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BY: JAMES F O’NEIL

SURPRISE: An unexpected or astonishing event, fact, or thing; to occur to with a sudden feeling of wonder or astonishment, as through unexpectedness; to come upon or discover suddenly and unexpectedly; to cause someone to feel amazed at something unexpected; a feeling aroused by something unusual or unexpected; feeling unusually alarmed or delighted [from American Heritage College Dictionary].  “Unexpected” or “unusual” can be divided into SURPRISE: sudden wonder or disbelief, unanticipated; ASTONISH: overwhelming surprise; AMAZE: astonishment, often bewilderment; ASTOUND: shock, or unprecedented in one’s experience.  (Is it all clear now?  Were you surprised at your last surprise?  Is that sur-PRIZED, or sup-PRISED?  Hmm.]

FAVORITE BOOK

THESAURUS EXERCISE: Copy the following into your speckled notebook for next Friday’s spelling quiz.  SURPRISE!  (Just kidding.): astonishment awe wonder shock nonexpectation unforeseen  godsend  miscalculation  unexpectedness  abruptness jolt precipitance  marvel  amaze  astound  flabbergast  stun  startle  stand aghast  miraculous  catch unawares  taken aback  unbargained for confounded  wondrous  incredible  suddenly  magical  without notice  remarkable  breathless  mirabile visu (“wonderful to behold”).

* * *

“The only thing that should surprise us is that there are still some things that can surprise us.” –Francois de La Rochefoucauld

“And to my niece I leave . . .”

I heard those words at the reading of my Grandma Schuma’s will.  I was in 11th grade.  The niece was my mother.  The Grandmother was really my Grand Aunt.  My Uncle Joe was really my Grandfather.  My real Grandmother Anna had died long before.  Grandma and Grandpa raised my mother as their daughter.  I didn’t know this Family Secret  until I was a sophomore in high school.  SURPRISE!  The reading of the will and the word “niece” was a real “shocker.”  I never thought of my mother as a niece.  And my Uncle Joe?  He was never my Grandpa . . .  And as far as  I was concerned, my mom and Aunt Em were still “sisters”  and not cousins . . .  That’s another story.

“A Scout is never taken by surprise; he knows exactly what to do when anything unexpected happens.” –Robert Baden-Powell (founder of Boy Scouts)

“It’ll just take a moment.”

I always locked my bike when I went into the public library.  This time I was only returning books to the Ogden Park Public Library near our home on Chicago’s South Side.  I wheeled my bike into the bike rack–unlocked–and ran up the stairs.  In a flash I was inside, in a moment, putting my books through the Return slot, and was out the door.  SURPRISE!  No bike.  Gone, in a flash.  Wham!  In the chest!  Heart-stopping bam!  What to do? tears covering eyes of reason.  Went inside, blubbering.  Park policeman came.  I made some kind of report.  I walked home, seeing ever crack in every square of every sidewalk.

Over a year later, the bike was recovered.  I walked a long, slow walk to claim it at the park police station.  It had been stripped clean: I recognized the frame and the tires and seat.  I gave thanks, and rode home, teary-eyed, remembering too well, “It’ll take just a moment.”

“Do not always expect good to happen, but do not let evil take you by surprise.” –Czech Proverb

“In sickness and in health . . .”

“We want as many children as we good Catholics can have.”  “SURPRISE!  It’s a healthy boy.”  “Don’t plan to have more than two children: you are Rh+ and your husband is Rh-.”  SURPRISE.  “We want to have as many children as we good Catholics practicing birth control can have.”  Two . . .  “SURPRISE!  It’s a healthy boy.”  The end.  The beginning . . .

“One of the greatest discoveries a man makes, one of his great surprises, is to find he can do what he was afraid he couldn’t do.”  –Henry Ford

“SURPRISE, Loser!”

I have a notebook filled with Loser Letters, those “Sorry, Charlie” or “We regret to inform you” or “Another candidate has accepted the position.”  I’m not sure why I keep them, for it’s been a very long time for Loser Letters.  I applied for my share of grants and scholarships and degree programs as others have done.  And I have received the “And the envelope, please.”  “Nope.  Not this time,” in so many–sometimes many–words.  I kept trying, up to a point in my career of forty-nine years.  And that was that.  “Wait!  Princeton University is advertising for . . .”

