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The Boys of Winter

We lasted many years, Billy and me, all those hours and days and winter months spent out in a smoky pale world that no one had told us yet was cold enough to kill us.

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Once upon a time there was no windchill. That would be some time around the time of the prime of the ice hockey career of the redoubtable Billy D.

Chuk-chuk-chuk-chuk: whoosh-slap--BOOM!

Chuk-chuk-chuk-chuk: whoosh-slap--BOOM!

Chuk-chuk-chuk-chuk: whoosh-slap--BOOM!

That was the sound of Billy racing around the neighborhood ice rink--you could hear it almost every morning, afternoon, evening, all winter long. Barring intercession by the local school authorities, Billy'd be out there skating, swooping, ceaselessly circling the rectangular patch of silver frozen ground, a preteen perpetual-motion machine with hockey stick in hands. Billy suddenly digging his skate blades into the surface of the ice (chuk-chuk), Billy sweeping his stick back in a high arc behind him (whoosh), Billy flashing the blade of the stick back down iceward (slap), and rocketing the hard black puck against the plain pine boards staked up against the wall of Mr. H.'s house (ka-BOOM!).

Though we were living in Evanston at the time, Billy D. nearly had me convinced that he was a full-fledged native Montreal Canadien. And not just one Montreal Canadien, at that, but several Montreal Canadiens. Darting one way over the ice at a particularly jaunty, upright angle he would be Maurice "The Rocket" Richard (pronounced, as you must know, Reeshard). Hunkering his stance down slightly and hooting out a strange French-sounding "heh-huh-hoh" he could transform himself instantly into Maurice's kid brother Henri ("The Pocket Rocket" Ree-shard). Far and away Billy D.'s favorite Montreal Canadien to be, though, was a bouncy, jet-fast skater by the name of Bernie "Boom-Boom" Geoffrion.

"And 'eer 'ee cahms," Billy would call out, winding up for a flight across the ice, "Bernie . . . Boom-Boom . . . Jeff . . . Ree . . . Own!"

Chuk-chuk-chuk-chuk: whoosh-slap--BOOM!

I think it was the "Boom-Boom" that made Bernie Geoffrion the favorite player on our neighborhood skating rink in Evanston. We were kids, after all--we had that "Boom-Boom" sort of sense of humor. ("Did you make a boom-boom, darling?" "Yes, Mommy, and I flushed after, too.") That, plus the fact that the name rhymed so well with the sound of Billy D.'s slap shots banging off the boards.

Occasionally, the sound would be altered slightly at its coda, ending the sequence with a startling whoosh-slap--CLANK!

That "CLANK" would be me out there, me standing in for the Chicago Black Hawks. A boy fiercely loyal to all local sports teams (except for a voluminously explainable attachment to the Green Bay Packers, not here in this short space to be explained), I simply didn't have it in me to permit Bernie Geoffrion and the Montreal Canadiens to score a zillion slapshot goals completely unchallenged by any representative of the Greater Chicagoland Metropolitan Area. Standing at the board end of the ice, wrapped up like a midget Eskimo with an enormous snow shovel in hand, I would be Glenn Hall of the Black Hawks, hoping to keep Bernie and the boys from scoring a goal or two. With any luck, thwarting shots with shovel, I'd hear the chuk-chuk-chuk of Billy's skates, the whoosh of the stick and the slap of the puck, and then--without my really seeing or doing much to prevent anything--a resounding, victorious CLANK!

The puck would bounce off the blade of the snow shovel and skitter harmlessly away into a snowbank.

Billy D. was a few years older than me, old enough to appreciate the greater, more gamelike authenticity that my staunch defense put up against the relentless, onrushing attack of his Canadiens. It was a sturdy shovel. It lasted for many years.

And so did we, Billy and me, all those hours and days and winter months spent out in a smoky pale world that no one had told us yet was cold enough to kill us.

I went out skating the other day. A little while, not long enough to chill the toes or make the back act up. Long enough to raise a small sweat and coast around the Waveland pond admiring the play of the low golden sunlight against the tall black buildings of Lake Shore Drive. The glassy communion of sky and stone. The clouds that floated like thin smoke in scentless reflection through the acres of ice. I enjoyed my time as a bird imitator and then clomped off into the warming hut to take off the skates.

The few people inside the hut were talking.

"Forty below!" one was saying.

"I heard over 50 below," another one said.

They were talking about what everybody in Chicago was talking about. The bitter temperatures, measured in Fahrenheit. The windchill. Turning zero degrees at the lakefront into something completely different and infinitely worse.

"Well, just a few years ago remember it was down to 86 or so."

"Bitch, man, bitch. It'll kill ya."

The hut was warm with a fire in a potbelly stove at its center. People leaned back on benches or bent over rubbing toes through thick wet wool.

"Damn right it'll kill ya."

"So what're we doing out here then?"

"Damn fools!"

Everybody laughed.

To hear it told on television, to see it happening on the maps, a vast and deep Canadian air mass has slipped down out of the arctic and is crunching its way through the canyons of the city. Kind of like an avalanche. Of air.

"The Hawk, man, the Hawk! The Hawk'll kill ya."

The Hawk has been the right word for Chicago winter for as far back as anyone can remember Lou Rawls records. "The Almighty Hawk" at the end of the dead-end street. The Hawk goes back a long way. Before windchill even existed.

"I like what they're calling it on the news now," someone says. He takes off his gloves to be able to squeeze his toes harder.

"The Alaskan Slasher?" says a guy in a blue wool cap. He speaks through a cigar stub.

"Naw, I hadn't heard that one yet. The last I heard was the Siberian Express."

"That's old, old, old. Now they're calling it the Alaskan Slasher."

"I like that--the Alaskan Slasher. That's good."

"The Terror from the Tundra."

"Haw, haw, haw!"

"It Came from Saskatchewan . . . the Hudson Bay Bomber . . . the Mass Murderer From Manitoba . . ."

"Yeah, yeah. Just when you thought it was safe to put your rock salt away."

"I oughta give John Coleman a call."

"Yeah, give Coleman a call. He'll probably put it on his Top Ten Weather Days."

"Got a quarter?"

"Lemme see. Somewhere here in my long johns . . ."

Walking back outside, I could see a gang of kids playing a makeshift game of hockey far out on the ice toward the field house. Using gym bags for goal posts, planks of wood for goalie sticks. They'd been at their game for quite some time. The air around them huffed and swirled with the steam of their breathing.

I dunno. I think I'd call it Bernie.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph.

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