Heavy Whether


Chris Daly posts a 1995 essay he wrote for the Atlantic, recalling almost exactly the experience I had as a kid growing up and skating on ponds in the winter. An excerpt:

When I was a boy skating on Brooks Pond, there were almost no grown-ups around. Once or twice a year, on a weekend day or a holiday, some parents might come by, with a thermos of hot cocoa. Maybe they would build a fire — which we were forbidden to do — and we would gather round.

But for the most part the pond was the domain of children. In the absence of adults, we made and enforced our own rules. We had hardly any gear – just some borrowed hockey gloves, some hand-me-down skates, maybe an elbow pad or two – so we played a clean form of hockey, with no high-sticking, no punching, and almost no checking. A single fight could ruin the whole afternoon. Indeed, as I remember it 30 years later, it was the purest form of hockey I ever saw – until I got to see the Russian national team play the game.

But before we could play, we had to check the ice. We became serious junior meteorologists, true connoisseurs of cold. We learned that the best weather for pond skating is plain, clear cold, with starry nights and no snow. (Snow not only mucks up the skating surface but also insulates the ice from the colder air above.) And we learned that moving water, even the gently flowing Mystic River, is a lot less likely to freeze than standing water. So we skated only on the pond. We learned all the weird whooping and cracking sounds that ice makes as it expands and contracts, and thus when to leave the ice.

Do kids learn these things today? I don’t know. How would they? We don’t even let them. Instead, we post signs. Ruled by lawyers, cities and towns everywhere try to eliminate their legal liability. But try as they might, they cannot eliminate the underlying risk. Liability is a social construct; risk is a natural fact. When it is cold enough, ponds freeze. No sign or fence or ordinance can change that.

In fact, by focusing on liability and not teaching our kids how to take risks, we are making their world more dangerous. When we were children, we had to learn to evaluate risks and handle them on our own. We had to learn, quite literally, to test the waters. As a result, we grew up to be more savvy about ice and ponds than any kid could be who has skated only under adult supervision on a rink.

While Chris lived in Medford, near Boston, I lived Maywood, New Jersey, which is near New York City. Living now in Arlingon, Mass, not far from Medford, I’d say Maywood was quite similar. Nobody worried about a kid being ‘napped. Or abused, except by bullies (which were normal hazards of life). Kids were taught early to be independent. I remember learning to walk to Kindergarten. Mom came all the way with me on the first day. On the second, she let me walk the last block myself. Then one block less the next day. Then one block less the next day, learning landmarks and about watchful neighbors along the way. Finally, I walked all the way myself. I had turned five years old only two months before.

Like other local kids, I learned to skate at Borg’s pond, in Borg’s Woods, a private paradise under a canopy of old growth hardwood on the Maywood-Hackensack border. It was owned by the Borg family, which published the Bergen Record during its heyday as a truly great newspaper. The pond is still there, inside the green patch at the center of this map. Great to see from the Borg’s Woods Page (actually a site with much more) that the woods is now a preserve   Here’s a trail map that shows the pond. And here is a tour of the woods that shows the pond (I hope Eric Martindale, who maintains the site, doesn’t mind my borrowing the pond shot above), the “four oaks” that are still standing (and where we used to have club meetings), the sledding hill behind the Borg house and more. What a treat to find that it hardly looks any different now than it did fifty years ago.

We could skate on larger water bodies too. There were other lakes and reservoirs nearby. I also have fond memories of Greenwood Lake , where I lived a young adult, editing the late West Milford Argus. Ours was a former summer house (made mostly of cast-off parts) only a few feet from the shore. In the winter we skated there and in the summer we canoed up into New York (State), across the state border which bisected the lake in its middle.

Anyway, Chris is right. On the whole, we were freer. Not of restrictions. Parents were much more stern and disciplinary back then. Spanking, for example, was pro forma. Our freedom was from fear of what might happen as we became more independent and self-reliant.