“The moments of happiness we enjoy take us by surprise.  It is not that we seize them, but that they seize us.”  –Ashley Montagu (1905-1999)

“Some good stuff . . .”

“SURPRISE!”  “It’s your 80th Birthday Party!”

“SURPRISE!”  “You got accepted!”

“SURPRISE!”  “They called and offered you the job!”

“SURPRISE!”  “It really was your appendix!”

“SURPRISE!”  “They approved your loan!”

“SURPRISE!”  “Oh my gosh!  That’s my new typewriter!”

“SURPRISE!”  “She said Yes!”

“SURPRISE!”  “The house is now yours!”

“SURPRISE!”  “You’re taking the Honor Students to Cambridge!”

“SURPRISE!”  “They want you to tell your story on WBEZ!”

* * *

© James F. O’Neil  2021

BY: JAMES F. O’NEIL

HRH Elizabeth Queen of England will “turn” 95 years old on 21 April, this year–coming up soon.

April 21, 2021

Mr. James Francis O’Neil, BA, MA, will “turn” 80 years old–still fifteen years younger than the Queen.

BABY JIMMY

. . .

“A man is sane morally at 30, rich mentally at 40, wise spiritually at 50–or never.”–Sir William Osler (1849–1919) [Quoted in Forbes Magazine, June 1961]

. . .

Is any one birthday more important than another?  Is any one particular birthday more significant than another? 

Certain days of our lives, calendar days, occurring but annually, come to be celebrated (or not celebrated, or tried-to-be-forgotten): our BIRTH-DAY, anniversary of our birth.  For some, it is important not to forget, not to be forgotten, as in Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town, Emily Webb’s twelfth birthday.  Was that birthday important or significant?  (Is there a significant difference?)

In a lifetime, certain calendar birth anniversary days (beginning with #1, the 1st, the First) are regarded more highly and celebrated–by others and by the “celebrant.”

21–I could not wait until I turned twenty-one, to have my first legal alcoholic–spirits drink.  Oh, I had drinks years before that special “21st,” but not legally in Illinois.  So, there I was, in the club car of the Illinois Central RR, April 1962, returning to classes after the Spring-Easter Break.

My Uncle Bill had taught me the best about cigars (“That’s what I do: I smoke cigars.  And I know things.”)  and was teaching me about single malts and sour mash.  He made good Manhattans.  “I’ll have a Manhattan,” I told the railroad waiter, nonchalantly.  (I was not about to venture “a Rob Roy, please.”)  “I need some proof of age,” he retorted.

Oh, I had that birthday gift, how important that April date was on my driver’s license (gotten on another important birthday in April, #16)) 1962 minus 1941 equals: BINGO: 21!)  What power!  What meaning!  What significance!   A date to be remembered–for life!

65–I skipped over a few years to here.  I don’t need to retell about “The Big 4-0” or “Half Century” (really?).  I did have a wonderful 60th Surprise Party that genuinely surprised me.  Family and friends, great foods, and a well-decorated cake, in the shape and design of an airport runway.  (I am an avid aircraft-lover.)  That birthday had special significance for me.  It was special.  (Hallmark says 60 is diamonds; I received none.)

So, the years 1–ONE–FIRST to 65 brought me surprise birth anniversaries, parties, gifts, and memoriesofatime, but not, of course, gifts in the Hallmark “official” list for anniversaries.  (Those are mostly for weddings, especially 5/wood; 10/tin/; 15/crystal/; 19/jade; and 25/silver/, 50/gold/, and 75/diamond.)

Then came the BIGGIE, the real BIGGIE: 65 . . . and important significant MEDICARE.  What can I say now?  Incredible!  I cannot believe I have partaken of that great social program . . . for fifteen (15) years!

Where has the time gone?  Who knows where the time has gone?

* * *

Her: “Thank you, Mr. O’Neil, Professor O’Neil, for your time–which is so important to you–and your willingness to talk about your 80th Birthday.  How do you feel as you approach that 80th April Day?”

Me: “Growing old isn’t easy.  But I do not regret growing older.  ‘It’s a privilege denied to many.’”

Her: “Have you learned anything special in the recent past, say five or ten years, which prepared you for this time?” 

Me: “Lifting.  I used to lift, unload box cars when I was twenty-two.  It is harder now to lift a 20-pound bag of mulch.  I am aware of not being able to go fast, but I have clocks in every room, I am so aware of time.  More time needed to plan for activities.  And, yes, being forgetful: Being in a room and wondering, ‘Why did I come into here?  Oh, yes.’”

