O Captain, My Captain

Notes from the political sidelines.
March 8 2007 4:16 PM

O Captain, My Captain

For conservatives, no comic relief.

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Some people in Washington walk on water. My family has a slightly different calling—to fall through ice. I grew up in North Idaho, near the Canadian border, and every cold snap, my father would throw his skates, hockey stick, and golden retriever in the car, and head off to the nearest lake or pond in search of new ice. Sometimes he returned with wet feet; at least twice a year, he came back shivering, half-frozen, and soaked from head to toe.

We never asked my father why he routinely risked his life this way for us. Our only question was whether he or the dog would fall in first.

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My father is still at it at 78, restrained less by age than by global warming. My grandfather before him had the same flash-frozen impulse. He believed the best cure for a winter cold was to go outside, and thin ice was the reason God invented brandy.

I am a pale shadow of those hearty frontiersmen, and since Washington is essentially a Southern town, I've never been sure to what degree I inherited their suicidal tendency. But after this past week, I know: I'm a case of hypothermia waiting to happen.

All last week on my commute to work, I found myself weaving from lane to lane, staring out at the unbroken expanse of ice from Roosevelt Island to National Airport. Near the Jefferson Memorial, I would slow to a crawl, imagining myself gliding across the Tidal Basin. When birds perched serenely on the ice, I couldn't fully appreciate the beauty of the scene, because I felt a primal urge to risk my neck and go join them.

Unfortunately, I soon discovered a problem, a risk my youth in the great North woods hadn't trained me to face. Skating in places like the Tidal Basin isn't just foolhardy; it also appears to be against the law.

That's my hunch, at least, based on my past experiences in Washington. A decade ago, I took my daughter for a quick skate on the reflecting pool in front of the Capitol. The water was only a foot deep and frozen solid, so I wasn't putting her in any immediate danger. We had a great time, but I was glad she was too young to read the signs that said, "No Skating."

Last winter, our family enjoyed a lovely afternoon of skating on the C&O Canal. No signs were posted, and the ice was plenty thick, once you hopped over a small patch of open water near the edge. We were just untying our skates after an hour of hockey when a park ranger screamed at us to get off the ice and lectured us that skating was forbidden.

Skating wasn't always a high crime in Washington. Judging from old photographs, ice skating used to be commonplace on the Tidal Basin and even on the Potomac. According to the Park Service's official history, swimming in the Tidal Basin was allowed until the 1920s, when authorities banned it because of health risks caused by river debris and because of "racist policies which limited use of the beach to whites only." Fifty years later, Rep. Wilbur Mills's career tanked there when a stripper not his wife, Annabell Battistella—aka Fanne Fox, "the Argentine Firecracker"—clawed her way out of his car, ignored the swimming ban, and leaped into the Tidal Basin.

The Washington Post account of that episode is one of the finest front-page scandals in journalistic history. The Post asked doctors at St. Elizabeths why the Argentine Firecracker had gone off, and concluded: "Although police described Mrs. Battistella's leap into the Tidal Basin as a suicide attempt, hospital officials said the physicians who examined her did not think it was a 'genuine' suicide attempt."

That's the same way I feel about skating on the Tidal Basin—it wouldn't be a genuine suicide attempt, just a career-ending one likely to land me in a mental hospital.

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