The Early Days

There were in all nineteen full-fledged Wildcats. I will call them Andrew, Belle, Cecile (Kittygirl), Donald, Emma, Francine, Gemma, Henry, Isolde, Jonathan (Kittyboy), Kenneth, Larry, Marvin, Nick, Ophelia, Patrick, Queenie, Ray, and Sebastian. Boys dropped out faster and girls stayed longer, so there tended to be a shortage of boys even though more had technically qualified. There were a lot of girls practicing singles skating and a lot of dares directed at Dorothy Hamill to "get down here and show your stuff!" They did it to Linda Fratianne. They did it to everybody.

Anyhow. It all started when Andrew was about to fall asleep in Mrs. Bentley's class (easy to do, I can tell you) and startled himself awake with the words (as he said later), "Let's have a skating team!" A bunch of kids had been fooling around on the ice earlier, and he'd been trying to think of something to do, something that would "involve us all as a team," get us going into a sport, 'cause quite frankly I don't like the sports around here." The school was not pushing the kids, everybody was bored, and it was time for something. He waited until five minutes before Mrs. Bentley was going to dismiss class (chicken -- I'd done it in ten many times) and sneaked out to find his current girlfriend, Belle. Who just happened to be standing by the water fountain. Typical Belle thing. "Hey, girl, you wanna have a skating team?"

She said, "Yes, sure. Let's!" That water fountain is history. It should never be replaced.

When Belle came bursting back into Ms. Shiveley's room (Ms. S., as usual, was not paying attention) and told me they were forming a skating team, I sensed history in the making. Andrew and Belle's kind of trouble was always worth getting into. So I started recording. Asking, "What did you say? What did you do? How did this happen?" I knew I had to get it down, because some very chaotic kids were talking about "getting in the club" and I knew recollection of events would go downhill from there. Donald could confuse anybody. So could Emma. We called them the Chaos Twins. They did punishments by skating with each other. Only way Emma could learn to hold an edge, after Donald kicked her enough. It was in self-defense. She had to stay out of his way.

And, eventually, Cecile was looked on for recruitment. "Huh? What? What'd you say?" She crashlanded real quick from what was called Planet Cecile. Hawked an eye at "Shiveley," as she called her, swung her legs around, and said, "Yes." Cecile had a razor's edge instinct for not getting caught. Probably why she went out with Jonathan in the first place. Kittyboy. We'll get to him later. He was an import.

Later, on the bus, Francine's consent was obtained (she'd always wanted to skate anyway) and Team Wildcat was born. Six kids. Nothing to do. And very little homework that night. Everybody showed up at Andrew's house around seven for leftovers (Andrew's mother could cook), cookies (she never did know where those cookies went) and Irina Rodnina tape. In Andrew's words, "The only skater worth watching." Hours of it. We sat through at least four. It was a weekend night anyway. Great traditions were born that night: Cussing at Dorothy Hamill (it was three months before Innsbruck and nobody liked her), throwing things at Irina onscreen (the defining moment was when she pitched her head wrong and messed up a foot position: Andrew got her on the ear with a half-full Coke can, Belle followed up with half a 3 Musketeers bar to the elbow, and Emma nailed her with a whole, unwrapped Zagnut bar to the knee. Irina was never to our eyes seen on film or in person to assume such a position again. Andrew swore for years it was the Coke can.), the defining belief that nobody west of the Berlin Wall was worth wasting film on (least of all Her Royal Boppiness, as Dorothy was quickly dubbed that night), and the determination to "outdo them all," as Belle put it. I always felt sorry for Alexander Zaitsev. Nobody felt he was even worth wasting a Junior Mint on. It was not officially decided that he could skate until 1978, when Andrew declared, "Hell, may as well let the entire Wall down. They're all skating now," and promptly turned his attention to the Czechoslovakians (Andrew always had weird ideas about geography, anyway).

For the record, Randy Gardner was accorded his first Coke can, followed by a strawberry Tootsie Pop (if the wrapper was to be believed -- couldn't trust the candy-counter clerks) in 1979, and Tai remained debris-freee until well into the summer of 1980.