Her: “What would you say is your greatest achievement in your eighty years?”

Me: “Sobriety: To accept the things I cannot change; to have the courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference.  Powerful stuff here.”

Her: “Aside from all your friends and family, is there someone special you would like to invite to your birthday party?”

Me: “The author and essayist Joseph Epstein whom I have admired for a long time, for his essays of wit, thought, wisdom, and history.”  (“If I am allowed another special guest, I would like Henry David Thoreau, too.  And if there is one more extra chair, I would like to hear the barbaric yawp of Walt Whitman.”)

Her: “At present, what is your greatest desire?”

Me: “My 81st birthday, at home, with my family, virus free.”

Her: “You were in education for nearly fifty years.  You taught writing and literature, and were a school administrator for seven years, too.  Do you have any special words of wisdom that you can share that have had an influence upon your career?”

Me: “‘To err is human; to forgive, divine’ is one of my favorites.  ‘The Devil can cite Scripture for his purpose’ is one I learned early on, from Shakespeare.  And it still has meaning for me.  ‘They also serve who only stand and wait’ from Milton.  Profound.  ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself.’ One more?  ‘Know thyself.’ Something I learned long ago in Greek class.”

Her: “I know you have done much reading in all those years, surely from Aristotle and Plato, to Proust, and Kurt Vonnegut.  But you must have some ‘favorite’ or special author or book that you return to for guidance or inspiration.”

Me: “I don’t have a special author whom I can often quote from, like lines or words from Shakespeare, or the poetry of Milton, or Emily Dickinson.  But if I were on that imaginary deserted island with only one book to read over and over, I would have to choose my black leather-bound Book of Common PrayerAll I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten would be a great choice–or Paradise Lost.  But I’ll keep the prayer book. 

Her: “Of the 80 years, what would you say was the ‘Best Year of Your Life’?”

Me: “My 80th, for sure, considering all my high school classmates who have passed on.  But that is a difficult question to answer.  Year of Courtship, marriage, having children, career, graduate school, travel to Europe; moving years: Chicago, to Minnesota to Florida.  There cannot be a ‘Best Year of My Life.’”

Her: “Well, then, is there a ‘worst’?”

Me: “This is not so difficult to answer, for it always comes up the same: 10th grade!  No matter whenever I think about it.  My surgeries: appendix and tonsils.  Nearly flunking geometry: A=B, B=C, ergo A=C. Theorems and proofs.  Pythagoras and c2 = a2 + b2.  How tough that was!  In addition to learning Latin in 9th grade, I began the study of Greek in 10th grade! α β γ δ ε ζ η κ π φ ω and more–I forget the exact order.”

Her: “Professor, you have allowed me a unique opportunity to hear about you and some of your history.  Thank you again.  Would you like to add anything else now?”

Me: “Thank you, and you’re welcome.  Yes, a few more words, if I might read from Walt Whitman Sands at Seventy, “After the Supper and Talk”: ‘“. . . after the day is done . . . Good-bye . . . O so loth to depart!  Garrulous to the very last.’”

Walt Whitman, circa 1887

© JAMES F O’NEIL  2021

BY: JAMES F O’NEIL

“Many are called, but few are chosen.”

. . .

Let me tell you: My cousin Leonard was a Marine in the Pacific in WWII.  (He never told me war stories when I was young, but he showed me his samurai sword and a Japanese flag.)  My cousins Ed, Bill, and Dick were all Marines.  (They all had pretty neat tattoos.) My cousin Jim O’Neil was Army.  (When I first went into scouting, I inherited his sleeping bag.)

My brother Tom enlisted into the Navy, serving on the aircraft carrier USS Yorktown during the Vietnam War.  (He inherited Agent Orange illness.)

My brother-in-law Dave was an Army tanker.  (He patrolled in Europe during the Cold War.)  My other brother-in-law served in the USAAF long before I met his sister, my wife-to-be.  (He was based in Newfoundland.) 

My one son became an Army career officer with 30-years’ service, a bird colonel.  (He’s got medals and ribbons.)  His son, my grandson, follows in the Army.  (He moves and transports people and tanks.)  My other son learned the ways of the military in Navy ROTC in high school.  (It helped him win an Air Force scholarship.)

