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On Second Thought

Icy efficiency lacking out back

By Kevin Paul Dupont
December 5, 2010

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Backyard ice rinks are not the sole domain of dads, because I am sure that there are moms across New England and throughout the rest of the outdoor ice-making world who are delusional enough to think they can turn a patch of paradise into a pristine sheet. If nothing else, insanity is gender-neutral.

You wonder . . . ice, water, cold weather, a steaming cup of hot chocolate . . . can it be that hard?

Well, no, it’s harder.

It’s that time of year again when some of you are going to buy the plywood, two-by-fours, plastic sheeting, staple guns, hoses, spray nozzles, shovels, and 6-foot pry bars that will immerse you knee-deep into this Hallmark moment. Go get ’em! Just know that the hot chocolate somehow gets lost in all the hardware, split thumbs, and swearing.

I wish you well, and suggest, while you’re digging, stapling, measuring, watering (and did I mention swearing?), that you send your significant other and your kids on a brief pre-winter vacation. Because when the heartache is over at the edge of your sorry backyard rink come, say, St. Patrick’s Day, the smiles, like the skating days, will have been few.

By no means am I saying it’s a worthless endeavor. Fact is, it’s honorable and chock-full of wonderful, admirable intention. Who wouldn’t want to invite the whole neighborhood over for a little backyard dipsy doodle, free of charge, and rip off the odd triple lutz to everyone’s amazement? Sweet dreams and hot packs are made of these. Can’t you just hear the Christmas carols playing from the boom box positioned by the open kitchen window?

But it’s torture, all of it, and with failure comes guilt, and with guilt comes near-total conviction (especially for you dads in the ice-making audience) that you can do it better next year. No you can’t. Not this one.

Quit at the guilt and do not turn back. It comes with far fewer splinters and smashed fingernails, and it won’t leave you to wonder how a seemingly level backyard produced a sheet of ice nearly 20 inches thick at one end and nothing but bare, shredded plastic liner at the other.

It also won’t leave your kids, clutching their skates and hockey sticks in red-cheeked anticipation, asking how come your sorry sheet of ice looks so pathetic compared with the “totally awesome’’ ice at the local rink. Let me see, did I mention the swearing?

The one winter I took on the task of resident ice maker at my house, I went right to the best, the man, the indefatigable Jack Falla, whose passing in September 2008 was one sad day in outdoor skating. I don’t say that insensitively or capriciously. Falla was such a good guy, kind and witty and enthusiastic, that he actually gave backyard skating and hockey playing a good name. He made the whole thing sound like a calling.

Falla wrote books about building backyard rinks. He not only conveyed his passion for it, he lived it. In a five-minute conversation, he could have convinced a Bali resort owner to fit a small sheet between the hot tub, the happy-hour bar, and the Olympic-sized diving pool. Around here, if you are around someone who is putting up a backyard rink, it’s virtually impossible for Jack’s name not to pop up in the discussion.

With Falla at my side, and his euphoria at contagion level, I measured and I cut and I dug and pry-barred for a full afternoon. One of his tricks, an essential in the Falla book of backyard rink construction and management, had me cutting a huge patch of wall-to-wall rug into one-foot squares. All these years later, I can’t remember exactly what they were for, but I think they acted as a buffer between the plywood boards and the thick plastic liner that was ever-so-carefully placed inside the boards, which ran 24 feet wide and 32 feet long.

“Whatever you do,’’ implored Falla between “ka-chunks’’ of the staple gun, “don’t puncture the plastic sheet.’’

I was riveted at that warning. No tears in the plastic.

Here’s the thing about the plastic sheet: It tore by itself, not by the inch, but by the yard.

Against Falla’s advice, and his expert eye, I didn’t go to the bother of hiring a landscape company to level the surface area. “Oh, it’s close enough,’’ I said, figuring that, fine, a first attempt wouldn’t be perfect. Maybe I would have to scale back to a double lutz. Jack shrugged and told me where to dig. I dug. I couldn’t wait to skate.

But that smidgen’s difference to my untrained eye translated into, as noted, a pool of water 20 inches deep at one end of the rink and bare, dry, shredded plastic at the other. When my pond froze weeks after Falla left that day, about a third of the rink’s total square footage was useless. The weight of the “heavy’’ end tore the plastic away from the, shall we say, shallow end, which was good only for planting Charlie Brown Christmas trees.

Some things are not salvageable. Especially when Old Man Winter gets his icy claws into the ground. There was no quick makeover or retrofitting. I considered hitching my hose to our hot water tank, running it out the cellar window, melting down the hideous eyesore of a glacier that now sat parked in my backyard, framed by handsome plywood walls and utter defeat. But it was useless. Paradise was lost, frozen, to await its sorry segue to spring.

Let not a word of this reflect poorly on my pal Jack Falla, whose backyard rink, the Bacon Street Omni, was that idyllic Hallmark moment that many of you probably envision when thinking of building your backyard rink. It doesn’t get much better than that day when my then-kindergarten-aged son and I visited the Falla homestead, changed into our skates at his kitchen table (true story), shuffled across the kitchen floor on covered blades and then slipped out the back door for a skate stolen out of a snow globe.

Hey, if you want to, go for it. Get out the tools and have a ball. I am hardly an expert. I flunked wood shop in junior high, and my tour through sheet metal was even worse. I know, you’re shocked.

I had the Elvis of backyard rinks at my side that day and the end result was heartbreak hotel. All these years later, the plywood boards, each of them 8 feet long and 2 feet wide, sit neatly stacked under the tall pine trees at the edge of my backyard. I dare not peek under the plastic tarp that covers them, for fear that they have been devoured by nature’s elements or that, upon hearing their gentle weeping, I’ll be tempted to take another twirl.

Kevin Paul Dupont’s “On Second Thought’’ appears on Page 2 of the Sunday Globe Sports section. He can be reached at dupont@globe.com.

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