One of my favorite jobs while going to college at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul was being a “rink attendant” one winter for a small neighborhood skating park. For what it lacked in pay, it made up in the pure enjoyment of the simplicity of the moment. Kids and adults relaxing, exercising, and engaging in the most Minnesotan of activities…skating across a frozen manmade pond.
When President Obama said months ago there would be “pain and suffering” during this economic crisis, I did not think that one of our most childhood memories of growing up in Minnesota could be erased. The Star Tribune newspaper ran a story by Maria Elena Baca on Wednesday Dec. 9th about neighborhood ice rinks not being flooded because cities were too cash strapped to be able to afford this luxury. For example: Lakeville is only flooding 5 of 10 rinks this year saving about $7000. Coon Rapids up to 4 years ago maintained 17 skating rinks. This year they will be using only 7, some with limited lights and warming house schedules, saving about $18,000 per year. Burnsville is closing 13 of its outdoor free skating sites.
Some people do not blame the economy, but the society for the cuts. Certainly the building of so many indoor rinks have “spoiled” some from enjoying the outdoor experience. Others feel kids have become “homebound” with too many other activities including cell phones, computers, and gaming systems. In some areas, its simply a matter of population trends, with an older generation taking over neighborhoods.
Whatever the reasons, its hard to put into words the fun I saw people experience during my winter in the “shack” (as we called our little warming house). Made of wood, the entire building was probably no more than 20ft x 20ft. The shack had two doors…one entering from a small parking lot and another heading to the skating rink. It was heated by an efficient gas furnace with a fan unit mounted on the cealing. Wooden benches lined each wall. About 20 to 25 people was its maximum capacity. The attendant got to sit in an old cushioned recliner that someone had donated. Two windows let you watch the rink and the parking lot from the chair. Bathrooms were simply port-a-potties outside the building.
Our facility had 2 rinks. One was a small oval shaped casual skating area and the other was a well lit hockey rink with boards. My job as attendant was simple: keep things under control. Shovel/scrape both rinks twice a night (any measurable snow would be plowed using a city jeep). Shut the facility down at 9 pm and flood both rinks so they would refreeze overnight.
For someone who enjoyed kids and enjoyed skating, this was a dream job. After being there a short while I got to know a lot of the regular crowd. Most were great kids…a few were troublemakers you needed to watch. I would spend a lot of time skating and getting games organized on the hockey rink…especially after the dinner hour. On Saturday and Sunday afternoons many parents would bring the smaller kids to the casual rink to get them started on their Minnesota experience. Some of the time I would try to do homework in the shack, but usually would start talking to the local kids about school, sports or just life in general. A lot of life’s problems were solved in that shack.
One of the things we prided ourselves on was the quality of the ice. When I took the job, someone from the city public works crew came down and showed the three rink attendants how to flood a rink. The technique of setting the nozzle spray on the mist setting and not letting water puddle up and moving the nozzle back and forth starting on one end was the secret. You could not hurry the process, even though many nights we had other school things going on. We’d hitch the old fire hose up to the city fire hydrant and go to it. When we were done we’d roll up the hose, throw the lever on the electrical box shutting down the lights, and call it a night. The next day we’d come in to see the results of our work…letting mother nature do its freezing overnight.
It’s a shame the experience is slipping from our culture. It seems, especially here in Northern Minnesota, to be a part of the fabric of our being young…sitting in the shack, warming up after an evening of skating. There is a little good news. In St. Paul, all 20 of its facilities are staying open this year, with the use of volunteers. Where there is a will…there is a way…even in these most difficult of times.