Me?  Here I am, how I turned out.  That’s the story here.

“Many are called but few are chosen”: I heard this mantra weekly–sometimes more than once a day–when I entered the high school seminary in Chicago in 1955.  I was fourteen years old, a 9th grader.  (At present there exist fewer than 10–maybe 5–high school seminaries in the United States.  Check Wikipedia.)

QUIGLEY SEMINARY in CHICAGO

I was marked, though, during 7th and 8th grades as one of the chosen ones to attend the “minor” seminary: high school, grades 9-12.  I was “special” to the nuns and priests.

But during this time, I still had the right toys and guns, leftovers from my Previous Age.  I lived, however, during The Cold War, The Red Menace, The Yellow Peril: the war in Indochina and the Korean War.  Additionally, I still had a close intimate cinematic relationship with William Holden in the film The Bridges at Toko-Ri (1954), and with John Wayne and Kirk Douglas and old war movies and war comics.

When I was a child, I played soldier.  In high school, I planned priest-to-be.  Not quite enough time for war stories and movies, though I did manage to squeeze them in whenever I could, especially during the summer months.  Now I was, however, “putting on the armor of Christ.” I was a different kid.  Oh, I rode the city bus and had a school bus pass; I studied physics and trig, English and rhetoric, but Latin and Greek, too.  And “the spiritual life.”  Up at “oh five thirty,” church attendance, off to school-classes at 0830, and the day schedule, in the uniform of the day: suitcoat and tie (never mind that they didn’t match). 

Acne Pic of Me in High School Photo

Thus, I carried on, for four years, until college–where all changed: “You’re in the Army now!”  Well, not really.

DAILY SCHEDULE

0530 Rise

Great Silence (Magnum Silentium) until post breakfast, 0730

0800 classes until 1530

Dinner

Magnum Silentium

2230 Lights Out

[with all other duties and activities]

And so it went.

Instead of “Eat-Pray-Love” it was “Pray-Study-Pray” for the most part.  During this (college) time, I had little exposure to war-related items except for studying history or translating the Aeneid from Latin or the Iliad from the Greek.  Singing of arms and men or singing of the wrath of Achilles: it was war.

In 1962 I was able to see the film about the D-Day invasion, The Longest Day.  (I had read the book in my “free time.”)  Somehow, I was able to make my way through the great–and large book–The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (1960) by William Shirer. . . .

“In the world, but not of the world.”

In November 1962, I had completed full three years of “service.” At that time, I decided to leave my position of prayer and studies, turn in my “uniform” by which I was recognized: Roman collar, cassock, and my three-cornered biretta hat, with pom-pom.  No need for those items as I became part “of the world.”

Pic of Me in My Service Uniform Cassock

I left the ecclesiastical service with no regrets.  I was disappointed, at times, with myself that I did not remain longer: for more studies, for strengthening of friendships, and for a bit more maturity and discipline that I was obtaining.

DISCIPLINE: training that produces obedience or self-control, often in the form of rules.  The word “discipline” is from the Latin word disciplina meaning “instruction and training.” Discipline is to study, learn, train, and apply a system of standards.  It’s training, especially moral or character.  And, of course, rules (with “punishments”) and followers (“disciples”).  If I can use ONE word to sum up my experience in my years of training during the years of service, in preparation to go into the world to do work, that word would have to be DISCIPLINE.

Wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord–these are the gifts taught to us for us to learn as we became good soldiers.  (The last one was really inculcated during room inspection by the Dean of Men, the “Lord.”)  But by our daily lives, we were highly disciplined, made to learn organizational skills, use of time, even good manners.

I must add, though, we had no firearms, no weapons training.  We did march, sometimes, in line (not on a parade ground), stood and sat to the sound of a bell in the refectory (dining hall), had times of the Great Silence (sometimes for days at a time). 

We made our beds (racks?), a habit I continue, kept our rooms clean, our lockers in order, and our desks neat and tidy (I am not good at that today).  A luxury we did have, though, was laundry service: we dropped off and picked up weekly.  This laundry business I had to learn on my own at home after my separation.  Later, my new wife, thankfully, knew all the intricacies of “whites, lights, and darks” –which I soon mastered, and later taught to our boys when they were able to learn this discipline.

