Friday, July 19, 2024

James Barry, nicknamed Mickey. (Photo: Alma Barak)

It was monsoon season in Vietnam, and the night was wet, cold, and rainy. Lighting streaked through the sky, one bolt hitting a rubber tree that slammed through an officer’s hooch – military slang for thatched hut, or barrack – which he was out using the latrine. The other men, most freshly out of high school and still slightly boyish, rushed to see the damage. Even the officer’s bed had been cracked.

In the middle of the Vietnam War, these American soldiers were far from home in a Lai Khê rubber tree plantation and had seen countless compatriots lost in battle. Still, at that moment they were equal parts exhilarated and scared, running back to their hooches in the soaking storm, breathless at the danger and their foolishness. James Barry, nicknamed Mickey, was the last to reach his hooch. As he gripped the metal of the screen door handle, with a metal-grated floor beneath him, he was struck, filled with a burning pain.

The other men said there was a halo around Mickey as he flew through the screen door and across the hooch, his feet never touching the ground. When he came to, the mustache that he’d carefully double-curl each night was on fire. So was everything else.

In his high school yearbook, Mickey is described with three words: brief, brave and bizarre. The description is fitting. His life has been full of the unexpected. Growing up attending the North Cambridge Catholic School, now called St. John’s, Mickey dreamed of becoming a priest but decided to serve in the military before committing. Deaf in one ear, he wasn’t allowed to fly helicopters, his top choice, but became a helicopter mechanic instead, sometimes working from the ground and sometimes in the air, in case anything went awry; accidents were constant. After Vietnam, Mickey couldn’t completely believe in Catholicism anymore.

In his high school yearbook, Mickey (upper right) is described as “brief, brave and bizarre.”

“I had a very bad time in Vietnam,” Mickey said. “When I went to ask myself why I was still alive when some of my friends weren’t, I started to make this joke for myself – the reason why I’m still alive is because god appeared to me and said to me, ‘The reason why you’re alive is there are too many people in this world that I want you to piss off before I punch your ticket.’” The joke isn’t made out of disrespect, he said, but because humor was his way of getting through a hard time.

After the war, Mickey took his time to settle, hopscotching through Germany, England, Scotland and France before eventually making his way back home to Medford. Falling into a familiar job as a military technician, 27-year-old Mickey was feeling satisfied with his life when he took his niece to learn ice skating one winter day. The rink had just started giving lessons for adults, and he decided to take a class or two as well. By the end of that winter, his niece had given up, but Mickey was still going. By his second year, Mickey was asked to teach a basic skills class for beginners. After a couple more years, he struck a deal: He taught the children’s classes in exchange for getting lessons himself. A few more years after that, and Mickey was teaching adult classes.

By this point, Mickey was teaching at several skating schools and had amassed several skating partners. This was the best part for him: Together Mickey and his partner would perfect routines for an MIT show at the end of the year; it was nothing serious, but Mickey loved the learning it allowed for.

Diana Cheng, a student at MIT whom Mickey met in 2000, changed all that. She cared deeply about skating. She’d always tell Mickey, “You have to have a goal. You can’t just do something.” Much to her consternation, Mickey would always reply, “My goal is to retire without breaking something.”

James Barry and Diana Cheng skate. (Photo: James Barry)

The first time Diana tricked Mickey into competing, she asked him to drive her to New Jersey to meet her parents. “I used to shuttle her around like her personal taxi driver,” Mickey explained. When they got there, he discovered that they were instead signed up to compete in Adult Eastern Sectionals. There were only four teams there, and by the time they were finished practicing, it was clear Mickey and Diana’s routine was the most complicated. The two were doing a flip twist, which nobody else was even trying – Mickey threw Diana in the air, spun her around and caught her, skating all the while. It felt, in practice, incredible. When the actual competition started, Mickey tripped and Diana never left the ground. They placed fourth out of four in one of the most preliminary skating competitions out there. Mickey came out so angry and embarrassed that he refused to compete for another two years. When they finally started competing again, that mistake was overshadowed: The two eventually won third place in the U.S. Adult Skating Nationals.

Today, Mickey teaches children at the Cambridge Johnson ice rink, among others. He no longer competes, but he still skates, and he’s learning to fly a helicopter. It’s important for him to stay active – he can’t imagine retiring – and he loves the kids.

“I don’t have to act like a teacher. I can teach. I like to make it fun. I can be silly,” Mickey said, explaining how he’ll incorporate ballet moves that he learned from a class with an old girlfriend, or roll around on the ice like a shrimp in water, or waddle like a penguin. The parents sometimes think he’s crazy, he laughed, but he’s teaching the kids important skills like moving with their knees bent and pushing themselves with the blade. “You can never be as young as you like,” Mickey added, “but you can always be immature.”