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Danger; thin ice

As it approached mid-December, we noticed that our favorite ponds were beginning to freeze over. That gave us a great idea; why not go out on the pond and ice skate (never mind that we didn’t have skates)? First, we had to get permission, which may be different from most kids asking for permission. Upon noticing three of us bundled up nice and warm heading out the front door, Mom asked, “Where are you three kids going today?” Vicki wasn’t around, so the spokesman role fell to me and I answered, “We’re going ice skating on Bullhead Pond.” Mom, ever cautious, inquired, “Are you sure it’s safe?” Timmy explained our well-tested process for ensuring the pond was indeed safe, “We thwow wocks on the pond to make shuh it’s fwozen oveh.” Mom seemed satisfied with his answer and instructed us, “Well, you kids be careful and be home in time for supper.”

We didn’t just walk right out on the ice; we weren’t stupid! We had developed very elaborate tests to ensure that the ice was thick enough and able to support our weight. First, we found a rock about the size of a baseball, and threw it out on the ice; if it sunk, we didn’t go out. If it stayed on the ice and the ice didn’t crack, we went to the next level of testing. “Timmy, go get a bigger rock. We have to be sure” I said, taking charge of the group.  We found a much bigger rock, one that had to weigh at least twenty pounds. We then threw that one out on the ice. If it stayed on top without falling through, we proceeded to step number three in our testing. Again, being the head honcho in this outfit, I gave directions. “Kathy, walk out on the ice and see if it’s safe.” Kathy wasn’t stupid either and said, “No. You go out on the ice.” Not so sure of myself now, I meekly asked, “I wonder how deep it is, just in case?” Timmy was very helpful and answered, “It’s pwobabwy not vewy deep in this paht of the pond.”

Kathy could be bribed in normal situations, but in this case, I didn’t bother. Timmy was obstinate, or smart, and couldn’t be budged. It was up to me. As I began to gingerly work my way out on the ice, I kept a very close eye on the shore, making sure I could dive back if anything went wrong. This particular winter day the temperature had bottomed out at 30 degrees, not exactly Duluth, Minnesota weather. Just because they drive snowmobiles on the lakes in Duluth all winter, doesn’t mean we could ice skate on ponds in southern Missouri. I wasn’t that far from shore when I heard the sound of cracking ice; a sound that can bring terror to the hardiest of souls when stranded on the ice. I quickly scampered back to the shore, breathing heavily; my heart pounding in my throat. I acted nonchalant in front of the little ones; “We’ll come back when the ice is thicker.”

Later, deeper into winter, the temperatures had stabilized and the ice appeared to be ready for the next ice skating endeavor. Hans Brinker would be envious of the pond we found. Behind the White Sands Motel, owned by the parents of a good friend of mine, was a pond. It was about the size of a large swimming pool, with an embankment surrounding it on all four sides. Kathy, when hearing of our second foray into ice skating, decided that she was busy, “I’m playing Bahbie dolls today.” So, it was just Timmy and me.

As we approached the pond, our hearts beat faster with the excitement and anticipation of what was about to take place. The pond was frozen over! We still had to do our due diligence however. “Timmy, go get a rock. Let’s make sure the ice is thick.” Timmy retrieved a rock about the size of a softball. “I’uh thwow the wock on the ice, Wonnie.” The rock slid out about ten feet from the shore and the ice didn’t crack; the rock stayed on top. This was a good sign. We began looking around for a bigger rock, but none could be found. I was really anxious for this to work and didn’t want it to end like the previous effort. I looked at Timmy, thinking I would have him go out and test the ice, but based on previous experience decided it would be futile. Although he sometimes acted stupid, it was really a ruse designed to fool his siblings. That boy was smart like a fox and I knew he wouldn’t venture out on the ice. If it was going to happen, I would have to be the one. Jesus had walked on water, so why not me?

Timmy stayed up on the embankment while I began to slowly ease out onto the frozen pond. With arms held out on each side, for balance, I gingerly took one step after another. The ice seemed firm and I hadn’t heard any cracking sounds. So far, so good. After I got out about ten feet, right next to the “test” rock, I got a little cocky. I ran, as much as a person can run on ice, back toward the shore and then slid a ways. I was ice skating! Or ice tennis shoeing in this case. Being the inquisitive person that I am, I wanted to go out further on the ice, past the rock. By this time Timmy had made it out onto the ice, skating around, but only in the shallow end; not more than a few feet from the shore and safety. He wasn’t convinced.

As I made it out to the rock, I noticed that the ice in the middle of the pond looked a little different. The ice closer to shore was opaque, white  in color and looked like a frozen ice cube from the freezer. The ice in the middle of the pond didn’t have that look or consistency. It looked more translucent, like water. Hmmm. Anyway, I continued on when all of a sudden I heard the dreaded cracking sound that is unique to ice. I froze (pardon the pun). Timmy immediately scampered up the bank and turned to watch me. “I think I’ve gone too far, Timmy.” He seemed concerned and yelled, “Wonnie, come back to the shoh. You’ah going to fawh in!” I had to do something and as I turned to head back to the shore, the cracking became louder and the ice gave way. I was now in the water.

I tried to dog paddle, but with the heavy coat and clothes I was wearing, it wasn’t easy. “Timmy, go get something. Save me!” I was still in charge, but the cockiness was no longer evident. I was pleading with Timmy to do something. He began looking around for something to reach out to me. He found a long stick in the weeds next to the pond. “Wonnie, weach out and gwab this stick!” He was on the edge of the pond, but I was still a ways out. Getting closer, my feet could now feel the bottom of the pond, but if I tried to walk back, on the tip of my toes, the water was up to my chin and moving forward was almost impossible. I continued to try to dog paddle and break the ice as I got closer to the shore. I finally grabbed the stick and Timmy pulled me to safety. Timmy had saved my life!

We trudged our way back home, my shoes squeaking loudly, my teeth rattling with the chill, and the ice beginning to form on my wet clothes. It was a good thing that Mom wasn’t home this time. Some of my clothes I shed in the garage and the remainder throughout the rest of the house. I went straight for the bathroom and began to draw a nice warm bath. I was shaking from the experience, fear and cold causing identical reactions.

When Mom finally made it home, she discovered my wet clothes and followed the trail to the bathroom. Through the door she asked, “Ronnie, what have you done? Why are your clothes all wet?” From the safety of the bathroom I answered, “I fell through the ice on the pond.” Hoping for, but not getting any sympathy, I heard, “What pond?” I didn’t see how that was relevant, but I answered, “The pond behind the White Sands Motel.” I heard an odd sound coming from Mom. It sounded like a wounded animal. She then said, “That isn’t a pond. It’s a septic tank. Now I know where that smell is coming from!” I stayed in the tub for a long while, re-running the warm water over and over. Lying in the warm water, my mind continually imagined what Dad would say when he got home and Mom told him. Timmy, usually quite chatty, and not able to bask in his hero status due to the circumstances, stayed in his room and didn’t utter a sound.

This story is an excerpt from Always a Little Heathen, released on October 14, 2014. Paperback and Kindle versions are available at amazon.com.

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