When you dig through skating history, you never know what you will unearth. In the spirit of cataloguing fascinating tales from skating history, #Unearthed is a once a month 'special occasion' on Skate Guard where fascinating writings by others that are of interest to skating history buffs are excavated, dusted off and shared for your reading pleasure. From forgotten fiction to long lost interviews to tales that have never been shared publicly, each #Unearthed is a fascinating journey through time.
Today's 'buried treasure' - entitled "Some Facts And A Few Fancies On Ice" - comes to you from the February 1888 edition of the American illustrated magazine "Outing". Interestingly, the author, Calvert Bowyer Vaux, was better known as an expert on canoeing than figure skating. That said, his memories and thoughts on skating are an interesting read!
EXCERPTS FROM "SOME THOUGHTS AND A FEW FANCIES ON ICE" (C. BOWYER VAUX)
I can remember very distinctly when I learned to read, and the first book that I read through from title page to "The End." That job took a long time, and a great amount of close study; and the supreme satisfaction that I felt when the book was finally conquered was so complete, that I did not care to lessen it by another trial for a long time. I used to hate children that learned to read at an early age, unless I could catch them out of doors and show them some things that I could do and they could not - even if I was stupid at books. I must have been at least ten years old before I could read, or did read for my own amusement and instruction; but when I learned to skate I cannot remember. It was before or during my fifth year. I learned to swim about the same time I began to read a little, but I could row a boat years before that. My mother explains the fact of my not knowing how to read till quite late in
life, comparatively, by stating that when I was very young I was so clever, and accumulated ideas so rapidly, that she was worried for fear my brain would be affected, and, therefore, encouraged all
out-door occupations; but, then, I was her first child, which, perhaps, will explain the situation. Her ideas have not been justified by my career thus far.
A very active circulation, perfect breath, short and strong legs, sound ankles and a love of open-air exercise made the difficulties of skating very fascinating to me, and most of them were easily conquered. Although dressed lightly I rarely felt cold, and never got tired, not even after a whole
Saturday on the ice without sitting down once; it was my rule never to rest while off for a skate. I had no fear of falling, as there was such a short distance to go a serious hurt was out of the question.
Therefore, in trying a new figure I went at it heart, soul and legs, and never allowed tumbles to affect me in the least, and I got many of them - especially when working on the outside edge figures, in
which a slip or false step results surely in a roll over, as there is no way of saving one's self. When falling, the one thought always was, "Save your head, sonny." Hit any other part of the body and you
may get a sore spot - nearly all the bones have cushions of flesh over them - but give the skull a hard rap and you are done for, at least for a time.
I never yet broke anything skating (either bones or the record) except the ice. Every school-boy has "got in" at some time or other of his skating career. Early in the winter, perhaps, after the first hard
freeze, the ice on the ponds will be thin, but very tough. Then is the time when the daring ones skate over ice that heaves up and down in big waves, and finally becomes what all boys call "pompy." The ice gets cracked in every direction, and some one is sure to get a ducking if the sport is kept up. More than once have I trudged home of a cold day, after breaking through, with clothes frozen so stiff that they would stand up of themselves when taken off. Being a light weight, the boys would always send me ahead to try the new ice, after stones had been thrown on it and failed to go through. Sprawled out
on all fours I would crawl over the thin ice, and, if it did not crack too much, I would gradually get up on my feet and skim about, daring the heavier weights to "come on." We never played fast and loose on "pompy" ice over deep water, but always on shallow ponds, or the upper ends of mill dams, where the worst that could happen was a wetting.
In the country the snow comes and spoils the skating, except on ponds and rivers where the ice harvesters clear it off and cut openings which soon freeze over and make good skating for those who
seek it. The city boy looks to the park for his skating, and the city pays men to keep the ponds clear of snow. The park ponds are small and the number of people who want to skate is large, therefore
the public is not allowed on the ponds till the ice is very strong. The country boy begins his skating often three or four weeks before his city cousin has thought of it. So it has come about that the enthusiastic city skaters do not wait for the "ball to be up," but go in search of ice early to the various ice-house ponds within a few miles of town; and frequently get up evening parties, in which ladies are included.
The country boy generally has plenty of room for his skating, and, quite naturally, works for speed or figures that make a big show, like the "spread eagle," "locomotive," and one-foot dodges. The boy who can crouch down when going at top speed, put one leg out in front of him with the foot clear off the ice and slide on the other foot till momentum runs down is a great man, and his skill is envied by his companions. If the skater loses his balance while trying this trick, he quietly sits down on the ice and slides on his pants. Mothers have been known to object to their sons trying this, and have threatened to sew a sheet of tin into the trousers to save the constant patching which the acquiring of this skating feat makes necessary.
