Swept Up: Curling didn’t come naturally to me ...
a local winter memory
Curling didn’t come naturally to me. When our Canadian-born neighbors urged us to try it for years, I emphatically resisted. I grudgingly gave in only when my husband, Bob, attended an open house and enthusiastically signed us up for the Mixed (couples) League for the 74-75 season. After all, dues were only $20 per person, we could participate as a couple … and I could endure anything for three months. We started in January when the ice, delayed by warm weather, was finally ready.
The original curling facility in the former Altoona Fairgrounds was unheated, un-insulated, and sported “natural ice,” which was highly affected by exterior weather conditions. The club utilized the chilly, cement-floored 4-H summer kitchen as a clubhouse and used primitive, frigid, exterior bathrooms. Snow drifted in through the building’s cracks and settled on the three ice rinks. Whenever it thawed outside, the curling ice melted inside, too, so ice conditions could change dramatically during a game. Compared to today’s artificially refrigerated ice, natural ice was considerably tougher to slide the stones on, so we’d use a much larger back-swing than now to powerfully deliver the stones down the ice. I spent my first season either blasting the stones out of play right through the opposite “house” (target), or over-compensating and “hogging,” so they fell short of the minimum-distance line. I rarely had stones in play, which was disheartening, as I surprisingly discovered I was pretty competitive.
Hog-hair curling brushes were becoming popular, but, having spent months mastering a corn broom, I scorned the upstart brushes.
During the game, we swept the ice with narrow, broom-straw “corn brooms” with a leather insert. They required a real knack to sweep with effectively, and made a loud slapping sound when used correctly, noisily drowning out the skips. Hog-hair curling brushes were becoming popular, but, having spent months mastering a corn broom, I scorned the upstart brushes. I actually used corn brooms for almost 30 years, long after everyone else in the club had switched to synthetic brushes … and taking a lot of flack. We also used Teflon sliders on the sole of one shoe to slide while delivering the stone. I spent my second season learning to wear the slider while sweeping, so I wouldn’t have to remove it every end (inning).
What kept us coming back a second season, then another, was the exceptional camaraderie and friendliness of the other curlers. Everyone brought refreshments and socialized after every game. Tradition dictates you sit with your opponents, so we met loads of new people, many of whom became lasting friends. That aspect made up for my woeful curling. Everyone pitched in to set up (and take down) the viewing room and ice rinks each season, and helped with the club’s tournaments – “Bonspiels.” (My neighbor and I made 30 meat pies for one event.) The club had a real sense of unity and enjoyment, and year-end banquets featured songs, skits, and poems cleverly poking fun at incidents from the season. As the sport also provided winter exercise and eliminated “cabin fever,” we rejoined.
The following summer, the club decided to build a new clubhouse adjoining the ice. Most of the members contributed money and/or time, so it was ready by the next season. We reveled in carpeting, a fireplace … and indoor, flush toilets. Next, the club purchased portable artificial ice mats, a compressor, and cooling tower, so the season lengthened from November through March. (Dues and work increased dramatically, but we were already hooked.) The new ice was much more consistent and unaffected by weather vagaries. Many teams became more skillful, and curled competitively versus recreationally.
I eventually semi-mastered the game and started enjoying winning and the strategy and finesse involved … and strongly disagreeing with Bob on shots and tactics! Our sons and their friends loved the sport, so we coached the junior curling league for nine years. We taught rudimentary skills, form, strategy, and supervised games. Several juniors participated in state competitions, but most kids just had fun.
When the county decided to move the fairgrounds, the membership again spent evenings and weekends for six months building the Expo Center. The club donated significant funding and provided carpentry and construction labor as the building took shape. While roofing, electrical, and plumbing were professionally done, most other work was completed by curling volunteers, including constructing the complicated artificial ice system installed beneath the laser-leveled floor. The old club’s ice-maker, Bernie Bernicke, at 85 threw the first stone down the new ice, which was completed by the 95-96 season.
We’ve continued curling 35 years, becoming living proof that people can curl at all ages. Teams and partners have come and gone, but we value the wonderful friendships we’ve made. We’ve curled in the Men’s and Women’s leagues (where my team was the second in the club’s history to score a perfect “8-end” – who knew?!), and have truly enjoyed the game.