Ice Skating with Frank

My dad, to whom this post is dedicated, purchases copious quantities of fireworks each year for the fourth of July, much to my mother’s chagrin. We always celebrated the 4th at our home in Southwest Michigan and each year I’d request to drive with him instead of my mom (who usually had to schlep me over). I knew I’d be able to talk him into taking me to Krazy Kaplan’s, the last legal fireworks distributor south of the Michigan border with Indiana. We’d usually get to shoot off about three-quarters of our loot before one of the weeping gold lights would get a bit too close to our roof. Then, my dad would get a stern talking-to from my mom and we’d offload the remaining fireworks into an ever-growing “reject pile” in our shed. Instead of shooting off the leftover fireworks from the year prior, we always went and filled up the trunk of my dad’s sedan with an entirely new round of explosives. Year after year, the pile grew to be sizeable.

Over this past summer, our shed burned down. To be more specific, someone burned it down. It appears that someone discovered our stockpile, lined up fireworks around the perimeter of the shed, and lit it up. My parents and I have spent hours circled around the kitchen table, deducing potential motives (and thinking ourselves regular Sherlocks, behavioral analysis agents, and professional arson investigators compared to the local law enforcement actually assigned to the case).

Why burn down the shed, but not the house?

Why burn down the shed at all?

Maybe it was an accident?

Then why did we find fireworks around the perimeter of the ashes?

How did the fire burn so hot as to destroy all the industrial farm equipment inside?

I doubt we’ll ever find meaningful answers to these questions, and as the months have passed, we’ve all just let it go.

The shed was there for 24 years and then one day, it wasn’t anymore. With such a dramatic ending to its life, I felt it deserved some homage. I’ve had many memories in the shed, and this is by far my fondest. As we clean away the ashes and reflect on how we may choose to rebuild this glorified utility closet, I figured I’d write it down. Plus, I somewhat revel in the irony that my favorite memory of this shed, which burned down in such a dramatic fiery disaster, is based on ice.

This all happened over a weekend in early December, when I was 11 or so. It was below zero and had been for a few weeks. An unusually cold start to the winter, even for the Midwest. My mom and dad took me to our place in Michigan for the weekend as they did often when I was growing up. We’d decided to stay 2–3 days, our last weekend of private family time before the insanity of the holidays began.

Many of my friends still find it peculiar that I, an only child, would often spend my weekends like this: holed up with 2 adults in a remote town on 30 acres of land for multiple days. Often no friends, siblings, or anyone else remotely near in age. What would you even do all weekend? Wouldn’t you get bored just being with your parents?

I absolutely adored it. It also made me feel special that I got to reliably hang out with the adults. My other friends had to be babysat, or they had to make Von Trapp-style exits from dinner parties, politely saying “goodbye” to each guest of their family. Not me. I got to stay up, pleasantly yukking it up with folks four or five times my age.

And I think that my parents, similarly, sort of loved having their daughter as a bit of a party trick. From a young age, I could intuit when to crack a joke and when to shut up. I could ask questions about things that I was a long way from genuinely understanding, and I could actively listen. I didn’t have public meltdowns, and my mom always had cute velvet dresses and linen pants to help me appear like a miniature adult. It was a win-win, my parents didn’t need to worry about me, and I got to refine my social skills at a young age. We all benefited from the arrangement.

My mom and dad had let me stay up and watch a movie with them, probably National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation given the time of year. Around 9 pm, my mom decided to retire to bed and firmly asked my dad to put me to bed at a reasonable hour. He pursed his lips and nodded responsibly in agreement. As soon as she cleared the den’s threshold, his face wrinkled into mischief; he looked over and winked at me. Once he’d listened carefully to confirm the coast was clear, he asked me,

“Do you want to go on an adventure?”

I popped up from the couch, excitedly (but very quietly) jogged back to the kitchen, and carefully pried open the double doors to the coat closet. I leaped up and started grabbing at anything that looked warm or otherwise filled with feathers. Once I’d made a proper mess on the floor, I opened my arms wide, hugged the plush pile of down coats, scarves, and hats, and hobbled over towards the door before plopping it down.

I surveyed the pile and carefully plucked out my layers one at a time, starting with some long underwear of my mother's, which were far too big for my little arms and legs. My Dad walked by and dropped a pair of his woolen socks in my lap. The heel of the sock fell well above my ankle, so I carefully worked my way around the perimeter of the sock, carefully tucking the ends of the long underwear in, to fill in the space. I crammed the remaining slacking fabric into some snow pants that my mom had brought for me to sled with. Once I put on my coat, my dad had to help me put on my hat and mittens.

Once I was finished donning my outfit, I was lumpy albeit incredibly warm.