Thinking more about it, I don’t want to idealize my childhood years. We lived in constant fear of nuclear annihilation, for example. Through much of my childhood I kept a list in my head of all the places I wanted to see before everybody was incinerated by some politician with an itchy finger. There were also racial, sexual, and other forms of oppression, repression, and worse.

But we were a bit closer to a natural state in some ways, I think. Or at least kids were. Outside of school, anyway.

By the way, I see that the Brooks Estate, home of Brooks Pond, is now also a nature preserve. As it happens I have also shot pictures of that place from the air. Here’s one. And here’s a shot of Spy Pond (subject of my last post).

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  1. deb’s avatar

    i have a similar memory – at the age of 5 or 6 we’d have a cottage near the beach. I was allowed to take my little brother swimming at the little beach about half a mile away – just us – no lifeguards, no adults. great times. but then bad things happened to our generation. kids were kidnapped – my brother among them – never to return. Though the likelihood is small, i still hold my breath every time i leave my son at the bus stop, and I won’t let my daughter go out in the neighborhood unaccompanied. Yes, its a loss that they won’t have that secret, sacred inner world of unsupervised children. But there’s no way I’m letting my kids go down to the pond, the beach or really anywhere alone, till I am certain they can manage themselves.

  2. Geoff’s avatar

    Oh happy days – My Mums favourite tale about me is at 5 years old I was given 1d for the bus to school (1km just measured it – the joys of tech!) I quickly learned I could walk it, thus keeping the 1d for sweets. However, she found out and I lost the 1d 🙁 and so had to walk for nowt!

  3. Doc Searls’s avatar

    My God, deb. That’s so horrible. There is no way to mend a loss like that. Still, my heart goes out.

    The world is a good and dangerous place. The mix is always there, even as the details change.

    I admit to the same fears as well. I was a single dad, essentially, for much of my older kids’ childhoods. I gave them a lot of independence; but not because mine was a relatively independent childhood. Rather it was because they needed to be on their own more than in most two-parent households. Those kids are now bracketing 40. It’s a different story with our 13-year-old son. We lock our doors. He still hasn’t ridden his bike to school alone. He has no experience with independence and self-reliance that’s anything like that of my childhood or even those of his older sibs. I’m not sure what to make of that — either for him or for myself and my wife (who is only two years younger than me, and was one of many kids in a big family growing up in pretty much the same self-reliant millieu as did I). Different times, different experiences, different parental policies.

    I look back on my childhood and think about other habits, dangers and policies that have passed out of fashion as well. It’s strange to think that I grew up in houses and buildings (even schools) that were pickled in cigarette smoke. The show Mad Men isn’t exaggerating the ubiquity of smoking back in those days. (The majority of my friends in high school and college smoked.) Drinking and driving was standard. Cars didn’t have seat belts. Accidents with cars, boats and planes were far more frequent and fatal.

    What I find most encouraging, as I look back on Borg’s Woods, and at Chris Daly’s skating time at Brooks Pond, is that these places still exist — and that generations after mine have worked successfully to save them. There is a grace here that transcends generations. It’s a scope of concern that stretches beyond one’s own time, and one’s own circle of friends, relatives and acquaintances, to embrace the whole community, and the larger world we all share. We need that, and I think there is far more of it now than there was then.

    In other words, I do see progress. In this one respect, at least, the world is now a better place. I just wish your brother could still be present in it for you.

  4. Chris Daly’s avatar

    Thanks, Doc, for that lovely post. And thanks for the aerial photo, which shows my old neighborhood. The photo is dominated by the Mystic Lakes (Upper and Lower). To the right of the lower lake is where I lived, and to the right of that are the three ponds that make up Brooks Pond.
    The link to the folks who are trying to preserve the place was also welcome. Forty to fifty years ago, it was a pretty abused area. Glad to see someone is trying to protect it.

  5. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Welcome, Chris. It was fun to discover that the similarities between our experiences — and our neighborhoods — were closer than I thought at first.