There are games the country boys play on skates, shinny (or hockey), now generally called in polite
society "ice polo," "Lil, Lil" or "head on," a species of fox and geese, tag, "snap the whip," and many others, all calling for fast skating, quick turning and strong lung power. The country boy who can
skate backwards, cut big circles forward and backward, do the "locomotive" and "spread eagle," is a talented individual in the eyes of his companions - except in Canada, where good skating is more common than here, both on account of the longer season and the many rinks even in quite small towns.
The city skater's field is limited and he naturally tries to do all he can in a small space and therefore figure skating interests him. Very little has been done for years in cities to make skating popular - always excepting Canada - and now very few ladies even know how to skate! Yet it is a splendid exercise, fascinating, healthful and the most graceful yet invented - dancing cannot compare with it. When will skating get such a lift as tobogganing has had? Soon, I hope. Last year's ice can be used as it is on the toboggan slides and the rink opened early in the season and kept in good condition all
through it with a little care and attention. The experiment is certainly worth trying. Why are billiards and chess such universally popular games? Perhaps this term can hardly be applied to the latter, but there is no doubt about the former. There is no end to the skill that can be acquired. The problems to be worked out are innumerable and various, and with billiards the mechanical skill has no limit. Mind and body are both brought into play. So it is with skating.
Exercise and enjoyment can be got out of simple straight ahead skating. One breathes fresh air, and, if in the country, has something pleasant to look upon - for the country has many attractive features in winter, though there are people alive in this nineteenth century who cannot see them. Has any one ever mastered everything that can be done on skates? Surely not. A large negro one winter appeared on the Central Park pond and performed a feat that it is safe to say no other man in New York could then do - spread the eagle with toes together and heels out to right and left, both feet in line. He could not do many of the fancy figures then pretty generally known to the clever skaters, but no one else could get legs into the positions that he could - it was a sort of contortion act that "stumped" them all.
[E.B.] Cook's toe spread eagle with legs straight was something that many Canadian champions who exhibited here could not master even if they could do twirls that Cook himself had to admit were beyond him. In trying an outside edge eight backward once the heel of my skate struck a twig and threw me out of balance. By a quick turn of body, done instinctively to save myself from a bad fall, and a double toe maneuver, I kept my feet, and got the idea for a new dance figure that I have since perfected. It is very easy to do - yet I had never seen any one else do it - and even after being shown how, to my surprise most skaters find it difficult to catch. The double grape-vine twist straight
backward is another figure I stumbled into when trying something else. The head and shoulders are kept in the same position always, facing the same way. The figure is described by the feet, propelled
by a turn of the hips and lower body trunk, the body turn being made a little ahead of the feet movement so that the feet are going one way when the hips have made the reverse turn.
I have seen wonderful things done on the ice by experts - but thus far no one has happened on my little pet figures to my knowledge. It is not the satisfaction of being able "to show off" that makes figure skating so attractive, but the fascination of thinking out new things and trying to do them, that is a never-ending source of delight to the skater. Let him work out a problem alone and successfully solve it by teaching himself to do the difficult figure gracefully and accurately, and the feeling of victory will be found to be very sweet even if he never performs it for the amusement or instruction of others. Every such success achieved is the result of long and patient work, and frequently - incidentally of course - many falls. The more one learns the more there seems to be to learn, for the field ever widens with each new conquest...
The man that can spin like a top, standing in one place, is sure to draw "crowded houses" wherever he goes, even if he cannot do anything else on ice. Therefore if you, gentle reader, crave notoriety,
devote yourself to this one figure, for it is the royal road to popular fame on skates...
The moral of it all is, "Go skating." Whether you skate ten miles on a stretch or ten yards matters not. The exercise is healthful anyway, and a great reviver of low spirits. Let the theatre go for one evening with its close and exhausted air, and go where fresh air is all that you can breathe. The sleep that will follow an hour's skate does not bless a man every night, and the new interest that he will find in the ordinary drudgeries of life the next day will surprise him. Nature makes the ice and man the skates. The ice costs nothing and the skates very little. Perhaps you have not skated since you were a boy. Then put on skates once more, and, my old bald headed friend, you will find yourself a boy once more.
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