I discovered great joy in every smooth stride, the ice crunching under my blades, and in every crisp pass that I sent spinning up the ice or slamming off the boards, or in hearing the sound of the puck caroming of a goal post with a loud clank. Each time I stepped onto the ice on the pond or at the rink I felt untouchable, in spite of the physical play. It toughened me up because I wouldn’t last long otherwise competing among the bigger and stronger kids and no way would I allow myself to be run off the ice. I felt free to fly in a way I could never have imagined and was amazed at the abilities that God seemed to have just reached down and given me in such a swift and unexpected fashion when pretty much every other player on the team had been skating since the age of five or six and spent years developing in local youth hockey leagues the degree of skill that it normally took to become good enough to play in the tough Boston District high school leagues of the 1970’s.
But somehow, it was as though my feet, hands, and brain just knew how to do it. But although I might have looked on the outside every bit as confident as my skills and disposition seemed to imply, no one could see the self-doubt that haunted me as it always had about everything I did to that point in my life. It didn’t matter that I kept repeating my on-ice success and that I was getting better all the time and that I’d fight anyone no matter how big and no matter how many times I may have lost because I had to. I had to fight not only because if you didn’t you’d get no respect and you wouldn’t last long, but I did it more to keep proving over and over to myself that I’d never be like him. No one was going to punch my face through a car window or anywhere else and get away with it.
But deep down I also felt something like a fraud, a Johnny come lately compared to all of those three letter jocks, all of whom it seemed had a real hockey dad who drove them to the rink in a warm station wagon while mine had never even seen me play never mind giving me a ride to the rink. They had the best skates and sticks, while I dragged an old army duffel bag full of smelly used equipment and a couple of cracked hockey sticks held together with tape onto a city trolley that would take me from Forest Hills Station to the stop on Huntington Avenue that was closest to the old and dilapidated Boston Arena, alone. I couldn’t help but feel like I was an imposter. Like they were born rich and had some sort of pedigree and I was a poor relative or some sort of charity case trying figure out how to use the silver the right way at a fancy dinner.
Although I had a couple of close friends, I felt as if I wasn’t one of them although we shared the same passion for the game and the dream to play college then maybe pro hockey one day. It was as though they had a resume that I lacked and I’d be found out and let go. Coach had some faith that I could play college hockey, or even perhaps beyond, if I worked at my academics and got into the weight room for maybe a year or two at a junior college and bulked up a lot. Then, he said, who knows? Though coach’s prediction about my hockey future didn’t happen quite that way, it did turn out, however, that while he didn’t know it, he was the one that had ended up putting my life on the right course. Hell he’d helped save it.
It was July of 1974, in what was the summer of what would have been between my junior and senior year at Hyde Park High School if I hadn’t quit. I was considering signing up for a hitch with the Marine Corps and was setting up taking a physical and some other type of aptitude test. I couldn’t imagine what in the hell the test could be for, when all my seventeen year-old brain could imagine myself doing as a Marine would be to get my head shaved and learn how to pound my fellow Marines with a pugil stick and how to thrust a bayonet deep into the chest cavity of my fellow human beings on some beach head in a place I couldn’t pronounce and I couldn’t wait.
I went around humming the Marine Corps song and I loved their motto Semper Fi short for Semper Fidelis meaning “always faithful” and the fact that only Marines got to say that and wear it with pride. I was hoping the recruiter would give me one of those yellow and red T-shirts with those words printed across the front in bold red, but I knew I couldn’t ever wear it until I’d earned it by completing basic training.
I was hanging out alone in Brigham’s, stuffing down hamburgers and a milkshake. At five foot nine inches, I only weighed one-hundred and thirty-five pounds, and I’d learned I’d need to be at least one-hundred and thirty-eight pounds to be accepted for any kind of final enlistment. It wasn’t until my early twenties that I saw my height jump to almost six feet and when I’d add another forty-five pounds between the gym and the three squares a day I’d get from the military. I was sitting in a booth facing the window and could see my hockey coach approaching from the center of Cleary Square. “That’s strange,” I thought as he walked in. “He lives in East Boston, what the hell is he doing here?”
“Thought maybe I’d find you here,” said Mr. Lewis.
Brigham’s was where a lot of the “jocks” hung out both during and between school years, and he’d join us sometimes after a practice at the MDC rink for a bite or a frappe. My girlfriend worked there part-time, although she was now off duty, and always gave us freebies when her boss wasn’t looking. I always opted for the butterscotch sundae, with vanilla ice cream, extra syrup.
“Hey Mr. Lewis, what’s up?” I said, puzzled.
“You sport, you’re what’s up. Just what the hell do you think you’re doing?” he said, sliding into the opposite side of the booth.
More to follow….