My lumpiness became more apparent as we left the house. It’s a short walk to the shed in the summer, but there was stale snow on the ground. The kind where the top layer had melted in the sun, only to be hardened with the advent of the nightly chill. I was small enough to not reliably crunch through the icy top layer. This left each step feeling like Russian Roulette, terrified that each time I stepped down, I was cocking my foot to fire down an indeterminate distance to the ground below.

Eventually, I grew so slow in this timid procession that my dad just picked me up and let me piggyback ride the rest of the way. I liked being up high on his back, I could see more of our property from up there. Usually, I would’ve been terrified to walk through the property at night, especially in this kind of cold, but I felt comforted by the confidence I felt in my dad’s footsteps, the warm light of his flashlight revealing the unknown ahead of us.

We finally reached the shed. He swung me around with a hearty laugh and threw me into a snowbank that had accumulated beneath the eaves. It always shocked me to be reminded of the disparity of strength between me and my 6'4" father. He always seemed like a real-life lumberjack. He used to tell me Paul Bunyan stories, and I wasn't entirely convinced that his tales of a giant roaming through the Midwest weren’t autobiographical. I’m still not.

He leaned over and lifted open a shingle on the side of the shed, gracefully dropping a small silver key into his hand. He wrestled the doorknob open, turned on the light inside, and lent me his hand to writhe out of the snowbank and get on my feet again.

Once we got inside, he dusted off his hands and looked around with pride. The shed was always full, we had a large selection of farm equipment. We also kept all of our summer equipment in the shed during the winter, which was always a strange sight. It was the same feeling of seeing your house from a new perspective after coming home sick from school. Noticing that the sunlight is misaligned, or the coffeepot noticeably empty. Out of place. I touched the metal frame of one of our beach chairs and the ice-cold temperature felt fundamentally unnatural. The most prominent feature of the shed was a full wooden workbench with a stereo.

My dad walked over to the stereo.

“What kind of music shall we listen to, my dear?”

“Something to dance to!” I replied.

He flipped on the large stereo switch. A small indicator beneath the word “RADIO” began to glow. The red light of the stereo felt warm, an indication that despite being out in this freestanding edifice on the far edges of our property, we were establishing a direct line to the outside world. He scrolled through the channels until we heard a familiar tune: my story is much too sad to be told! And without skipping a beat, we were singing along with Frank, as if he were in that shed with us. My dad looked over at me as he laughed, and got that mischievous look on his face.

“That’s not all, I’ve got some surprises.”

He charged over to the wall, flipped open a large lever, and threw the shed door open. It rolled down its track, revealing more and more darkness as the light equilibrated out the door. The minimal light left a small trail along the pond’s icy surface, like water’s reflection at sunset. Another reminder of how far away we were from the warmth of summer. With the flick of his finger, a low hum rose as floodlights switched on to light the entire pond. I walked a few steps out of the door and gazed at the pond, which, in an instant, had become a bonafide rink. I looked back, made eye contact with him briefly before he turned in place, and paced over to the stereo. He reached his hand back, paused, “are you ready for the best part?” and flipped another switch.

Frank Sinatra’s voice propagated from the small stereo and flooded the entire yard around the pond. I realized that he'd rigged surround sound speakers all throughout the yard. I turned around, my grin beaming against the floodlight, looking at my dad like Annie looks at Daddy Warbucks.

“What do you think about that?!” He said with ultimate pride.

I ran back inside the shed and hugged him tightly. Then I lunged for the bag and grabbed my mother’s ice skates, my dad got his hockey skates. We forayed to the edge of the pond and as I stepped out onto the ice, my dad jutted his hand out in front of me.

“Wait a minute. Your mother would have a fit if she saw you doing this.”

I looked up at him with a sour face, “So what are we going to do? Just go back inside? We’ve come all this way.”

He smirked, “I sure as shit didn’t spend multiple hours with the dorks in The Radio Shack to turn in without skating out there. Just wait a minute.”

He lumbered back into the shed. I heard him rustling around by the summer beach chairs. He came back out with a rope that I was very familiar with. It was just a few feet longer than the width of our pool, we used it to play tug of war in the summer. The loser would always wind up getting wet (rather ironic in this moment). He threw a loop of the frayed rope around me and all my layers of puff and tied a square knot around my abdomen. Then he grabbed the other end of the line and said,

“Alright, go ahead!”

I took a deep inhale, felt the frigid air fill my lungs, all the way down to my toes. I looked back at my dad, smiled with all the gratitude I could muster in a single expression, and then turned to fix my gaze on the other end of the pond. I kicked out my V-shaped stance, putting my weight on one skate, gliding out into the middle of the ice. As I began to dance along the edge of the pond with the edges of my blades, Frank sang: I’ve got the world on a string!

A sentiment I’m sure my dad shared.

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