    I wonder if there’s still skating on Brooks Pond. Maybe the kid and I will take a hike over there this weekend and check it out. Hope it stays cold enough, and doesn’t snow in the meantime. (Also gotta get him some new skates. He’s outgrown his old ones.)

  6. Sheila Lennon’s avatar

    That’s my story, too, Doc, at a little pond in Providence, now filled in and home to a subdivision. Hockey at one end, girls in white skates practicing pirouettes at the other. Mothers whose backyards bordered the pond shared the hot-chocolate deliveries.

    Eventually, I could skate backwards much faster than forward, and could stop on a dime with a spray of ice shaved by the teeth at the front of the skate blade. We brought our skates to school, and headed there when the bell rang. Saturdays, we never got cold enough to quit and go home until it got dark. And our parents never worried about our being gone all day.

  7. Camilla’s avatar

    I walk through Brooks Estate regularly with my dog. I haven’t seen anyone skate there, and I would guess that if you’ve got access to groomed ice, you wouldn’t consider it. Judging by the little brush shelters and the like, there’s still plenty of kids there. My knowledge of area kids who go unsupervised is that they’ve learned to be discrete about it – there’s nosy neighbors who’ll call the CPS, so you know them if you know them, but you don’t see them so much.

    I just wish the kids would clean up their fishing line a bit better…

  8. Ian Clark’s avatar

    Is “heavy whether” and overweight, castrated ram?

  9. Brett Glass’s avatar

    The story of the pond, above, reminds me of the story of the Internet. It hasn’t needed heavy-handed regulation; still doesn’t. Every problem has been self-correcting. But the lawyers are swooping in…. Alas, Doc, including some of your compatriots at Berkman. I went to DC last week, and was met at the FCC by some aides who had stopped questioning whether there was a need for heavy regulation and were merely trying to hammer out a strategy for regulating it at their whim. And I, as an ISP, was presumed to be an evildoer. Scary.

  10. Eric Martindale’s avatar

    Thanks for the plug on Borg’s Woods. Yes, it’s OK to use my pond photo. I wish I could say all is well in Borg’s Woods, but that isn’t the case.

    There isn’t as much water as there used to be, thanks to the Bergen County Mosquito Control Commission actively dredging and draining the point of drainage. They’ve annihilated 2 amphibian species. Now only the Wood Frogs remain. Our County elected officials (the woods is owned by Bergen County) see fit to let the Mosquito Commission do whatever they want.

    It’s also a shame how many trees were lost in the March 13th Northeaster. There’s more information on this in the njurbanforest blog.

    Suffice to say that in one spot, the trees fell like dominos for over 300 feet, starting at the crest of the hill, running down the hill, crossing the southern tip of the swamp, and smashing one house on Brook Street. 21 mature trees fell in one spot (6-8 feet in circumference, and averaging 90-120 feet in height). This event, unsure what to call it, cleared out about one acre of old growth forest, nothing left but a few small trees stripped of every major branch and every limb. I’ve never seen anything like it, and I’ve hiked all over Northern New Jersey and nearby New York.

    Some work has been done to improve the trails in recent years, and Hackensack teachers have been going back there with kids and their parents to do organized cleanups. There’s almost no litter back there, that’s a plus.

    It would be wonderful if concerned residents reactivated the Borg’s Woods Preservation Coalition, address the water level issue, improve the trails a bit more, secure preservation of remaining nearby wooded parcels, etc.

  11. Bill Kuhles’s avatar

    First, let me pat he man above me for almost single handedly saving the area of Borg’s Woods. Eric, great job man…your name is fast becoming synonymous with the woods itself, Future generations will thank you.

    Doc, although many of my memories of Borgs Woods involve illicit activity in my teenage years, I do have a memory of a snow filled day going down one of the hills on th east side of the woods. Imagine a 45 degree angle flying down an ice covered hill on nothing but a large piece of cardboard. So much danger, so much fun!

    Sorry to hear of the damage to the forest…

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