Minneapolis Park Memory: The Park In My Back Yard
It’s the smell of wet wool socks against a hot stove that I remember. Skating at Pearl Park in the late 1950s. I grew up two blocks from Pearl Park — a lovely open space that the Park Board created out of a swamp. My dad, bless his heart, created a skating rink in our back yard, going out (in his business suit before heading off to work in the morning at General Mills) with a hose to flood the little rink banked with snow. But our little ice sheet was tiny — the rink at Pearl was big, and full of lively skaters from all over the neighborhood. Flood lights lit the place up in the dark of winter nights, and seeing sparks of snow drift through those lights while we skated around (and fell, whump, hard on the ice, jittering bones) was heavenly. And then, when you were cold to the core, ankles turned to clammy oatmeal, you clumped up the blade-scored stairs into the wooden warming house, a dark cave-like enclosure where the community center now stands on the south end of the park. And it was warm and it was close and I remember it as dark and kids were laughing and maybe there was a little counter where you could get candy bars and hot chocolate, but the real center of the place was the stove, with a railing of metal pipes around it so you didn’t get too close and burn your feet. Off came the skates — dark brown leather, yellow laces about a mile long, we got them at the skate exchange at Nicollet Hardware, run by a neighbor, Mr. Larson.
And when the skates came off — always a tough pull, because by that time everything was wet and sticky — you’d put your wet-sock feet up against the railing and I swear you could see the steam rise off the ice blocks formerly known as feet. I remember the smell of heat — don’t recall if the stove was wood- or coal-burning or something else — but the scent was warm and enveloping and as comforting as a mom-made hotdish.
Pearl, as any park, was a neighborhood center. In summer we’d go down there and play whiffle ball in the tennis courts, trying to whack homeruns over the fence as we imagined ourselves batting cleanup for the Twins. In those days in South Minneapolis, mothers weren’t concerned about their kids roaming in the evening several blocks from home, to go to the park, to pick up a friend at his house, to wander around and see what was up. Park Board baseball teams crowded the diamonds. I remember being sent in as a pinch hitter for my older brother’s team when one of their players had to go home early. I was three years younger than all the other players, skinny and weak. My brother said “Just go up there in a crouch, you’re short and the guy will walk you.” I did that — and the pitcher fired a ball so fast I never saw it but I felt it burn across the tops of both thighs. I got my base, and my baseball career started and ended right there. Fastballs — who knew? I played Park Board football at Pearl one year — something my wife can’t believe, as I’m so not a football type. But we had a wonderful coach nicknamed “Sparky” who was inspirational. He was a vitamin salesman and had a trunk full of Flintstone vitamins — we were doping before it was cool. Also in his trunk were little gilded dog bones that said “Hero” on them, some sort of sales reward, I’d guess, and he would hand those out after the game to almost everyone. I earned one by putting my arm out to try to block a kid twice my size in one game, also earning a greenstick fracture of my arm. And my football career was over. Back to whiffle ball.
Pearl Park also claimed the spleen of a friend of mine. We were sliding down the hill from Hampshire Drive toward the tennis courts one winter afternoon, our sleds whipping over the snow. And my friend Jay met an immovable pole at the bottom of the hill, smashing his body and requiring an operation. No Olympic luge in his, or our, futures.
But those skating nights, hundreds of them, were part of my growing up. I can hear the “slish slish” of skateblades still, as I type this in Florida, where I now live, seeing from afar yet another December snowfall drop on Minneapolis.
By the late 1960s I had pretty much left skating behind as I headed into high school. But the Minneapolis park system was part of my life, every day. We lived a couple of blocks off of Minnehaha Creek, and most of my friends’ houses were located up or down Minnehaha Parkway from my house. The bike paths along the creek were my highway. And Lake Harriet was where friends and I would get away from family and school, walking around the lake, sitting in trees, mooning about, a peaceful place to let the tempests of the Sixties and of crazy high-school years pass over. The parkway and the lakes were Minneapolis to me — my back yard, my retreat. For my first marriage, my wife and I had our invitation photo taken as we stood on stepping stones in the Creek by the Parkway at 50th Street.
The wisdom of the people — their stories told so well in Dave Smith’s book — who saw into the future and set aside park land for everyone to enjoy, and truly live in, is amazing. And the current stewards of the parks are just as dedicated and doing something just as crucial to life in Minneapolis as they try, with scant resources, to maintain and expand our parks to serve more future generations.
I don’t miss the snow as I see it on television from Florida, where we just moved months ago. But I cherish the memories of Pearl Park and all the Minneapolis parks — they are part of what formed my views of environmentalism and urban design and just being alive and open to the world.
Bruce Benidt, Port Richey, Florida
Thanks, Bruce. Distant, but still here — and forever eloquent.