by Ott Gangl -- (c) copyrighted article
When I was eleven I’ve had my Korchulas for three winters already and was quite good in using them. Once the ice on the lake near Sigi’s house got to eight inches thick, the icemen came and cut large chunks for the ice bunkers where it stayed cold for the summer. The water then froze to a smooth, dark green ice without a ripple on it.
Having that freshly frozen ice the size of a football field brought us out to have Korchula races or just to fool around on them. I have no idea what the word Korchula means, it may be of Slavic origin, but I’ll describe what they are.
Imagine a 2x4 piece of wood about a foot long having two runners made of coat hanger wire about a half inch in from the sides with a half inch square piece of wood nailed crosswise to the top at a place where the heel of the boot could hook over. About where the ball of the foot would be, a shoe lace was nailed crosswise and tied over the boot and another, longer shoe lace was nailed to the back of the Korchula and tied around the ankle.
For propulsion we had a pole made from broomsticks or shovel handles or even ax handles with a large sharp nail on the bottom and by pushing between the legs we could really slide fast.
I remember going into servitude for a half hour at the local blacksmith, pumping his bellows, and in turn he would allow me to heat my five inch nail and burn it into my shovel handle made of very hard locust wood. After repeated heating the nail went in about two inches, a good whack against the anvil seated it and the blacksmith would kindly use a chisel and hammer to cut the head off at a steep angle. It was a great pole.
We were a clique of seven and often had races, some straight across the ice, but at other times we would make pylons from some hats or jackets and race around them, not easily done when you consider that the Korchulas had no edge control and would slide sideways or in any direction as fast as they slide forward and only could be controlled by judicious use of the pole for braking and steering and acceleration.
Then HE showed up. He was visiting an aunt in a village at the other end of the lake and he was a child of the tender age of ten and we men of eleven sneered at him and especially at his accent, almost like a foreign language. Since Bavarians consider anyone living outside of Bavaria a Prussian that was the name we gave him.
We would have ignored him except for what he was doing. He had cut a hockey stick from a branch, a foot-long thicker part with a thinner, longer branch as a handle and he was hitting chunks of ice left from the cutting and those chunks went flying far. We had never seen or heard of such a thing! He explained it was called hockey and that men on ice skates played it with a puck.
I knew what ice skates were since I had seen them at two of my friends’ houses hanging on one of the many pegs in the hallway and because they were the instruments that had caused a long lasting feud between my friends’ fathers. It seems that those skates, which were held to a shoe by cranking two clamps, one at the heel and one at the side of the shoe, with a key. One man had lost his key and borrowed the key from the other guy and then lost that one too and so there were two useless pair of skates in town.
The Prussian said hockey was played like soccer, two goals, to goalies and when the goalie couldn’t stop the puck it was a goal and whoever had the most goals was the winner. This is something we could understand since every German infant is born with the full understanding of the soccer rules.
So off we went into the woods to cut hockey sticks. In Sigi’s parents’ shed there were cleavers used to make “reisig”, six inch thick by one foot long bundles of pine branches used to start fires every day in the many stoves in our houses which were without central heating in those days. We commandeered those cleavers long enough to cut some good hockey sticks and also to square off the business ends of the sticks after we found out it was easier to hit a puck with a squared stick rather than with a round bottomed one.
So two goals were made from articles of clothing, two goalies were appointed and a two men team on either side. That left Guido, a kid our age but twice our size. He was slow but full of purpose. We appointed him the defender.
The Prussian was our puck-boy, he piled appropriate size stones from the shore onto his spread out jacket and pulling a sleeve, slid them to the playing field. We needed lots of pucks since no one was willing to go retrieve pucks that had missed their mark. Korchulas were not made for this.
So we played hockey like this: with the hockey stick clamped under an armpit we poled furiously to the puck, stopped, dropped the pole, took the hockey stick from the armpit, lined up the shot with one eye, keeping the other eye peeled for Guido who was baring down on anyone who was about to hit the puck. Guido was an equal opportunity defender. It didn’t matter which team one was on, Guido’s sole purpose was to prevent the player from hitting that puck by ramming him and since he dispensed with the hockey stick he was much more mobile using just his pole.
If the player didn’t have time to pick up his pole before being knocked thirty feet away he could hardly get back. Standing on Korchulas was like standing on two dinner plates, no traction at all. He was at the mercy of someone sliding his pole to him.
We had a suspicion that this was not hockey as it was played in the professional league and the decision was made to combine the hockey stick and the pole by putting the nail into the top of the handle, this way we could pole to the puck, reverse the stick to strike it and with a flip have our pole at the ready. There was just one problem. The nails would break out of the green wood when hard pressure was put on it. Just when we had a solution, failure.
So the Prussian came to the rescue. The aunt he was visiting had a fine dinning room set from Italy, the only allied country then, and she kept it covered with a dust cover and only took the cover off to show it to visitors now and then. No one ever sat on those chairs, they stayed tucked in under the table. Those chairs had wonderful thin round legs with golden ferules on the bottom, at least the back legs had, the golden ferules from the front legs ended up on the handles of our hockey sticks, holding the nails securely.
That was the last wonderful season of Korchula hockey. The last time I saw the Korchulas they were hanging on a peg next to the useless ice skates. The following season I learned to ski and I discovered girls, they were growing bumps on their chest, which for some reason excited me greatly.
When my only grandson, Max, who is two and a half years old now and whom we will get on skis next season, turns seven or eight, he will find among all the electronic games and toys under the Christmas tree a pair of fine Korchulas and a stick with a golden ferule and a sharp nail, and naturally, I will have to make a pair for myself in order to teach him how to use them. We may even have a race, which I surmise he will win.
Ott Gangl is retired as a PSIA Level-3 ski instructor after 25 years of teaching four times a week. He was a photojournalist for 35 years and his web site ( http://corrr1.com ) displays many of the classic images he has captured on film.