And that, basically, is the end of my story.  That’s all that I’m going to say about it, some sixty years later.  Writing this, I have a tiny inkling of what a WWII Mustang fighter pilot must feel when answering questions about his war exploits or war record during the time of his years of service, no matter how long or short.  “What was it like?” “Were you ever scared?”  “Are you glad you joined the Army Air Force?”  “Any regrets about leaving the service?”

These are some actual questions that I have asked fighter pilots whom I have met in the not-so-distant past.   On the other hand, I have many of my own “war stories,” as it were, memoriesofatime, that I can share about my time together with classmates in hallowed halls, classmates who still reminisce about “duty stations” (classes and work details), “officers” (deans), the “general” (the rector); “S.O.S.” (creamed chipped beef on toast).  But I am not so naïve to make comparisons, to say that academia was completely like military service.

Though, at times, recalling an instance or event that I lived through, I’ll comment, “That’s no different from the Army way.”  And so it goes.

Was I ever in the Army?  Nah.  But note that I did have a draft card when I turned 18. . . .  “Many are called, but few are chosen.”  Some of my “comrades in arms” were called and chosen . . . some have already “slipped the surly bonds of earth.”  

©  JAMES F O’NEIL  2020    

 

 

 

 

BY: JAMES F O’NEIL

“I want people to see a real person on the ice.  I want to seem tangible, hard-working, passionate about my skating, not just going out and doing something I’ve rehearsed a million times.” –Ashley Wagner, American figure skater.  [BrainyQuote]

* * *

Who takes ice skates on a honeymoon?  We did, in October 1963, to the Wagon Wheel Lodge, Rockton, Illinois.

Having packed our 1962 Corvair, my new bride-wife had tucked in her ice skates; for we chose our honeymoon getaway partially for its beautiful Olympic-sized skating facility available for us.

SKATING RINK AT WAGON WHEEL RESORT HONEYMOON

But I’m jumping a bit ahead of my story filled with memoriesofatime.

I never knew, all the while we were engaged, that my fiancée was a skater.  Not much mention, as I recall, was made of our hobbies, like stamp collecting, piano playing, ice skating, collecting Air Force shoulder sleeve insignia, and the like.  The two of us were so submerged in our work, and in our college courses, that there was little free time for hobbies.  An occasional lazy summer Sunday afternoon in Lincoln Park was a delicious treat.

So, when we were setting up our apartment before our wedding (we–gasp! –did not live together before our Catholic marriage!), I noticed a large square shoe box on her pile of stuff to be put away: Riedell.  White box, blue print, with an ice skate and silhouette of an ice skater on the top and sides.  “Do you skate?”  I asked on that warm Chicago October evening.  “You never told me anything about it.  I didn’t know,” I spoke. 

SKATE WITH PASSION!  SKATE RIEDELL!!

* * *

Sonja Henie (8 April 1912 – 12 October 1969) was a Norwegian figure skater and film star, a three-time Olympic Champion (1928, 1932, 1936) in Ladies’ Singles, a ten-time World Champion (1927–1936) and a six-time European Champion (1931–1936).  She won more Olympic and World titles than any other ladies’ figure skater.

At the height of her acting career, she was one of the highest-paid stars in Hollywood and starred in a series of box-office hits, including Thin Ice (1937), My Lucky Star (1938), Second Fiddle (1939) and Sun Valley Serenade (1941) [Wikipedia], and It’s a Pleasure (1945).

Henie retains the record of most consecutive titles, sharing it with skater Katarina Witt.  In addition to traveling to train and compete, she was much in demand as a performer at figure skating exhibitions in both Europe and North America, becoming so popular with the public that police had to be called out for crowd control on her appearances in various cities.

Henie is credited with being the first figure skater to adopt the short skirt costume in figure skating, wear white boots, and making use of dance choreography. Her innovative skating techniques and glamorous demeanor transformed the sport permanently and confirmed its acceptance as a legitimate sport in the Winter Olympics.

Probably most young girls wearing ice skates, learning figures and jumps, aspired to be the next Sonja Heinie.

* * *

Once upon a time, Susie Braschko (before she became Susan O’Neil on 10-12-63) grew up in Des Plaines, Illinois.  Near the farmhouse where she lived lay a marshy area and watery pond where in winter her dad would set up a skating area for her and her brother.  She was a skater here, long before thoughts of Sonja Henie or the Ice Capades, Ice Follies, or Olympic Gold.  Here on the pond she learned to fall, and get up again.  And tasted the desire to want lessons.

