Skating is a terrifying activity wrapped in a bow-tied package of exhilaration. Certainly, there is all that floating and gliding and whooshing-air-past-rosy-cheeks stuff. A giddy time to be sure. But, if you look in the dark corner at the edge of your vision, off to the far right, you see a spectacular spray of shaved ice, flailing arms, flying mittens, and then hear the muffled thump of a coat-padded body hitting the surface with a remarkable lack of grace. Of course, you tell yourself that such a fall will never happen to you. You are young and virile and inordinately good-looking. But, trust me, if you skate long enough, you will fall. Count on it.
This winter, I’m deep in the world of Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates. You remember the story set in Holland during the 19th century, where Hans single-handedly saves his sister, mother, father, a doctor, and miscellaneous friends through his relentlessly selfless actions. Yup, it’s one of those stories you want to read with a glass of wine and not too much self-reflection. But the backdrop of the story is skating. Without a doubt, skating is truly a big deal in this neck of the woods. Every town in the Netherlands has its own manufactured ice skating rink as the locals wait for a hard freeze of the canals. The Hague is no exception.
And once there is a freeze, everyone is on the canals. In fact, if it gets really cold, they have a 124-mile marathon through 11 cities in the northern province of Friesland. 16,000 skaters show up for that little skating event.
While wandering around Delft the other day, I actually thought I saw Hans Brinker. Of course, he was no longer that young idealistic boy of the 1865 story. Now, he’s a little seasoned.
“I am 80 years in March. I say I am 80 now because 80 is nicer than 79. I was born in a small village before the war.” Koos Rozenburg gives me a wide smile. Cautious, but wide.
Rozenburg was six years old when World War II started for the Netherlands. In 1940, Rotterdam was bombed into nothing, forcing the Netherlands to capitulate. Rozenburg lived in a small village between The Hague and Rotterdam. He remembers the bombs, the brown paper covering the windows, and the starvation. Their family was fortunate because his dad ran a laundry where he had stockpiled coal in anticipation of war. “My father would change coal with the farmers for cheese and butter and milk. We survived the war. We were lucky.”
After the war, Rozenburg was taken out of school at the age of 14 and worked in his father’s laundry. He eventually started his own laundry. But his true love as a young man was cycling.
“I was a cycle racer when I was 18. It went in a good way. Then I saw a lovely girl, my wife. And my mother said you cannot earn your money in cycle racing that way. It was forbidden to pay money to the racers. Some years later that was another thing. In my time, I was very energetic, but you never get enough money for the future.”
So, he gave up racing and focused on his laundry. Oh, yes, and collecting skates.
“We earn our money in the laundry. But I was always collecting painted tiles and old skates. I remember the day we were ten years married, had small children, the house was so full, my wife said please let me sell something for it is too much. When the last of our children were married and goes out, I stopped the washing, and then we started this small shop here 30 years ago.” So, Rozenburg now sells old ice skates in his corner shop on a canal in Delft.
As I wandered around the shop, I saw a well-tuned road bike tucked into a window well. Raising my eyebrows, Rozenberg gave a true wide smile. “I come every day by bike. Every morning I make 40 kilometers [nearly 25 miles] before I come. It is the long way. At night, I return the shortest way because my wife wants me home before seven for dinner.”
“I have happy life. Every morning — here we are again. Go with cycling. And see what’s happening in Delft. Some days I sell nothing. It doesn’t matter.”
But what about winter?
“It becomes to be colder. Every day I go. It is a changeable universe. So close to the sea, we never know. Every day we are still here, I take the bike and I’m going. In Dutch we say, ‘we sullen zien way er gebeurt.’ It means, ‘we’ll see what happens.’ It’s always a surprise.”
But you’re 80 years old?
“I don’t think to stop here. One day I will feel it is not possible. I’m feeling now every day. I’m still here. It is just fine. Like a Rooster.”
The Brenton Skating Plaza in downtown Des Moines shines this holiday season. It is delightfully enticing as you watch the skaters from the safety of your car where you are warm and cosy.
But really? Come on. Sure, those skate parties in high school were a few years ago. And, yes, your hips aren’t all they used to be. And don’t even start about those wobbly knees. But . . . it is the beginning of a new year. Who knows where life will take you? What were Rozenburg’s words? Oh yes, “We’ll see what happens.” Well, then, maybe you should strap on the skates and go see what happens
By the way, when you are laying splayed on the ice after an earth-shaking tumble, and wonder why you ever did this, remember Koos Rozenburg, and tell those passing gawkers that you are skating like a Rooster. So there. That’ll ring in the new year.