Middlebury, Vt.

Life in the middle of Vermont.

Monday, February 21, 2011

All Hail the Mighty Zamboni

I’m going to write my next column about the Zamboni, I said to her.

She looked up from her Garnet Hill catalog and peered over the top of her glasses. She put down the catalog, its cover bright with spring fashions: “Why on earth would you want to write a column about the Zamboni, of all things?”

Everybody loves the Zamboni. It’s got a funny name and goes round and round turning distilled water into ice as smooth as glass. What could be cooler than that?

“These slacks right here. They’re a lot cooler than a Zamboni will ever be.”

I went over to the ice rink at the college today and interviewed Butch Atkins. He’s the co-manager of the rink. Did you know that he and Stan Pratt, from Happy Valley Orchards, have been running the Zamboni for the past 30 years, since 1981? Just the two of them for 30 years?

“How could I possibly be expected to know that?”

It was a rhetorical question. I’ll bet you didn’t know, either, that the college Zamboni runs on batteries. It’s like a gigantic electric car. Generically they’re called ice resurfacers but everybody calls them Zambonis. They cost something like $55,000 each.

I remember when the “Peanuts” comic strip did a whole thing on the Zamboni. In fact Charles Schultz, who drew the strip, liked the Zamboni so much that he had his own ice rink.

“And did he drive the Zamboni?”

I hope he did. If I had my own rink, I would make damn sure I got to drive the Zamboni.

Of course I knew I wouldn’t get to drive the thing when I interviewed Butch -- but I was kinda hoping he’d at least let me ride along for a couple minutes. Turns out, though, the college doesn’t like for them to have passengers even though its top speed is only 9 mph. I heard they need volunteer Zamboni drivers at the rec rink. Maybe I’ll check that out.

I had Butch take a picture of me sitting up there in the driver’s seat. When I got back in my car after doing the interview, the first thing I did was to post the picture to my Facebook page.

“You put a picture of yourself on Facebook sitting on a Zamboni?” She gave me that over-the-glasses look again. “I’m going to go back to reading my catalog now.”
The guy who invented it really was named Zamboni. He’s dead now but the company has a trademark on the name, and even the rock band called The Zambonis has to pay a license fee to use the name. So far as I know, however, the band doesn’t play hockey or anything like that.

“Hey, pencil skirts are coming back. And it looks like pink and green are coming going to be the colors of the season.”

I’ll bet there are plenty of green Zambonis. And speaking of colors, at the college rink and probably lots of other ones, they actually go out each fall and paint the ice.

“They paint the ice?”

Yep. Every fall they fill the rink with less than a half-inch of ice. They let it freeze, spraypaint it white, then they go out and handpaint the red and blue sections.

“That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard.”

Speaking of ridiculous, Butch says Norwich University doesn’t have just one Zamboni like Middlebury does. They actually have two! And did you know that the rec rink in Middlebury has the college’s old Zamboni?

“Of course I knew that, dear. I’ve just been keeping it a secret from you all this time.”

When the college decided to donate the old Zamboni to the town, they had to figure out a way to get it over to the rec rink. So at 4:30 one morning, Butch fired up the old Zamboni and drove it across town. It wasn’t licensed to be on the road, but he figured no one would be awake at that hour so he wouldn’t get arrested.

Sure enough, though, the Middlebury cop on duty spotted Butch and wanted to know what in the hell he was up to. He didn’t give Butch a ticket or anything. I guess they had a pretty good laugh about it.

“What do you think of this top? Would this color look good on me?”

Everything looks good on you, dear. And speaking of looking good on something, did you ever notice that two Middlebury College alums have their names on the side of the Zamboni? Check it out the next time you’re at a hockey game, or at this weekend’s Winter Carnival Ice Show (Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon). In blue script on the Zamboni, it says Jim Lake, Class of 1950, and Ralph Lovey’s, Class of ’51. Meg Storey Groves over at the college says they established a fund in 199 to support Zamboni maintenance at Kenyon.

I wonder how much money they had to give to get their names there. It’s way cooler than having your name on a library. If the college ever buys a new Zamboni, I want my name on it. I think I’ll call the alumni office and see how much that would cost me.

“It would cost way more than you have, darling. But I’m sure you could afford to buy me this lovely sweater on page 51.”

I like that sweater. I think you’d look really hot in it. And speaking of hot, some of the water the Zamboni spreads on the ice is 120 degrees. Water that hot melts the very top layer of the ice so it can freeze back and be smooth.

Plus a blade at the bottom of the Zamboni shaves off a bit of ice. Butch says that’s why they talk about “getting a nice cut.”

There are three things in life that people like to stare at, Charlie Brown said. One is a rippling stream, another is a fire in a fireplace, and the other is the Zamboni going around and around and around.

Sometimes when the Zamboni comes out onto the ice at an NHL game, the fans actually cheer.

Imagine that: They cheer for a machine.

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