nothing, then the voice, female, I think, saying, “Hey, are you ok?” Can’t remember what I said, if anything. Do recall getting up off the ice and skating oh-so-slowly down the creek toward home.
Didn’t tell the parents that my very first time on ice skates, as a pre-teen in white women’s figure skates, the only pair in the basement that fit, likely ended with my brain concussed.
On the plus side, didn’t start speaking in tongues or quoting John Donne at supper.
“Never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee. Mom, can I have some more mashed potatoes?”
So nothing seemed amiss in me noggin. That was, however, the last time I ever laced up those damn white skates.
Some twenty-odd years later, oh, that same intense and brief burst of light, then nothing, then feeling someone on either side of me lifting me up off the ice. Then someone saying, “He’s reaching up to where he’s bleeding so he’s conscious.” Uh, kinda, sorta.
And disturbingly aware that I was blind.
Not totally, but able to perceive only light and shadows, as if through broken glass.
Then an ambulance ride, then sitting on an ER, vision returned, as the doc who marveled at the Icelandic wool sweater hand-knitted by me Ma, God be good to her, sewed 11 stitches in an over my left eyebrow.
Then waiting and waiting and waiting for a cab to carry me from the Mount Vernon, VA rink to our Alexandria townhouse. Then going up to bed at 3:30-ish after what should have been a one-hour, $5 Midnight Skate.
Then the Mrs., after groggily peering at the thick bandage and one eye swollen shut, asking, “Were you in a fight?”
In retrospect, shoulda said “yes” rather than confessing that, in the excitement of seeing a freshly-Zambonied, glass-smooth, full-size rink absent other skaters, I rushed my crossover step and apparently caught one skate with the blade of the other and went down like the Lusitania.
Fortunately, the brick-hard ice broke my fall.
Blew my chance to gain undeserved badass creds by confessing my status as a Klutz of the First Order.
Oh, well, The Mrs., who I’m convinced was a saber-toothed prosecutor in another life, would have stripped the more macho account to the ribs before my head hit the pillow.
Yeah, perhaps “hit’ was a poor choice of words.
So why, you may ask, if you haven’t already turned the page or stopped altogether for a 15-year-old episode of “Law & Order,” am I sharing my past frozen misfortunes? It’s to explain why, when stepping out onto the ice at the Mitchell Park Marina ice rink in Greenport a few weeks back, yours truly was the only one sporting a hockey helmet rather than a knit hat.
Checking out my choice of headgear, a young rink attendant offered, “Hey, you look just like a ref!”
No need for insults, Sonny Jim.
Although blessed with dashing good looks and a dazzling brain – ahem – athletic prowess was a gift not given here. Absolutely awful at football, basketball, baseball, etc., but strangely enough, I could skate. Go figure.
As a youth played many a pond hockey match and later, while employed on Capitol Hill, joined a midnight men’s league in the Virginia burbs. Full uniforms – yes, with helmets and protective face cages – a no-kidding rink with boards, goals, faceoff circles, the works.
The Mount Vernon Midnight Skate Massacre – Ok, I called it that, but the name never caught on – occurred while trying to get in some non-game-night practice. Seemed a good idea at the time.
Oh, did I mention I worked the next day? Few in the office asked about it. Most just shook their heads and walked away.
Leaving those crazy 80s behind, let me take you to the mid-2000s. Greenport Village had just constructed a seasonal, yet fully refrigerated, rink within a slapshot of the oh-so-scenic harbor. Hadn’t been on skates for near 20 years, but bought a pair online and joined the then-embryonic 30-and-over men’s Thursday evening hockey games.
As word spread, more and more guys showed up and it wasn’t long before we had sufficient numbers for two teams with two goaltenders and line changes.
It became clear early on, however, that most of the guys were 30 and a few weeks. At least that’s how it seemed. I was 50 at the time and, I confess, out of shape and up against whippersnappers seemingly half my age with solid, organized playing experience.
What, that guy over there played for Princeton? I’m a dead man.
But, luckily for me, everybody stuffed their egos into their street shoes. Nobody ragged on anyone, except good-naturedly. I skated, sweated, fell down. It was perfect.
Then one night I found it almost impossible to bend low enough to tie my skates. Huh, what’s up with that? Time to switch to non-fat yogurt? Oh, HELL no.
Arthritis, don’t you know. Eventually eating away my right hip joint until it was bone on bone, which hurts like a son of a, well, you know. Various pain management and short-term treatments failed like Betamax.
And thus my playing days came to a painful end. Sniff.
Ah, but five years ago I got me one a them new-fangled titanium and plastic hips, and I was good for another 100,000 miles. Amazing! No pain and full range of motion restored. A miracle of modern science!
After years of family members and others beating me up about not exercising – sorry, just can’t see meself lugging around a set of golf clubs and swearing like a longshoreman while trying to find a ball hooked or sliced into the trees, where I assure you most of ‘em would have landed – I went online and purchased a new pair of hockey skates.
Not the $900+ top-o-the-line pro models, but a good pair from CCM, known far and wide as hockey equipment royalty. Wearing the helmet, also CCM, was a compromise with The Mrs., who is loathe to pick me up at Eastern Long Island Hospital’s ER.
With no small amount of trepidation, I laced ‘em tight and stepped out onto the ice late one late January sunny weekday afternoon.
Felt what a newborn colt looks like as it first attempts to stand. Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea after all. It wasn’t long before losing my balance led to a fall. But since I was gliding at turtle speed, my pride was the only thing hurt.
You’re not packing it in, I told meself. Remember, weight forward, knees bent and don’t let the newly-sharpened blade drag along the ice after pushing off to propel yourself forward.
After a while, felt a little less shaky and a bit more balanced. A few more laps brought a bit more confidence. Skated a little faster with a bit more purpose.
Don’t overdo it. Skate and glide, skate and glide.
Ok, time to go.
Honey, I’m home! What? No, of course I didn’t fall. I…
Wadda mean raise my right hand? Do I swear to tell…?
Ok, yes, but only once. Yes, the helmet was an excellent idea, even though…
Yes, I think my brother’s old set of clubs are still in the garage. But I don’t think I have any tees or…
Oh, real funny.
Tim Kelly is a former congressional press secretary and award-winning reporter, editor, columnist and photographer. He has lived on the North Fork for 30 years. For his mid-life crisis, he became a bagpiper.