The world from spring skates

Cumberland Glimpses

April 30, 1991|By Mary Ellen Dougherty

SPRING was unwieldy in Cumberland. The last traces of snow melted down into the valley; heavy rains flooded the narrow streets; forsythia stacked the hills; unexpected blizzards sang through the mountains. For us as children, spring was roller skating time.

We skated in the old-fashioned way in the 1940s, our skates secured to the soles of our shoes by side clamps, regulated by a key which we wore around our necks. The shoes had to be just right: old enough that we were allowed by our mothers to risk ruining them, but not so old that the soles were likely to separate from the shoes in the process of skating. Everything about skating was a matter of balance.

I grew up on Lincoln Street, a short two blocks, parallel to Bedford and Frederick streets, main arteries into town. Backed by mountains, Bedford and Frederick are connected by side streets which also cross Lincoln Street. These streets, steep hills, were ideal for sled riding. For roller skating, however, they were precarious. That, perhaps, was part of the appeal.

No two sidewalks on Lincoln Street were alike. There were stretches of ordinary squares with predictable cracks, requiring only that we sustain an easy momentum from square to square. Then there were the sunken slabs, unpredictable and hazardous, creating quick traps for the skater. We had to be alert and agile. Occasionally the front wheels of a skate grazed the uneven ledge of the concrete. A good skater caught herself, intuitively landing in a smooth glide on the next sidewalk.

Most of the homes in our neighborhood had been built in the 1920s. By the mid-1940s, a few homeowners had replaced their sidewalks. The concrete was thinner. The new sidewalks were widely ruffled, creating the illusion of soft hills. Here we instinctively let our feet down easy. We rode these sidewalks gently, dreaming the distance.

We did not, however, ride the steep side streets gently. We rode them wildly, breathless with fear and freedom. This was a distance we could not dream. We concentrated intensely, registering every nuance of bump or stone. Each time we arrived safely at the bottom of the hill, we knew we had traveled somewhere beyond ourselves, again.

Skating made our world palpable: the softening of tar on the streets in the afternoon sun, the slick unevenness of wet cobblestone on Bedford Street, the sprawling driveway behind the Blue Ribbon bakery on Frederick Street. Here we smelled pTC fresh bread from wide windows open now for spring. We counted loaf after loaf on conveyor belts. We skated and skated around this bread until a sympathetic worker threw us a loaf. Then we skated away, carrying the bread in our arms. We tasted the warm dough down to our feet.

While we gathered regularly for games of softball and kick the can in neighborhood fields, many times we chose to skate in solitude. After the long winters, we needed to skate through the melting snow, through the fresh rain, through the fine dust of forsythia from the hills.

All of spring was in our feet.

Mary Ellen Dougherty, a native of Cumberland, is associate professor of English at the College of Notre Dame of Maryland.

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