Den of the Beastly Bear
It's been another couple of Blustery snow filled days here in Michigan, typical January weather.
As I pass by the many lakes in my area, I see makeshift hockey rinks and ice shanties. (for those of you unfamiliar, these are little portable buildings put on the ice to shelter those "ice fishing", done through a hole augured through the ice.)
I see groups of kids sledding down hills, and having snowball fights. Groups of friends just enjoying spending time together. Then I spy perhaps the loneliest thing you'll ever see, a guy ice fishing all alone in the middle of the lake. No shanty, no cover, just a guy sitting on a bucket fishing through a hole in the ice!
These things take me back to my childhood...and the value of friends.
When my family first moved to Waterford, it was the summer before 6th. grade. While the move from what was then Auburn Heights was a mere 20-minute ride, to a kid that age I might as well have left my friends on the moon!
When school started up I found myself in the classroom of a fairly "hip" young teacher, Mr. Gesaman. Mutton chop sideburns and bell bottoms! Two of the very first friends I made there were Dave Porter and Ron Henesly. Because of them I met other friends, Ed Musiel and Jeff "Freff" Evans, and Mark Delph.
Ron moved away later that year, and a couple years later so did Mark. I guess I'd have to say that, at that time Dave was far and away my best friend, and I spent most of my time either at his house or off on some adventure with him.
During the summers, we rode our bikes endlessly...walked the woods and fields near our homes. We had games of capture the flag with friends in the storage area of a concrete tube manufacturer...who chased us out whenever they saw us! We explored abandoned houses and buildings armed with our trusty BB guns or "Wrist Rocket" sling shots... In fact, Dave was the sole witness to one of the most spectacular feats of marksmanship I ever pulled off. We were walking a two track behind the local grocery store heading towards the woods behind. I had my slingshot and Dave had his Crossman BB pistol (this was a time when this was a normal thing for two boys to be doing). As we walked I found a beautiful stone...just the right size and almost round, though a little light for it's size. I had it locked and loaded, ready for anything.
Suddenly just feet before us a rooster pheasant rose in a great cackling roar! As it raced away from us we were stunned for a second just watching it go. I realized I could never hit it, but man if I'd had a shotgun...
Being it was hunting season, and I did have a small game license I decided to try!
I took a step forward, drew the slingshot and let fly all in one motion. We watched in amazement as the rock flew like a guided missile and struck the pheasant right between the wings!!! We heard the hollow "thunk" as it hit, saw feathers fly...but he was already too far away! All that happened was that he cackled a protest as he redoubled his efforts to put distance between us.
We looked at each other and just busted out laughing...
Dave and I often made these sojourns into the woods. It was an interesting piece of property. At the far side ran the Clinton River which emptied into Woodhull Lake before meandering through other lakes and ponds on it's way South and out of the county heading for Lake St. Clair. There were fields and woods, a large swampy area that if you traveled deep enough into became high ground again before the Lake.
I believe it was in January of '77 that Dave and I took a long cold walk back into those woods, and I'm glad he was with me.
You see Dave and I fancied ourselves Mountain Men in training! We loved the outdoors and fully believed if left to our own devices we could survive just fine. So when it happened that we got a nice snow storm, and we'd finished shoveling our respective driveways. It was decided we'd go and see what the woods looked like with a fresh coat of snow.
It was always nice in the winter because the swamp froze solid. Whereas in the summer you had to pick your way from log, to dry spot, back across another log...and you always ended up at least once slipping off into some foul smelling black muck. Come winter you could just walk straight through!
The high ground by the lake was one of our favorite spots, we had constructed a makeshift lean-to there and someone else had added a small fire pit so if we got too cold we were set. As we made it to our lean-to and surveyed the area we noticed that the temperature was really dropping. While it had seemed pretty nice when we started our hike. A wicked wind had come up, the sky had darkened and it was bitingly cold.
