David Rubin is a retired English professor. It’s perhaps redundant to say he’s a storyteller.
Recently he told me about a story he’d written for the celebration of his 80th birthday.
"So it was last spring, in the spring of 2017, that I actually wrote the story," he says.
"Roughly 70 years after the events depicted in the story," I say.
"That’s about just right," David says with a laugh.
'That's Hy Buller'
Imagine David Rubin at 10. He’s living in Cleveland, and his family has just recently been made whole, because David had spent several years in an orphanage while his father was in a tuberculosis sanitarium. David says he was a handful in those days, and his mother had no choice but to give him up temporarily.
For winter recreation, young David had an enormous field that the city would flood, a place he recreated when he wrote his story.
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"Every day after school, I would look out from our flat and see whether the ice was fit for skating. When the ice was too soft or watery, the light was red, and I moped around the house, itching to get out there. When the light was blue, I’d sling my skates over my shoulder and head for the flooded field, now solidly frozen. Sometimes the ice was rough and bumpy. Sometimes smooth as glass. ... After a while, I got pretty good — for a kid, I mean."
For that 80th birthday party, David’s wife, Eleanor, asked everybody in the family to be prepared to tell a story. David felt the story with his 10-year-old self at the center would work, especially for the grandchildren who were hockey fans. Because, in the story ... well, David should read from it again.
"One day, out of nowhere, came a tall, swift skater: A full-grown man, who whizzed around the ice with a grace and ease I had never seen before. 'That’s Hy Buller,' one of the kids said. 'He skates for the Cleveland Barons. He’s a great defenseman, and he must live around here somewhere.'"
That a pro hockey player, even a pro playing for a minor league team, should appear on a frozen playground seems unlikely enough. But apparently for Hy Buller, skating in the neighborhood felt natural. In hockey circles, he was known as a hard guy, but there was much more to him.
"He was a community person," David says. "He was a 'chevra man.' A 'chevra man.' He was a man of the community."
He was, indeed. In fact, Buller helped to establish and support a Boys & Girls Club in Cleveland.
But as a 10 year old, all David Rubin knew was that he’d skated on the same ice as a pro. He ran home and told his father about Hy Buller. Shortly thereafter, his father came up with tickets to a Cleveland Barons game.
Rubin doesn’t recall whether the Barons won that game, but he remembers the fight that interrupted it.
"Hy Buller was taking a terrible beating during this fight," David says. "He was cut and he was bleeding. His blood was all over the ice, to my eyes. And I feared for him. I feared, literally, for his life."
For several days, Buller didn’t appear on the frozen field.
"I was on the lookout for him, and suddenly there he was, skating again," David says. "And for some reason, I was alone, or at least so my memory tells me. I was alone, following him."
Following him, at some distance. But eventually David — and remember, he was 10 — eventually he found the courage to approach Buller, whose face was still swollen.
"And said to him, 'I saw the fight,' " David recalls. "And then I said the kind of stupid thing that people say to athletes and others who get hurt: 'Are you OK?' "
Buller said he’d soon be back in uniform. And then ... he didn’t just skate away.
"He asked me my name. I told him," David says. "He then asked me — he said, 'Are you Jewish?' And I said, 'Yes.' And he said, 'Me, too. I’m Jewish, too.' Just about at that point, handed me his hockey stick and his practice puck. And he said, 'You take these.' "
It was a scene David recreated in the story he wrote.
"Then he skated off into the dusk, leaving me alone on the ice, gazing up at the blue light above the warming house. In my hands was a Northland hockey stick with Hy Buller’s name on it. In my pocket was his puck."
Writing the story helped David understand why that brief connection with Hy Buller had meant so much.
"I think he sensed something about me," David says. "I had always looked for other fathers. With my own father kind of on the sidelines, if we use the sports language a bit, from a very early age, I was wandering around everywhere, looking for fathers."
Hy Buller left Cleveland and played three years with the New York Rangers. He made an All-Star team.
David Rubin, as previously mentioned, went on to a solid career as an English professor/storyteller. He thinks he knows why the youngest members of his family particularly enjoyed the Hy Buller story.
"Because it conveyed both the hard times of my childhood, and also a kind of emerging into a better time," David says.
You got that, aspiring writers? Hard times during childhood, sure, but then, "a kind of emerging into a better time."
Write it down. Write it down.
This segment aired on March 10, 2018.