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Winter memories of home

I spent my teenage years in Parkersburg, West Virginia, a small city on the banks of the Ohio River. There’s not much about the town that would strike a visitor – or a resident, for that matter – as noteworthy. But our civics class teacher, the estimable Irene Droppleman, made sure we memorized the fact that Parkersburg possessed at least two unique features. The first was that it was home to the Ames Shovel and Tool Co, which touted itself as “the largest shovel plant in the world.” Not exactly a conversation starter, and quickly forgotten by me, at least until I moved to Cape Cod. When I bought my first clam rake, I was surprised to see that it was made by “The Ames Shovel Co. – Parkersburg, West Virginia” – thus giving an unexpected element of continuity to my life.

The second unique feature of my hometown was its claim to possess “The World’s Largest Artificial Lily Pond” - again, not exactly a riveting opener, especially since “The World’s Largest” in this case encompassed less than four acres. Still, it played a fairly large role in my adolescence.

For one thing, the pond was located in City Park, which was only a block from my house. In summer it was blanketed with a profusion of white and pink water-lily blossoms, ducks paddled across its surface, and in its center a fountain gushed a stream of water twenty feet in the air.

But in winter the lily pond became a major communal gathering place. Because the pond was shallow, it regularly froze over quickly and solidly, thus providing the town with its only public ice-skating rink. During the day residents of all ages would gather around the pond. Mothers with young children would skate tentatively around its edge, while boys played impromptu hockey games.

On winter nights, however, the pond came into its own as a magnet for us local teenagers. Bonfires were lit along its shore, marshmallows were roasted, and the glowing tips of clandestine cigarettes winked in the night air.

The low temperatures discouraged any serious petting (how many people under fifty today remember what “petting” was?), but there was a strange Cinderella-like intimacy in holding your girlfriend’s ankle and slipping her foot into her white skate. (In those days girls’ skates were always white.)

You could stay along the shore and watch the forms of skaters suddenly illuminated by the bonfire flames for a couple of seconds, and then disappear again into darkness. Couples would swing by, arms crossed in a do-si-so formation, attaining a grace we never achieved on a dance floor.

But the ice also provided a setting for more dangerous sport. Because the fountain in the pond’s center operated year round, there was always an open pool of water around it. It was a rite of passage for the boys to see how close to the fountain’s pool we could skate without breaking through the ice. It was at once a test of one’s nerve, a challenge to the other male skaters, and a display to attract the attention, and, hopefully, the admiration of the teenage girls huddled by the fires.

I don’t recall anyone ever falling through the ice, and in any case the pond was only a few feet deep at its center, but now it seems it was a metaphor for our future adult lives, when we would risk seeing how close we could get to the source of our passions – whether intellectual, physical, or carnal - without sinking.

A nature writer living in Wellfleet, Robert Finch has written about Cape Cod for more than forty years. He is the author of nine books of essays. A Cape Cod Notebook airs weekly on WCAI, the NPR station for Cape Cod, Martha's Vineyard, Nantucket, and the South Coast. In both 2006 and 2013, the series won the New England Edward R. Murrow Award for Best Radio Writing.