We were both in jeans, for boots I had on the rubber buckle boots that you pull on over your shoes...so they were not real warm. Dave was wearing his down-filled coat, and I had on my green Army Surplus rubberized parka (with the fake coyote fur around the hood!). We both had on flannel shirts, and while I wore a stocking cap Dave sported a navy headband that matched his jacket.
Deciding we should head back, it was also thought that if we followed the ice along the lake shore and then cut across, it would save us about 20 mins. Now we were well into January at this time, and the ice was thick enough to support cars. A favorite past time of the teenage set, drive onto the lake drink beer and do donuts! So we never gave walking across the ice a second thought.
Our plan was going along quite well, and as we walked along we kept our minds off the cold by discussing cars, and girls, and fishing, and girls, and pizza, and girls...well you get the idea.
Now why it was that we were walking with the heaviest of us going first (me of course, I've always been stouter than Dave's thin frame) I'll never know. But as we cut across the lake it never dawned on us that we were walking right towards the inlet of the river and thinner ice.
The ice was scoured clean of snow here as the wind howled across the lake unchecked, and we shuffled more than walked to avoid slipping. I was about 10 feet in front of Dave when I heard the first crack! I stopped and put my hand up for Dave to stop as well and he did.
"What's up?" he asked.
"I thought I heard the ice crack..."
"You wanna turn back?" he said.
"Naw, we should be ok." And I took another step.
As I looked down I saw the ice starting to spiderweb crack around me...the lines racing away from me in all directions.
"Dave we better..."
That's all I got out as the ice disappeared from under my feet! I experienced that moment of panicked weightlessness before gravity reasserted itself. As I plummeted towards the icy water, survival instinct kicked in and I threw my arms out to my sides in an effort to keep from going under. I was partially successful as I only went under to my chin before bobbing back up. I tried in vain to pull myself out of the hole as I couldn't touch bottom, but as I tried the ice kept breaking making my hole ever larger. This was not good!
Then someone grabbed the hood of my parka and pulled...it took me a second to remember in my flailing that I was not in fact alone.
"Joe, Joe...I got ya...try to float on your back with your shoulders on the ice and I'll pull you out, when the ice stops breaking you can use your hands to help me!"
I looked over my shoulder, and there was Dave. Laying flat on the ice on his belly to spread his weight over the maximum area, one hand on my hood the other on the ice. So I tried to relax and float on my back like in the pool, except the cold of the water felt like needles on my skin! Slowly Dave pulled, re-positioned and pulled again gradually easing me out of the water and onto the ice. I used my hands until I could get purchase with my feet then pushed with them as well.
My boots were full of water, and my wool gloves wanted to freeze to the ice so we made our way off the ice so I could empty my boots without my jeans freezing to the lake.
Then came the walk home...which was excruciating!!! I was so cold and so numb I barely remember the walk home, I do remember keeping my hands in my armpits while we walked so I didn't get frostbite on my fingers. My pants froze to my thighs, the bottoms were frozen tubes bending only at the knees. I was shaking uncontrollably, teeth chattering when we finally got back to my house.
My Mom actually had to get the hair dryer out to get my pants off my thighs....and my legs peeled like I had a bad sunburn in the days that followed. For years after my thighs would burn in the cold weather.
I shudder to think of what might have happened had I not struck up that friendship in 6th. grade, maybe I wouldn't have been out there at all...or maybe I never would have survived to pen this missive. To get a chance to thank my friend once again.
So Thank You Dave. For your friendship, and for your help that day.
Dave moved not long after and we lost touch though happily we found each other again through Facebook. He even reads this blog from time to time...poor guy!
Ed Musiel is still one of my closest friends, in fact, he brought me a mighty fine Micro Brew for my Birthday last month! Thanks again buddy!!!
Jeff Evans careered out of the Army and has settled in Virginia and when he's in town (and schedules permit) Ed and I will meet him for a beer or two and swap tales of days gone by.
To the rest of you, value your friends! Treat them well. You never know when they just might be there, when you REALLY need them.
Be Well Folks!