No wonder I grew up a little strange. Eight-nine hours of hard edge analysis, punctuated by screams of, "Irina! Not again!", flying popcorn kernels (Donald was cheap), and Belle and Andrew fightng over the perfect mix tape to redo "that routine, right now, so you don't bump your ass into the wall and still look good to the judges' stand," while Cecille knotted her hair, twiddled her fingers, and plotted revenge on everybody in sight? Was the cool thing to do on a weekend? In seventh grade? Now do you see where I learned to judge edges? And why I'm a little crazy? I only saw Cecile pitch something at Irina once. I swear Irina ducked. Got her anyway. On the nose. Perfect. 6.0. All nine judges. Including the cat. The cat was getting good. Once pitched an entire can of 9-Lives at Tai Babilonia. Then turned around and tried to bury it in the carpet. Teo seconds later, by the clock, Tai went splat on her butt. Xenia ate steak that night. And threw the scraps at Scott Hamilton. Toller Cranston got the potato rind. She didn't like Toller. It was apparently genetic. One of Xenia's great-grandchildren, at the start of the skating season, so there wa no "kitty see, kitty do" influence at all, once picked up a beef bone in her tiny little mouth at the age of six weeks and hoisted it at Tai Babilonia. On the exact leg (we tracked where she meant to throw it, and she was right) that Tai had just badly two-footed a landing with. Turned her furry little back, stalked off to her snuggly box, and wouldn't come out until she saw Katarina Witt. I promise. Six weeks. Honest.

Now do you see where I got my eye for skating? Even the cat could do it where I grew up. The qualifying jump for the local team was a quadruple lutz. And not a pee-ninesy one, either. Elsewise your cat wouldn't speak to you for three days. Xenia's babies were popular little furballs. Snuggled into bags at competitions. And peed on the opponents' costumes if they couldn't jump. So the judges could see it. Xenia's babies had opinions. Big ones.

There was no Team Wildcat competition until ninth grade, when they were all "ready to skate," as Andrew put it. Cecile served as semi-coach in those days, being thought "half proper" by virtue of the fact that she'd coolly informed Dorothy Hamill that she couldn't skate in full view of three Olympic judges nad thus had been kept home from Innsbruck. She always said it was worth it. But for what it was worth, her screen-ammo expenditure the night of the ladies' final was: Two decent-sized bags of M&Ms, including aiming the red ones at Dorothy's head to keep her off-balance; a large bowl of popcorn aimed full force at one of her spirals; a Coke can each for the other two medalists; and a lovely three-point nail on Dorothy with an end-over-ended Tootsie Roll bar. The first end to hit got her on the chin, the other one klonked her on the forehead, and the first end flipped over again to pop her right smack dab (by three judges) on the top of the head. Upon which Xenia snagged it from behind the antenna. She had a thing about chocolate. Cecile was in no mood to argue. Usually she could go multiple throws with a candy bar before it got beat out of shape (her record was four with Scott Hamilton one night, before he got his edges together). But she just glared at the "X-Cat" and dug in for some more M&Ms in preparation for "The D-Babe's" final Hamill camel. All I will say is that that was the official name for it. Let some things pass. We all agreed.

I should probably introduce Jonathan at this point. He did not qualify for several years, but he hassled the team from a safe refuge several hours away. His coach "won't let me throw a quad to be with you guys," but we always suspected he was just chicken. He was in love with Cecile and had been since sixth grade. He saw a tape of her skating and never forgot her. He didn't think he was good enough for her. She quite thoroughly agreed. Said he couldn't skate. It was generally thought she was just as scared as he was. They never actually met until ninth grade, when he basically carried her onto a rink and made her stay there. And one of figure skating's great partnerships was born.

But Jonathan hung around, delicately avoiding his "lady-love," as he called her, hassling everybody else for coaching, and driving his hired coach crazy. She dumped him in ninth grade, at which time he came barreling up to Wildcat country and begged. No dice. But various people did work with him until another coach would take him. At which point Cecile had started speaking to him, although not until she'd baptized him with a full box of fries and a large Coke to make up for lost time. Amenities had to be observed. Absolutely had to be. It just was the thing. Honor. Tradition. Wildkittiness. It worked. He dripped a little, but that was all right. Got her back later (but that's another story).

Anyhow, it was Jonathan's (and to some extent his buddy Terry's, although Terry never made the team) constant pushing that made the Wildcats refine their tactics. They knew how to do it: they'd studied tape for years. But how do you explain it to others? And from there they realized that you had to be able to explain it to yourself. You couldn't just know. As Andrew said, "Your feet honestly work better when they've had it explained to them. Telepathy doesn't work." And the threat of Jonathan's little pixie face appearing on one's doorstep was a powerful driver. By the time ninth grade rolled around, most 'Catters were better coaches than they were skaters. Which was saying something.

More coming. It just takes time.

"Stop it, Irina, it's not funny!" "Dag nab it, Andrew, you're going to break the TV!" "Yeah. And she'll learn to skate!"
I always claimed more red M&Ms would have done the job sooner, but Andrew was a pigheaded little thing.

Hey. It worked on Linda.