Thus, it all began, with her dad driving her to Park Ridge, Illinois, to an ice-skating school (in an old theater)

for classes and lessons–until she had her own car to make her own way to the ice rink…and to her idol and teacher: Michael Kirby who once had to carry her off the ice–!–how, like a perfect gentle knight, as her calf bled from a gash-clash with another skater’s blade.  (Hospital stitches were needed.)

* * *

Michael J.R. Kirby (February 20, 1925 – May 25, 2002) Canadian figure skater who competed in men’s singles, was also (for a short while) an actor, and a one-time ice rink owner and skating coach.  When he turned 16, he became a Canadian national champion, winning the silver medal at the 1941 North American Championships and the gold at the Canadian Figure Skating Championships, 1942.  He turned professional, joining the Ice Follies in 1943. 

In the later 1940s, he moved to Hollywood, appearing in several movies.  In 1947, while he was skating in a West Los Angeles ice rink, the manager asked him to skate with Sonja Henie, the rink owner.  He joined with her, and later had a role in her film The Countess of Monte Crisco.  He also became part of Sonja’s Hollywood Ice Review, which went to Europe and England.

He relocated to Chicago, establishing a chain of instructional ice skating rinks beginning in 1948.  He received an offer from Ice Capades, a company that both produced ice-skating shows and developed ice-skating centers.  Leaders hired him to bring ice rinks like his Chicago-area studios to cities across the country–and around the world.  Nevertheless, success waned in the late 70s, due to the lack of interest and support for ice skating; most of Kirby’s ice studios closed.  Later in life he was an ice-skating consultant and then the author of a biography on Sonja Henie.  (Sonja retired in May 1956.)  He died in 2002 of renal failure, in his home at Orange County, California.  [Thanks to Vikki Ortiz, Chicago Tribune, January 15, 2010]

MICHAEL KIRBY

Many skaters who went on to compete nationally got their start at Kirby’s Chicago-area skating studios.

* * *

Sue tells, humbly and modestly, of her abilities and skills, of how much she learned and how much she so desired to go on in skating.  But, as fate would have it, two of her friends were chosen to audition for the Ice Capades, one successful: “Jennie.”  Sue, though, could never make the cut, for she was 5’0’; 5’7’ or there about, was the minimum height requirement (generic costume sizes).

THE SKATING TRIO

No doubt disappointment set in with the breakup of the friendship and “teammate-ship,” onset of high school and jobs, and family obligations.  (Her father died when she was a junior in high school.)  So, the skates were put aside, put away, for a short while, a few years.

* * *

I didn’t ice skate much, growing up in Chicago.  I was one of those who used hand-me-down skates and tried my best in a non-Michael Kirby city park rink.  Later, years later, I tried with a group of young adults in the bleak mid-winter, skating on frozen lakes near Mundelein, Illinois.  And that was it: end of skating, end of grouping.  Until the honeymoon, of course.   

It was then when I made a complete fool of myself, as I slipped and slid around on the ice, more comfortable sitting down as my new bride skated figure-eights around me, triple-jumped over me (I thought), and smiled as she posed as Ina Bauer, encircling my frozen limbs.

INA BAUER TECHNIQUE

But we had “the time of our lives!”  Babies later (two) found us living in Minnesota, the “Land of 10,000 Lakes,” all potential skating rinks in the winter.

One of the larger lakes near our home (in 1966) was Lake Winona.  The Park Rec provided skating opportunities, complete with crackling ice, motion, and bumps.  Yet for the most part, a good venue for kids and adults willing to brave the winds and chills.  Sue taught both our sons to skate (but not this big guy), and became a Park Rec Skating Instructor, complete with choreographing a winter skate program.  All good rosy-cheeked fun.

Leaving Winona, we had not many ice-time opportunities for a few years after.  A backyard rink I once made, for one.  But an ice rink in a new shopping mall in Florida, where we traveled for a visit, in 1977.  The ice was calling her name; I called her my “Sonja,” this wife-mother who awed us when she got on that small rink by Macy’s and wowed the shopper-onlookers, who clapped at her not-forgotten Michael Kirby “routines.”

We were so impressed.

