Saturday Diary / Falling through the ice

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In the coldest part of winter 1972 my next-door neighbor and best friend Ron Kelly and I headed out to explore the caves and cliffs of a place we called The Ledges.

We had been friends since my family had moved in five years before. Having many adventures together over those years, now, as 12 year-olds, we began another.

Growing up next to 300-acre Aurora Lake near Cleveland provided endless opportunities for fun and mischief for two young boys.

Back then, the lake would freeze solid in November and we would clear off the snow, creating a homemade hockey rink, playing all winter until it would finally begin to melt in March.

We hiked the 4 or 5 miles to The Ledges several times a year. In the summer we were forced to walk all the way around the lake, adding a couple more miles to the journey. But when the lake was frozen, we could go straight across, saving hours and allowing more time for exploring.

With Ron's dog Rip in tow, we started out.

We wore those rubber boots which pull over your shoes and then are fastened with metal clips and I was wearing my prized three-quarters-length polyester Cleveland Browns winter coat.

It took only a couple of minutes to get down to the lake, and we started across. The wind was at our backs and it was a reasonably comfy walk. At least we were as comfortable as you can be when it's about 20 degrees.

There was a fresh coating of snow on the lake, which we always hated because we couldn't run and slide across the ice. We talked about all the things boys discussed back then -- comic books, our friends and a recent winter Boy Scout camping trip.

Three-quarters of the way across we encountered a patch of ice uncovered by snow. It was circular and about four feet across. We walked around it wondering why there was no snow cover and if it was safe to slide across. We sent Rip over first without incident.

Ron and I looked at each other and shrugged our shoulders. I turned away from my friend, took one step and in an instant dropped straight down. My face was under water before I knew it. Oddly, I remember the water felt warm since the air was so cold.

Right after the water covered my eyes I began to float straight back up. I remember thinking how weird it was that my wool hat was still dry.

When I emerged, I gasped for a breath and put my hands on the ice at the edge of the hole. Ron's face said volumes; I had never seen that look before. He instantly laid down in the prone position and reached his had out to me. "Don't panic," he said.

I just laughed; he was following our Boy Scout training to a tee. I calmly pulled myself up out of the water and onto the ice.

For some reason I didn't think much about it at that moment. It wasn't until we started the 40-minute walk back that I started to somewhat realize that that might have been the end.

With a frigid wind in our faces, Ron explained what he saw from his viewpoint. When I took that first step I actually started to fall backwards with my right heal still on solid ice. I fell back almost horizontally. It was just dumb luck that I floated straight up instead of being trapped under the ice.

Now I was really cold and, instead of experiencing the euphoria of still being alive, all I could think of was what my mother would do when she found out. Back in those days ... well, let's just say that kids were punished differently than today. This was serious; I dreaded what was coming.

Ron and I decided it was best we split up. He would go home as if nothing happened, and I hatched a plan.

I snuck in the house through the garage and into the family room of our three-bedroom ranch, hoping Mom was in the kitchen or maybe watching TV. Thankfully, the door between the living room and family room was closed.

I tiptoed into the little bathroom where our dryer was and took off my coat. It must have weighed 50 pounds. While trying to load the dripping wet coat into the dryer and start the machine, it quickly became apparent that there was no way it was going to dry.

I stood there for a minute, admitting defeat, and opened the bathroom door to see my mother standing in the doorway looking perplexed. "What happened to you?" she asked.

I swallowed hard and fessed up. As I told my story, I watched as her face lost its color. Then she broke down and started sobbing. Mom hugged me tight and didn't want to let go.

"Get changed," she said, wiping tears away, "we'll have to throw everything in the washer before we try to get those clothes dry."

Even though I escaped what I'd feared most, seeing Mom cry might have hurt worse than any other punishment she could have come up with.

Over the years I've often thought about that day. I was too young and stupid to realize how close I'd come to death, but as I grew older it became one of those lessons that makes you realize how fragile life really is.

opinion_commentary

Doug Oster is a staff writer and garden columnist for the Post-Gazette (doster@post-gazette.com, 412-779-5861). Visit his blog at www.post-gazette.com/gardeningwithdoug.


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