Fast forward: Our move to Florida, 1980.  New skating life gradually came to Southwest Florida Gulf Coast: Two ice rinks, one a professional rink with a team.  Open skating, classes for beginners on up, ice shows, private lessons from Olympians practicing in the area and coming from the other coast.  Skating teams, competitive teams for all age groups, hockey teams.  The Ice Crystals were born (women’s adult skaters) –and medaled, and received trophies, traveled to Las Vegas and San Francisco and other national competitions.  And Susie–Run-Around-Sue–with her poodle skirt and all, high-scored for her age group.

POODLE SKIRTS TEAM

So, costumes changed, and blades needed sharpening, and airline travel had to be arranged, and then even new skates.  There was rink rental/ice time (that Zamboni!), coaching fees, gas mileage, and other miscellaneous expenses (way beyond a simple city park rink cost).  From time to time, Sonja Sue went to adult free skate; she also managed to take her skates on vacation, to her Ohio cottage, using the practice ice of the Pittsburgh Penguins, in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania–or on ice near Youngstown, Ohio.

SUE, BIG ICE, AND CLEMSON CLEM

Skater Sue, of course, had her share of falls, sore knees, bruises, twists, aches, sore butt, and from time to time a sore wrist or arm from pinwheels–or from an incorrect pull by a teammate.  Harder falls, then The Broken Wrist.

Broken wrist casts come in a variety of colors; she chose black, to blend with her costumes for the up-coming Las Vegas competitions.  And all went well, her team buddies holding her, supporting her when needed.

Nevertheless, that fall, that incident, set her aback, and recuperating time took much out of her.  The team, at the same time, had lost two or three members to illness; the small group barely had enough bodies to make a line across the midline of the rink.  The coach had her time cut back; the end was near.  The team ceased to exist.  The trophy case would never be added to by the adult skate group; only individuals competed from the rink.

* * *

“I think you should consider hanging up your skates,” the doctor said.  Glum.  Gloom.  No tears, but sadness at the realization: a trip to the ER with back spasms, X-rays revealing a fracture at L-2, and degenerative spine disease.  A bad score on a DEXA scan was an earlier warning.  A dangerous combination should any kind of fall occur, especially one on a cold hard ice surface.  Osteoporosis.

And that’s the tale now.

She has her medals and her certificates, her videos, and her photographs; those can never be disputed.  These are her memoriesofatime.  For me?  By now, you might have wondered what role I played in all this narrative, other than as its author, with what are so many of my memoriesofatime.

Well, I was intimately involved with costume selection (“That’s nice.  I like the red one, too.”) or being chauffeur (“What time do I get you to the airport?”) or fixer (“I’ll get some thread and safety pins.”  “I have a bandage right here in my pocket.”  “Here’s my handkerchief for those tears.”); jeweler (“Are those really real diamonds she’s wearing for that number?”), and charmer (“You guys did so well!  You deserved 1st Place, not those young skaters.”), and even technical advisor (“Exactly thirty-three seconds.  Just right!”).

At times I was Team Husband, just being there for an evening or Saturday practice–drinking hot chocolate, reading a book, smiling often, eating a hot dog or piece of pizza, or simply watching, enthralled by a group of women doing skating routines that would be in competition.  Or single skaters practicing, doing jumps and figures and whatever else ice skaters do to make us smile, make us wonder how they can do that on two quarter-inches of razor-sharpened metal attached by screws to a white boot, shoe-laced tightly around foot and ankle.

“Anything I should know about foot-pounds of pressure?”  “And if you feel yourself falling, I want you to relax and . . .”  “And, yes, those blades are really sharp!”  

[See the movies Blades of Glory, 2007; The Cutting Edge, 1992.]

I seldom complained, about time and money, about illness and injury, cuts and bruises–and expenses for Biofreeze.  Our hobbies–well, her “hobby” was really a “passion,” as she called it.  My hobby was collecting zinc and lead diecast airplanes.  I never had the “passion” as she did.  Ever.

So, I would add, in closing, nothing.  That’s all what I want to relate about my own “Sonja Henie,” from our beginnings to now, a good skating time of some forty-five years or so.  I should mention that there was many a time that I could not believe how beautiful she was “out there, on ice” with her musical motifs and routines–and how often  I was choked up by a special performance (and am still moved watching her videos), and how you might even have seen me reach for my handkerchief to wipe my eyes . . .

© JAMES F O’NEIL 2020

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